We had been anchored at Garden Key in The Dry Tortugas National Park for several days before we realized that the wind just wasn't going to abate. The strong southeasterlies had made snorkeling the favored reefs just beyond the anchorage impossible. Sitting on the boat watching the wind whip the tops off of the whitecaps had become boring.
Checking the chart, we noticed that good snorkeling was indicated along the north and west coasts of Loggerhead Key about a mile downwind from our anchorage. Best of all, the diving spots would all be in the lee of the island. Since it was sunny and sultry, the soaking we would get on the dinghy ride would be an exhilarating prelude to the diving.
On the spur of the moment, we grabbed our dive gear, shucked shoes and shirts, and jumped into the Avon. The faithful six-horse kicker ticked right over on the first pull and we were off around the south end of Garden Key. As we got further away from the protection of Fort Jefferson and the reefs, the seas built from a moderate ripple to an undulating swell.
Sputter. Cough. Silence. The outboard simply died, something it had never done before.
We fiddled with it for a full five minutes before we realized how fast the wind was moving us. In short order, we would be beyond the north end of Loggerhead Key and drifting towards the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Since the Dry Tortugas are literally the last stop in the Florida Keys, the next destination on this course was New Orleans. At the pace the inflatable was making through the water, we figured that it would take a mere eight or ten days to get there.
There was only one problem with that calculation—we would die of dehydration long before we got to The Big Easy.
We had absolutely nothing on board. No oars except for our swim fins, and they would have been useless trying to drive an inflatable upwind. No anchor, which would have stopped our drift immediately in the shallow waters of the Keys. No handheld radio to call the Coast Guard for help, even though we could see the cutter sitting at the dock less than a mile away.
The sudden adrenaline rush that came with the realization of our predicament caused us to re-double our efforts to repair the outboard. Fortune smiled upon us, and simply removing a good dollop of water from the tiny fuel filter inside the cowling allowed the engine to roar back to life. We scrapped the afternoon plans of snorkeling in favor a hurried trip back to the anchorage before the engine died again. This was followed by some obviously needed outboard maintenance and a nerve-soothing tot of island rum.
The event had truly scared us. During the pounding ride back to the mothership, we vowed to never again go out in the dinghy without a complement of gear. We devised a packet that contained the oars, an anchor with rode attached, bailer, jug of water, handheld VHF, and some snack foods (which kept somehow disappearing on long night watches ever after and required frequent replacement). We were faithful in putting this gear aboard for every dinghy trip, regardless of the weather, the location, or the length of the trip. Until an emergency arose, that is, and the lesson had to be learned again.
It was one of those sailing days that you never forget—sparkling blue sky and water, sunlight dancing in the rigging, and whitecaps playing in our reeling wake. We were daysailing out in Exuma Sound in the central Bahamas from one cut between the islands to the next. The breeze was a few knots less than a reef in the mainsail, but subsided as we drove into the lee of the cut itself. We had purposefully steered to the windward side of the cut to offset the effects of leeway, but we forgot to factor in the current, which can be amazingly fast through the breaks between islands.
Bam! We were aground on a Bahamian "brown bar," a tidal sandbar studded with bits of small coral. While there was no wave action to bounce the keel on the spiky bits of hard stuff, the wind and current kept driving us further onto the bar, and backing off without damaging the rudder on the coral was unlikely.
Dinghy to the rescue—since we were just island hopping, the Avon was already inflated and lightly lashed on the foredeck upside-down. We flipped it over the side, I hauled myself around to the bow and pulled the big CQR with 150 feet of rode into the dink, and rowed out to the deeper water of the cut to drop the iron monster. Rowing back upwind to the boat, disaster struck again. One oar had developed rot at the joint, and with a hard stroke, simply broke in half. Since I was pulling hard, I fell backwards onto the floor of the dinghy, dropping the second oar in the process. I was left up the cut with half a paddle, no emergency pack, drifting off downwind and current. The good news was that land was only 80 or 90 miles away this time. On my rapid trip to the west, I was happy to see that my capable mate had worked the boat off the bar.
A good-hearted cruiser, seeing our predicament, rescued me. But not without that certain reserve that lets you know that you are not only totally incompetent, but possibly not too bright either.
So now, we always, always carry the dinghy emergency bag—even if it takes a few extra minutes to get it in an urgent situation. Until, of course, the next exception happens.
At least the distance to land keeps getting shorter.
Choosing a Dinghy by Sue & Larry
The Fundamentals of Dinghy Choice by Tom Wood
Dinghies and Inflatable Boats