A Storm, A Frog, and A Drifting Dinghy

After a great vacation with Kristin and Teresa in the North Channel, including two nights in the Benjamin Islands, reality called and it was time to head back to Little Current where Teresa’s car was parked, ready for their long drive home. Some people needed to be back to work soon.

The forecast called for west winds at 20 near noon becoming west at 30 in the evening. Since we were generally headed east and southeast, the 20 knot winds could make for a quick 18 mile sail. The 30 knot winds worried me a little, since docking can be a challenge, and the town docks were likely to be pretty full on a weekend with strong winds forecasted. But it wasn’t supposed to hit until “evening.”

Kristin and Teresa were not looking forward to going back to work and I wasn’t looking forward to being alone for the upcoming 10 day delivery home. As a result, we didn’t get a particularly early start in the morning.

Wanting to consume much of the remaining food aboard and enjoy our last few hours in the North Channel, we made a big breakfast before weighing anchor. While we were eating, we heard a loud chirping sound emanating from the stern of the boat. We looked around for a while, expecting a large bird

Tiny Frog Hanging Out on Dinghy Painter

to be perched somewhere on the swim platform or perhaps the bimini. As we searched around for the culprit, I noticed a tiny brown lump on the dinghy tow line. A tiny frog! It was so loud! We hoped it would jump off once we started the engine and swim home, so we left the little frog alone while we prepared to weigh anchor.

There are three ways I transport the dinghy when cruising on Priorities: towed behind the boat, inverted on the foredeck, or deflated and rolled up down below.

Storing the dinghy deflated down below is by far the safest option. It is also by far the least convenient, so I haven’t done this much except on some longer “delivery” legs.

Towing the dinghy empty with the bridle system made by C-Level is our most convenient option, and I use this method in protected waters in good weather. It consists of a strong strap that clips to both towing D rings on the dinghy, a float, and a metal loop that attaches to a 100’ long yellow painter. The yellow, floating painter line is attached to both stern cleats on Priorities, effectively making it a two bridle, length-adjustable system. The towing bridle spreads the towing forces on the dinghy over both D rings fairly evenly, which is important since the D rings are merely glued in place, and its long length helps absorb the shock from any waves. If the waves get too big, though, the dinghy jumps around a lot, stressing the system.

Taken a few years earlier in Isle Royale, this photo details the C-Level Towing and Lifting Bridle

When heading offshore, I almost always stow it inflated and inverted on the foredeck, securely clipped to the toerail. Stowing the dinghy on the foredeck isn’t that difficult of a process… disconnect the towing bridle, get the dinghy to the bow, lift it with the spinnaker halyard on a winch, flip it over, and clip it in place with some line and carabiners I have specifically for this purpose.

As we sat in the anchorage, the winds were quite light, and I didn’t expect them to increase until after our arrival in Little Current. Almost all of our sail to Little Current was in protected water, too, so I wasn’t worried about sailing in large waves. It takes about 10 minutes to put the dinghy on the foredeck, it was wet out, and I was feeling lazy, so I decided to tow the dinghy instead.

We sailed east under full sail, slowly at first in light winds south of Croker Island. Shortly after getting underway, we heard the frog again. The frog had jumped off the dinghy tow line, onto our boat and crawled up under the enclosure. Not wanting to hurt the frog, we let it stay where it was.

About a mile east of Croker, or three miles from our starting point, I glanced back and noticed the skies were quite dark to the west. A quick check of the weather radar app on my phone confirmed a storm cell had built just west of us, headed our way. Our original plan had been to sail just north of Amedroz Island anyway, fairly close to its harbor, so we sailed into Amedroz Harbor to wait out the storm in the lee of Amedroz.

The skies grew dark to weather as we approached Amedroz Island.

Just as the rain began, we turned into the harbor and furled the jib. As the rain became very heavy, the winds remained light, so we sailed back and forth in the spacious harbor under mainsail alone to wait out the storm for about 20 minutes. I noticed the dinghy behind us, still being towed with its bridle, riding a little low in the water as it was now filling with rainwater.

The rain subsided a little, and it seemed like the storm was not going to be particularly gusty, so we sailed east out of the harbor.

The winds increased somewhat, producing small whitecaps and yielding a boat speed of over 8 knots. I figured true winds to be west southwest around 18-20 knots, excellent conditions for us on a broad reach going east. We needed to round Bedford Island to starboard, turning south in its lee down the Waubuno Channel before heading back east into Little Current. I hoped the lee of Bedford Island would make the southbound beam reach in 20 knots of wind manageable while still under full sail.

At first, the beam reach down the Waubuno was awesome. The skies cleared and we were in sunshine again. We were a little overcanvassed, but knowing we’d fall off again in 10 minutes to head to Little Current I was tempted to keep going.

Unfortunately, within a few minutes, despite being in the lee of Bedford Island, we had some gusts in the 25-28 knot range. Being only about 3 miles from Little Current, and not sure if these were the 30 knot winds forecasted for the evening arriving early, I decided we’d furl the jib completely and continue under main alone.

