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The Complicated Tale of Runaway Bob the Dinghy

by Mark Cherrington on 24 Sep 2008
Runaway Bob .. .
There are those sailors who have had experiences like this, and there are those that won't admit it. No laughing is permitted while reading the following story about Bob the Dinghy and his experienced sailor owner:
 
We’d spent the Sunday evening of a long weekend on our boat, with the forecast for a fine Monday and nice breezes. After a bloody cold night, we got going around 11 am, intending to go to our club and top up the water tanks. As per usual, we started the motor, then I unhooked Bob from the stern cleat, and walked forward to attach him to the mooring buoy.
 
I then cast off from the mooring (single-handed, partner -- who wishes to remain anonymous -- was down below), and smartly went back to grab the tiller, to ensure we didn't foul the mooring line, hit any other boats, etc.
 
The rest of the day on the water was pretty routine. We picked up some friends from the sailing club, had a chat with others on the dock, then headed off. Filled up with fuel at the local fuel wharf, then a great sail for the day in 10-15 knots.
 
Anyway, in the middle of all this, I announced that I had no memory of actually tying Bob to the mooring buoy. 'Nah,' they all said, 'You did it, and it was so automatic, you just can't remember doing it. Happens to us all the time!'
 
Reassured, I stopped worrying.
 
By the time we dropped off our friends back at the club, it was starting to get dark. By the time we were approaching the mooring, it was pitch black – and with no cheery white Bobbing dinghy to guide us in.
 
Yep, sometime between untying Bob at the stern, and walking to the bow, I'd just let him go. No idea how, why or when. Certainly wasn’t a case of a dud knot; we have a loop spliced on the end of his painter that loops over the mooring buoy and CAN’T come undone. Also had never noticed him floating around as I motored off...
 
So there we were, pitch black, no dinghy, with the car a couple of hundred metres away on the opposite side of the water. What do we do?
 
Aha, I know: We'll liberate another dinghy from the near side of the water, tying our boat up to the wharf there. There's also a handy set of bolt cutters in the cockpit locker (kept for just this sort of emergency).
 
So we chase away the fishermen from the wharf, and I set off with a torch and bolt cutters. The plan is to cut the chain, take the dinghy so we can get ashore where our car was, then return to the opposite side and put a note on the dinghy explaining our situation, and leaving a phone number so we can pay for a new chain.
 
Fortunately, I find a dinghy which has the chain bolted on with just a pair of screws, which means the need to cut the chain is eliminated. Run back to the boat and grab a screwdriver.
 
This all works OK. Dinghy is released from its chains, and paddled around to the boat, waiting at the dock. We head back to mooring, pick it up and put the boat on it; then I ferry partner via stolen dinghy to the car side of the river so she can do the 20 minute drive around to the other side to collect me, then I paddle back to our boat to finish looking her up, closing sea-cocks, etc etc, before paddling over to the near shore, and replacing the bolts on the dinghy saddle. Easy.
 
BUT THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE STORY!!!!
 
Attached to the saddle that held the chain in place was also the dinghy's painter. In my haste, did I reattach the saddle to ensure the painter was properly held on? No. Happily it held while we were towing the dinghy back to our mooring. However, as I approached the mooring after dropping off partner, the painter came loose in my hand. But at least the saddle and bolts were still there. To save time, I tied the dinghy to our boat stern-first using a VERY short length of string (not rope), and attaching it to a line looped off the stern of the boat.
 
Then jumped back on board, did all the shutdown stuff according to the list, double-checking things like the ports were closed, electrics off, sea-cocks closed, etc etc. Lock up and chuck a couple of bags in the dinghy, hop in the dinghy, and get ready to paddle ashore. Last job is to arrange a bit of netting in the stern 'sugar scoop' that the previous owner used to keep the ducks off when the boat lived up the coast. Having seen ducks around our mooring, we continue this practice.
 
Now to do this, I need to undo the string holding the dinghy to the boat. Then to finish arranging the netting, I need to step back on the boat for a second. You guessed it! I look up, and there's the dinghy, just out of reach and getting further away.
 
Damn! damn! damn!. What do I do? Strip off all my clothes and swim for it (it's a coldish night, but I reckon it'd be OK)? Call the Coastguard and wait an hour or so while they come around? None of these are very attractive.
 
Ah, I know, start the boat up and motor around to collect it. The torch is in the dinghy, and it's on, so at least I can see it. So unlock the hatches (whoa, am I glad the keys don't happen to be sitting on the dinghy seat), put on the electrics (including nav lights), open the engine seacock, start the engine, run up the front and cast off the mooring. Run back to cockpit, put her in gear, grab the tiller.

Crap, the tiller's lashed to the backstay; what kind of stupid knot did I use to tie it up? Shove the motor back into neutral and wrestle with the knot (thinking a knife may be the solution here). Finally it comes free, and I can go get the dinghy.
 
Now where is it? Despite having a lighted torch in it, it's completely disappeared. Happily I did think to grab the billion candlepower spotlight, and I can soon pick it up. Stolen dinghy’s actually only about 20 m away (which is an interesting lesson, despite that torch being on -- a Dolphin one with a fresh battery -- just happened to be facing away from me and therefore was invisible...). Pick up the dinghy and reattach it to the stern (still stern first, because that painter isn't attached, remember).
 
Get back to the mooring, manage to pick it up OK (thank god there's no wind or tide), and restart the leaving-the-boat process. Lock it all up, and get back in the dinghy. In the meantime, partner rings: 'What on earth are you doing? Why are the nav lights back on?' Me: 'Just don't ask, OK.'
 
Finally cast off and paddle ashore, duck net in place. Drag dinghy back to its resting place and screw the bolts back in. In doing so, I find the nyloc nuts and washers that had been on the other side of the bolts, and which had dropped to the ground; earlier I was able to undo the screws without touching these -- I'd initially thought the screws were just self-tappers.... Do them up extra tight for the owner, so they hopefully won't let go in future.
 
As a final present, leave the perfectly good oar we'd picked up floating past the dock at the club earlier when dropping off our friends. Too long for our locker (and our little dinghy, if we ever see him again (SOB)). Hopefully the oar will be a pleasant surprise for the owner, whoever he is...
 
That's it.
 
FOOTNOTE: After a week, no sign of Bob, but left his details with Water Police. The Water Police guy was great. Said (Thursday) that he'd be going out later that afternoon, and would have a special search for the little guy. That was before all the rain started. Really, he could be anywhere on the waterways.

The tide was going out as we left, so he could have been swept up into the river, or down through the harbour and into the sea, and of course later we had a moderate westerly wind... Or he could have just drifted around the corner and be sitting somewhere in a bay filling up with water in all the rain.

So the following weekend, we mounted our own S&R operation, and after a couple of hours searching found him in completely the opposite direction we’d expected -- in the very last place we decided to look.

He’d been dragged up on shore, and was hiding in a little bay not far from
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