First sail of the year and a swim

Steve Mitchell 5 min read
First sail of the year and a swim

On Saturday, it looked really nice out on the water near our place on the island, so I decided to go out in my dinghy for the first time this year.  It just so happened that it was opening day of boating season.  There was a small craft advisory up, but nearly ready to expire, and the water was very calm as far as I could see in my sailing area.  Further up the channel there were whitecaps.

My dinghy is an 8′ Walker Bay with the performance sail kit, which includes inflatable RIB pontoons on the sides of the dinghy.  I sailed it a bunch of times last season, and was always able to get out of any problems I got into, and ended up sailing pretty fast a number of times.

This time around, it wasn’t so fun.  After departing the beach, a friend was watching me, and I got out a couple of hundred feet when the wind kicked up a bit.  I adjusted the sail, and dropped the centerboard in, got down in the bottom of the boat to drop my center of gravity, and got ready to work the boat upwind – the wind was coming from the north.

Before I could even get settled, a huge gust caught me – I remember seeing the water and really tiny ripples everywhere with water flying off of the top.  I let the main sheet go and started leaning to get the nose pointed into the wind, but it was too late – the wind kept getting stronger very fast.

I don’t remember which way the boat tipped over, or which way the sail was pointing – I just remember doing everything I could to keep things from getting worse, and when I knew there was nothing left to do, I got myself free of any lines or part of the boat and got ready to get wet.

The water was about 46 degrees, and it was about 50 outside, so it didn’t really feel that much colder when I hit the water.  I was wearing jeans, three shirts, rubber boots, and a life vest.  I did get hung up a bit in the mainsail as the boat went over.  It ended up going completely over and the mast hung up on the bottom – even though I was about a 1/4 mile out from the beach, it was still shallow.  I could see the bottom and the sail stuck in the mud, and the boat was relatively stable, albeit upside-down.

My friend on the beach was asking if I needed help, and I said “yes” after trying to move the boat around a bit.  I knew the tide was still going out at least for another 30 minutes, so I was worried things would be stuck for a while.  He immediately ran up the beach and started to get his kayak ready to come out to me.  Meanwhile, the rudder popped loose and started floating away, so I rescued that, and then climbed up on the hull of the boat and hung onto the centerboard, resting a bit and waiting for my friend to arrive.

Once he arrived, I transferred the rudder to him, and then after moving the hull to point into the wind, was able to get the mast un-stuck from the bottom.  It was fairly easy to get it back upright, but the boat was filled almost to the top with water.  Really the only thing keeping it floating was the RIB pontoons.  I jumped in, secured a bunch of stuff floating around, and started to bail using my boot.

At this point, I figure I had been in the water for about 10 minutes.  It wasn’t too cold yet.  The wind was still gusting, and I was able to get the sail loose so I didn’t go over again, but the bigger problem was the waves and the fact that the boat was filled with water.  I transferred a 10lb anchor to my friends kayak, and continued baling.  After doing this for a while, with him yanking me in a bit, and eventually just rowing for a while, I was able to get to shore.  Dumping out the water was pretty quick, and then securing the sail completely only took a few minutes.  I would estimate I’d been in the water and in the water in my boat for about 20 minutes by now.

We were a few hundred feet down the beach from our house, so I walked the boat back through the water (I was already wet anyhow) and helped secure it along with help from my friend.  I got up to the house and immediately jumped in the shower – probably at about 30 minutes now, and definitely shaking a little bit from the cold water.  I warmed up over the next hour, but was very worn out after the adrenaline and working to get things secured.

Here are a few things I’ll be doing differently the next time I go out:

Better floating radio – the radio I was carrying wasn’t attached to me, and although it floats a bit, it isn’t designed to be underwater as long as it was while the boat was overturned.  I have also never been able to get it to stay attached to me no matter what I do.  I have a different radio on my big sailboat that floats much better, and can be attached better as well.  I’ll be using this from now on so I can make sure I can get in contact with someone in the even this happens in the future, and a friend isn’t standing on shore!

Less layers and better boots – the layers of clothing I had on were quite heavy while I was in the water, and didn’t really help when they were dry.  I’ve tried to find a better lightweight sailing coat of some sort, and now I’ll definitely investigate a better solution.  The boots I was wearing were 12″ high or so, and useful for getting off of the beach without getting wet, but were nearly useless while in the water.  They kept coming off.

Whale pump in the boat – I used to carry one of these, and couldn’t find it for the last few outings.  I’ll always make sure I have one from now on in case I need to empty the boat.

One thing I’m still considering is the life jacket – I had a kayak-style lifejacket on which doesn’t require any inflation or the like.  However, it was a bit restrictive when trying to move around and get the boat righted.  I think I’ll look at some newer designs that might be easier to move in, but still be as bouyant as the existing one.

The only “damage” was the socket that the main mast was in popped out of it’s mountings, and bent some plastic, which I was able to push back together – everything looks solid and stable.  I of course, lost a little of my pride, and got a little cold, but I’m glad I’m safe!  I’ll try again next weekend!

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