Furling our 135% jib in 28 knot winds is no small task, even though our furling system works quite well. I have an extra long furling line which, after routing through a rope clutch and a turning block, can reach all the way forward to one of the self-tailing winches on the cabintop. A little grinding on the winch with our electric winch grinder, and the jib was tightly furled. There’s some risk in using a winch for furling, especially with electric assistance, since if something jams it’s easier to rip a sail or damage the forestay… this day things were fine.

A few minutes later, we were almost out of the Waubuno Channel, still on a beam reach, and nearing the red bouy that marked our turning point into Little Current. Out of the lee of Bedford, we were fully exposed to the west with 10 miles of fetch, and we had lots of wind… 28 gusting to 35 in 3 foot waves with nasty whitecaps. The strong “evening” winds had arrived early, and much stronger than forecast.

Within another minute or so, we all heard a thump, and the boat jumped a little. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the yellow dinghy painter move unusually. I glanced back and noticed the dinghy adrift far behind us. The dinghy painter had broken!

My first thought was, don’t take unnecessary risk to recover the dinghy. I almost considered the dinghy a loss at that point, since it was only about a half mile from the lee shore of the Waubuno Channel and recovery was going to be tricky in these conditions. I made it a point to say this to Kristin and Teresa… I didn’t want to risk the big boat just to recover the dinghy… it didn’t really matter that much. I wouldn’t mind a new dinghy anyway.

My next thought was, I’m such an idiot for not stowing the dinghy on the foredeck!

We could have, and maybe should have, gone into a man overboard recovery procedure here by tacking immediately and circling back. This was not as serious of a crisis as a person overboard, though. Since the weather had changed so quickly and we were being reactive rather than proactive, none of us had life jackets on yet, so I didn’t want to make any drastic maneuvers with flogging sails and risk someone falling overboard. I was concerned about flogging the main and then jibing it in the building breeze, too, and a new mainsail is far more expensive than a new dinghy. Instead, I retrieved the remnants of the dinghy painter to keep it out of the prop, then started the motor. We all donned our life jackets before anyone left the cockpit. Next the crew and I unzipped the cockpit enclosure and methodically lowered and secured the main.

Even though we hadn’t been traveling very fast when lowering the main, the dinghy definitely had moved quickly away from us and out of sight. By noting our heading prior to reversing course, I was able to take a reciprocal heading under power and begin our search for the overturned dinghy.

I was steering and navigating, making sure we had plenty of room before depths would become a problem. I was especially concerned about getting distracted once we began recovering the dinghy and ending up aground. We discussed where the dinghy would probably be based on the wind. We next started formulating a plan for its recovery, since we no longer had a tow line set up.

Our plan was to maneuver Priorities just windward of the dinghy with the bow almost into the wind. Then we’d use a boat hook to grab the dinghy end of the towing bridle, which was probably still attached to the dinghy, and run a dock line through it and back to anything solid on the boat. We hoped we’d be able to do this from the cockpit, which might be easier since it’s fairly close to the water level and the transom is pretty open. Communication would be easier, too, though it would be crowded, with me steering the boat and Teresa and Kristin trying to grab the dinghy while parts of our cockpit enclosure were still in place. And of course, we couldn’t hurt our tiny frog, which was still hanging out on the aft seat of the cockpit! Jobs were assigned: I would drive the boat, Teresa would keep watch for the dinghy, and Kristin was ready with the boat hook.

Teresa saw the overturned dinghy first, slightly to port of our heading. It did appear that we actually had a decent amount of maneuvering room to attempt a recovery. The dinghy was inverted, though, and we’d need to flip it upright before towing it.

My first pass was a little off as I was still learning how much Priorities and the dinghy would each drift in the 35 knot winds. On the second pass, Kristin got the boat hook through the bridle, and Teresa worked on attaching a dock line to the bridle and the boat.

I then heard a “NO!” as the frog was nearly squished.

This knot tying took a little time, and I again wanted to be sure we didn’t put Priorities at risk of ending up aground on the lee shore. As we drifted while Teresa and Kristin were attaching our makeshift towing system, I looked at the 6 minute Course Over Ground vector on our chartplotter. It pointed about halfway to the lee shore, giving us about 12 minutes before we’d end up aground.

The dinghy got secured to the boat, and by lifting the windward side, flipped upright again. We started making way again, slowly and carefully at first, under power toward Little Current. I glanced back at the dinghy occasionally, and noticed it sometimes would capsize in the wind, significantly adding to the towing forces, then flipping upright again. As we approached Little Current’s Town Docks, I saw on one occasion the dinghy flipping twice in a matter of seconds. I think the capsizing, combined with the earlier stresses of the waves and a dinghy full of rainwater led to the tow line breaking.

Since each of us almost stepped on the frog at some point, Kristin coaxed him into a container to keep the little guy safe.

Docking in Little Current wasn’t as challenging as I was initially afraid of, even in 30 knot winds. There was a space just big enough for us available on the wall, with the wind blowing just slightly off the wall, and the current was moving with the wind. We had a decent amount of assistance from the dockhands and other boaters, with plenty of spectators, too.

It was an overly exciting end to our trip to the North Channel this year. We ended up only breaking the painter and a line on the Dutchman Flaking System… very easy fixes. We also had something to talk about that evening at the bar in the Anchor Inn.

Our frog friend was released in some tall grass near the water, free to explore a new land after a wild ride.

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