Dinghy Danger - could it happen to you?

Dinghy danger - what is the worst thing that could happen
.. .
It’s night, there’s a high wind blowing off the land. You are on the beach, your sailing boat is in the anchorage, but one of the boats far from shore. Beyond the anchorage, there is nothing but hundreds of miles of ocean. On the way to the yacht in your dinghy the outboard engine fails. You try to row, but the wind is too strong, and keeps blowing you sideways out to sea. You call out, but no one hears you...

Here are three true stories that demonstrate how a simple dinghy trip can turn dangerous, even lethal.

Story No. 1:
Several years ago Dominique Courteille, Belgian-born Australian mother-of-four was rescued after three days on a dinghy belted with wild weather and having no food or water.

Dominique said she lost her way while trying to take her dinghy from a beach in southern Thailand to her anchored yacht, a distance of only 150 metres. 'It's very simple. I wanted to join my boat and it was extremely windy. I missed my boat and went into the ocean in my dinghy.'

She was lost at sea for three nights and three days before an Indonesian fishing boat plucked her from sea, hundreds of kilometres south of where she went missing. She had passed her time writing notes to her relatives on the side of the rubber dinghy.

'The fishermen were extremely nice. Very nice. They immediately gave me water and a change of clothes because I was wet and biscuits and a bed. It was the first food and the first drink.'

Dominique said on one night the conditions were very rough and she was forced to use her clothes to pump water out of the dinghy. On arrival back in Phuket she was kept several days in the Phuket Hospital, where she was treated for sunburn and the effects of dehydration.

While Dominique was missing and an international search was underway, her two crew, who had helped sail her yacht back from Lankawi Island in Malaysia, a journey of about 140 miles, were 'given a tough grilling' by police who thought they had been involved in the woman's disappearance.

Crewman Manfred 'Richie' Neustifter, 24, originally from Australia but now also living at the time Phuket, said he and Swiss colleague Conrad Ohlier, 43, 'just hugged each other' when they learned of their skipper's rescue.

Story No. 2:
This happened this month on Trinity Bay near Houston in Texas, USA. It happened to a fisherman, not a sailor, but the dinghy-danger issue is identical.

The man had been fishing with two others on the small island at the mouth of Double Bayou. When the trio left at sunrise, the wind and waters were calm. About 10:00 am, they ran out of bait and one of the fishermen decided to return to a landing point for more bait.

However, the wind had now risen, and strong winds pushed against his small aluminum hull boat, too strong for the small engine on the boat, preventing him from reaching shore. As the wind pushed against the bow, the fisherman was forced back out into Trinity Bay. Waves washed over the stern and began to fill the boat. Realising he had suddenly become in an alarming situation, the fisherman, thinking quickly, moved to the bow. With his weight forcing the bow down he started paddling toward shore. Between his paddling and the small engine, he finally made the shore about two miles north of his intended landing.

He was dehydrated and exhausted after the long paddle. He was picked up there by passersby, and later a friend in a larger and stronger boat retrieved the other two now-stranded fishermen from the island.

Story No. 3:
The final story happened to - me. My fellow crew/husband and I were sailing in far north Queensland, in those muddy sandy regions that crocodiles love to inhabit. We embarked on an oh-so-simple journey from our anchored yacht to the nearby beach in our trusty inflatable dinghy, a perfectly ordinary journey we had undertaken hundreds of times before. The wind was high, the shore was to windward, but the engine was a strong 15hp and we weren't worried.

Not long after we had disconnected the painter and headed for the shore the dinghy motor faltered, sputtered and died and the wind drove us quickly away from our boat and the shore. We quickly grabbed the oars and started to row, but even with both of us rowing with all our strength, we couldn’t get back to our boat. We were headed, not to sea, but to an uninhabited island where crocodiles could be clearly seen sleeping lazily along the shore.

We had to think quickly. What had started as an ordinary morning had now become suddenly life threatening. By veering our course and rowing like we had never rowed before we made it to another sailing boat in the anchorage, puffing and panicked. A few minutes of alarm, and then we were laughing with a cup of coffee on our new friend's boat – but what if it had been at night? What if the neighbouring boat had not been there?

Neither is there any need for it to happen on some far off shore – it could happen so easily, with the right combination of circumstances, in an anchorage near you. In sailing, as in the rest of life, tragedies are caused, never by one event, but by piled-up events.

So what should the cruising sailor do to avoid this kind of occurrence?

It's not difficult to think of some sensible ideas:

1. Always always keep oars and a baler in the dinghy, even if you’re only in it to clean the topsides.
2. Check your motor for fuel before each trip.
3. Never leave your sailing boat in an anchorage without a light (get a LED automatic light and leave it in the dinghy permanently, to save power and save remembering)
4. When there’s a wind, specially if it’s blowing off the shore, have someone aware of your dinghy journey, or, if possible, leave the journey until the wind has abated.
5. Carry a hand-held VHF(Thanks Jamie Gifford for this reminder), charged mobile phone or a satphone as a worthwhile general safety precaution.

As with many other situations sailing, the best question you can always ask is: What is the very worst thing that could happen?
Letter from Reader:

Sender: john gray

Message: In a similar true story a yachtee mate of mine in Gladstone ( I will not mention his name) anchored off a coral island resort and went ashore for a dinner. He decided to return to the yacht during the evening for some reason leaving the others at dinner.

On the way back his small outboard failed, had no oars or anchor or radio with him and he was rapidly blowing off the reef shallows into the coral sea at night, with the wind strengthening.

He had the presence of mind to remove the outboard tie it to a long painter rope he had and throw it overboard where it caught on the reef before he had blown beyond it. Was found in the morning still 'anchored' to the reef. I never did find out what happened to that motor afterwards!!