Dinghy Cruising

dinghy-cruisingI return to a theme to which I have given a considerable amount of thought over the past few years, that of dinghy cruising. I have taken my 10-foot hybrid to quite a few places, and am improving on its road transport by having bought an old Erka trailer chassis to do some conversion work on it. I have crossed the Seine Estuary and done some voyages of fourteen to fifteen nautical miles round trip. There is still something of the Cub Scout in me with the ghost of Swallows & Amazons and memories of Windermere in our English Lake District.

At the same time, sailing is a sport and hobby for adults, sometimes doing extraordinary feats like sailing oceans in open boats! People are sometimes amazed that I take my 10-foot dinghy so far, but I take very careful precautions for safety. Even then, the predictable can happen, like being becalmed in the path of a ship just outside the Port of Le Havre and having to be towed to safety by a Harbourmaster’s boat.

Some have said that dinghy sailing is in decline. There aren’t the numbers at rallies there were in the 1960’s and 70’s when sailing first became accessible to ordinary people. At my old sailing school, we were about 25-30 at each Saturday afternoon session, and now there are barely ten. One thing I found about my sailing school was its being geared for racing, and for modern and expensive boats, a certain distasteful elitism as one might find in some of our English clubs. There seems to be a snobbish and “status symbol” aspect, like those who drive powerful and expensive cars.

Chandlery shops and websites seem also to be geared for whizz-kids sailing modern boats with new sails, everything in gleaming condition and paid for by parents. All that can leave us with the impression that sailing is still the “sport of kings”, and that those of us on a lower budget or level of ambition could get discouraged. Myself, as a boy, I took up other and cheaper occupations like fishing and cycling. Not once was it suggested at my sailing school that dinghies could be used for anything other than racing “round the cans”. In 2009, I bought an old plastic boat, such as I have already described, and was told it was no good for racing owing to its fragile rig! On land, we don’t have to be athletes and marathon runners to enjoy a stroll in the park or a hike in the Lakeland mountains or the Alps.

Dinghy cruising is about going places in small open boats, discovering coastlines and rivers alone or with a group. The extreme of dinghy cruising is the crossing of the North Sea or the Atlantic in an open boat and facing conditions that can kill you in no time flat! An example – The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow.

jack-de-crowMost of us sail our boats near the coastline, choosing pleasant weather and tidal conditions and playing it safe. I refer you to my time on the Rance and near Saint-Malo described in Sketches of the Sea. Sailing such a small boat, I sometimes meet quite condescending attitudes with coast guards and harbourmasters – but some are intrigued by my hybrid rig, and reassured that I have all the necessary safety equipment on board – and wear a life jacket!

Cruising boats can get quite knocked about as we land them on shingled beaches and haul them up onto the trailer. My plastic hull looks like a bathtub, but it can be easily repaired if it gets damaged – by plastic welding using an electric hot air tool and a strip of the same kind of plastic. No maintenance! My main problem, apart from slowness, is having very low seaboard – I easily get swamped in heavy seas. But, my boat is very stable, and even a sharp broach to the wind will not capsize it – because I have always had time to react, which you don’t get on many modern racing boats. They go right over, you hit the drink – and then you swim to the centreboard side to right the boat. I find that not capsizing saves time!

There are many ways to have a cruising holiday, notably by using the boat like a yacht and sleeping in it (with a boom tent and various improvements) – or by trailer-sailing from a fixed camp (or several camps) and going to a different place each day, as I did this summer.

One good thing about this kind of thing is that is isn’t structured, at least yet, unlike racing in regattas. Many dinghy cruisers I have met stay away from yacht clubs and sailing schools, away from the “status” aspect. I am lucky in that my club at Veules les Roses is something with some great ordinary folk with no pretensions. We share our love of the sea. Some of us sail, others fish from motor boats, others wind surf, and others still just like to walk along the cliffs and beaches and drink in the salt air. But some clubs can be awfully snotty and elitist. We like independence and the sense of freedom – our boats and the sea give us that.

I have often thought of a yacht. They can be saved up for and bought for a few thousand euros, but they have to be maintained and berthed in a port. To transport it anywhere, you either have to sail it, and that takes time, or you have to arrange expensive road transport. A very small yacht or a dinghy can be hauled up onto a road trailer and taken where you want, like a caravan. Once you have made the initial outlay for the boat and the trailer, there are no port costs and you can sail in very shallow water where it gets really interesting.

Doing a cruise in a group is a very good idea, because it is much safer. Help is always at hand for someone who has a problem with his boat or with his own health. The alarm can be sounded and the emergency services called. There is something of a traditional boat revival, but which can become quite exclusive of “hybrid” and modern non-racing vessels.

I would like to see the kind of seamanship needed for cruising taught at sailing schools, more practical instruction in repairing boats and rigging and making improvements. Sailing isn’t just about racing “round the cans” but also practising spatial perception, simple coastal navigation, the meanings of buoys and safety. It is also about feeling the sea and perceiving it as a “living” being with a spirit and a soul.

The advantages of a small boat are obvious, quite apart from lower cost and ease of road transport. It can navigate in shallow water – as long as you watch your depth and your centreboard and rudder. I have heard it said that you can’t get seasick in a dinghy – at least, if it is rough enough to get seasick, you have more major concerns at that point!

I would like to find more “all boat” rallies in France and England, and that can add a whole new and social dimension to cruising. The freedom of it all is the most wonderful aspect, between extreme adventure, playing it safe but going places, or just pottering around a place like the Rance or Chichester Harbour – doing it alone, just a couple of boats or a big group. We need to work hard to get new ways of thinking known.

It just takes a little imagination.

Here are two videos showing the greatest of the English spirit – modifications to a Mirror dinghy for cruising. We might be a nation of shopkeepers as Napoleon said, but above all we are a country of inventors! To music by Eric Coates…

Part 3 to come…

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