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But what happens if your dinghy capsizes while you are cruising?

This is something we try to make sure will never happen but we do also need to think about what we would do if it did ever happen. The precautions which you can take to reduce the risk to a very low level include:

  • Plan your cruising with regard to the weather and weather forecasts. Obvious, but it does require some experience.

  • Reef early when the wind increases at sea and reef more than you would if you were in an estuary or river. Reefing can deal effectively with strong winds but unfortunately it does not reduce the height of the waves which those winds produce. A dinghy at sea is usually capsized by a combination of wind and waves rather than by the wind alone, hence reefing is not on its own a complete answer to the capsize problem.

  • Avoid areas where waves are steepening prior to breaking. Shallow waters at the bar of river mouths can be treacherous. Waves in these areas have capsized dinghies in weather conditions which would be no problem further out to sea where the waves may be higher but are also longer.

It is obvious from the above that weather forecasts are invaluable when dinghy cruising. Most cruising dinghies carry a simple portable radio receiver to get the forecast on radio 4. It is most unlikely that you will have a computer and internet connection on board your dinghy but the www is now an excellent way to check the forecast before leaving home. There are a number of web sites which display forecasts, meteorological maps and satellite pictures of weather systems.

If you are in a harbour or marina then you can usually read a weather forecast pinned up in the harbour master's office or the marina office. These days these are usually downloaded from the internet each morning and often include weather maps.

If you take up dinghy cruising it will not be long before you first encounter the dilemma as to whether or not to leave harbour in less than ideal conditions. As a rightly cautious newcomer you may feel that you should stay in harbour unless you are absolutely sure that the weather is fair and will stay that way. The problem is that you will then stay in harbour quite a lot and you will not learn much about the capabilities of yourself and your boat. You may well feel frustrated because you realise with hindsight that you could probably have sailed when you did not. You then get fed up because you have been stuck in the same harbour three nights in a row so the next morning you go out regardless and that could be the morning you really should have been ashore.

Perhaps the best suggestion is not to be overly timid about having a 'look outside' whilst being prepared to turn back without hesitation if conditions justify your anxiety. If testing the conditions in this way you need to think in advance about your possible early return. For example, will you be able to run back under jib or bare mast or could the return be more difficult than the departure? It may be hard to guess what conditions are like at sea whilst you are on a sheltered mooring up an estuary. It does no harm to reef and proceed cautiously towards the sea, getting the feel of how the boat handles as you progressively leave sheltered waters. But don't go any further than you know you can get back and if need be turn around at intervals to check what the conditions would be like going back - a beat is so different to a broad reach.

When coastal cruising it is good to always have in mind a plan to get back into sheltered water should conditions start to become difficult. This plan needs to be mentally updated as you progress along the coast. At any point the easiest harbour to reach is not necessarily the closest, it may be best to run downwind and/or down tide to shelter, perhaps under jib or even bare mast. When approaching a stretch of coast without shelter you specially need to think about whether or not to continue. An example from our Essex and Suffolk home waters is the stretch of coast between the Coln and Walton Backwaters, a distance of around 15 miles (depending on tide state). This stretch of coastline is mostly quite steep beaches frequented by holiday makers during the summer. It is not nearly as inhospitable as a rocky shoreline but it is certainly not an area to choose for an overnight stop. In windy weather the breakers on these beaches are likely to at least damage your boat. We know this for a fact since some years ago one of our Wayfarer dinghies was broken up by these breakers in the vicinity of Clacton. Hence on leaving the Coln astern heading North we pass a 'point of no return' somewhere around Clacton and then have to be prepared to sail the whole way to Walton at least. If the tide will be low on arrival at Walton then there is extra distance to sail to round the Pyfleet buoy marking the north east extremity of the shoals extending from Stone Point. In this case it may well be as easy to sail on another few miles to Harwich harbour.

There are several boat modifications that might be considered to improve the prospects for righting a boat after it has capsized, although most people do prefer to concentrate on prevention rather than cure. Many cruising Wayfarer dinghies now have a sheet of buoyant closed cell foam fitted into a pocket in the head of the mainsail to reduce the risk of complete inversion, it being much easier to right a boat from the 90 degree heel position than from completely upside down. This kind of sail buoyancy is beginning to spread to other makes of dinghy and I expect that most sailmakers could incorporate it in a custom sail if required to do so. One limitation of this approach is that it is only fully effective when the sail is not reefed. The conditions under which capsize is most likely to be a serious problem are just those conditions which may require the mainsail to be very deeply reefed, perhaps with the head of the sail well below the hounds or even lowered altogether for running under bare pole(s). But sail buoyancy is fairly inexpensive and could be useful in some capsize situations so perhaps we should consider it the next time we order new sails for our club owned Wayfarers. Another possibility is to have buoyancy fixed to the mast head. I have already mentioned the airship shaped buoyant shapes now seen on some small multihulls and just possibly these could also be relevant to single hulled dinghies. I don't know of anyone trying this, the problem may be that a single hulled dinghy is more sensitive to the addition of weight to the top of the mast than is a multihull since it has much lower initial stability. This is probably the reason that wing masts are not used on single hull dinghies. Another possibility is an inflatable masthead float which inflates automatically on contact with the sea. These are now manufactured by a German company, I think it is called Secumar. I understand that the mechanism is similar to that used on automatically inflating life jackets and it includes a small capsule of pressurised gas which is as used in refillable soda siphons. If the boat capsizes a fairly large air cushion rapidly inflates and will provide a high degree of resistance to turning completely upside down. I am not sure practical it is to deflate and 'rearm' the device while sailing. I think that after righting from a capsize you have the choice of either sailing on with the windage of a large balloon at the masthead or lowering it on a halyard in which case you are vulnerable until you can reset it and hoist it back again.

Another approach to capsize resistance is to add ballast, effectively converting the boat into a keelboat or at least a compromise somewhere between dinghy and keelboat. If starting with an existing dinghy rather than designing a new boat there may be rather limited possibilities for the addition of ballast in a low enough position to make much odds. The usual approach is to change from a wooden centreboard to one cut from steel plate and a few Wayfarers and similar boats have been modified in this way. But you cannot convert a boat like a Wayfarer into a proper keel boat just by fitting a metal plate. The weight of a metal plate thin enough to fit the standard centreboard slot is very much less than the keel weight of a typical small keelboat such as, for example, the Squib design. I realise that the Squib is a rather larger boat to start with, keel boats do tend to be larger than dinghies and there are fundamental reasons for this. Also the tapered shape of most dinghy centre plates means that the weight of the metal plate would be fairly high and less effective than the equivalent weight in a typical keelboat keel. Add to this the need for an effective centreboard lifting tackle and the problem of preventing the heavy plate crashing down into the hull should the boat be rolled beyond 90 degrees and you start to wonder whether the heavy plate is worth the trouble. It will certainly make the boat heavier to handle on shore and slightly impede performance in light winds. I do have a heavy lead ballasted centreboard in my own boat but the boat was designed to incorporate this from the start, it did add considerable complication and cost to the construction.

If despite all care being taken you do capsize then there is one rule which everyone seems to agree on - STAY WITH THE BOAT. Even if you cannot get the boat sailing again it is still recommended to keep with the boat in almost any conceivable circumstances since a person holding onto a capsized boat is far more visible to potential rescuers than an isolated person swimming in the sea.

To ensure compliance with the 'stay with the boat' rule some people advocate tying oneself to the boat with either a length of line or a purpose made safety harness. This does seem quite sensible for difficult conditions. Supposing for example you are helming and you slip overboard for some reason, for example the toe straps break or the boat rolls violently towards you. The boat may continue sailing for at least a few yards and then capsize leaving you separated from the boat. You are only yards from the boat but the boat will be drifting downwind and your swimming speed will be greatly restricted if you are wearing heavy clothing, hence you could be in serious trouble. In this situation a line linking you to the boat could be most useful. The only point against the use of such a line is the possibility that it could get tangled so restricting your maneuverability or even holding you underwater when the boat capsizes. The later possibility is horrific but it seems very unlikely and if you have a quick release hook on the line you should be able to get free.

One of the HSC dinghies did once capsize a couple of miles from shore. The crew made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to right it by which time they were too cold and too exhausted to do any more. They were not in a state to go diving under the boat to try to find the distress flares. Fortunately they were picked up by a passing yacht. The boat was eventually recovered as well. This dinghy was not easy to right after capsize and is no longer in the HSC fleet. I would like to think that this accident would not have happened to a Wayfarer which has better stability and is easier to recover after a capsize, but one cannot be too sure of this.