Join Date: Oct 2009
Location: Gloucester, MA
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The two key points are launching the dinghy and boarding the vessel on the mooring. If you can launch in a protected cove nearby, that is ideal. Launching through surf is extremely problematic because waves can capsize the boat, swamp it, or throw it backwards onto the beach. If you are stuck with an exposed place, count the wave sets for 15 minutes before launching, you will find a pattern and can launch in the smallest waves. Getting aboard can be extremely tricky and there is a definite chance of ending up swimming. Tying off the dinghy and maybe yourself(having a ladder down wouldn't be a bad idea) is critical. Again, timing your jump is critical. You have to accept some bashing together between the two boats, that is what fenders are for. Being willing to land somewhere different than where you launched is important as well. Once you are out through the breakers, the dinghy should be relatively safe so you can row a bit further and go into a protected cove to land. Also, avoiding rowing beam on is key, you can "tack" from 45 degrees to 135 degrees off the wind to go perpendicular to the waves.
As to what boat to use, I would choose a small fiberglass dinghy with lots of flotation. The reason that I like a rigid dinghy is that they row a lot better and small outboards don't work well when it gets rough. You can't put the outboard down and get it started when doing a surf launch and if it dies because of being swamped, you are going to have to row. The reason that I do not suggest a kayak (this is actually how I normally get to the boat) is that boarding the boat is extremely difficult because you have to go from sitting in the bottom of an unstable boat to standing. Besides hull design, the other considerations are keeping water out and having positive buoyancy should something happen. If you look at whitewater canoes, you will notice that rather than decking them over, they use float bags to fill the volume of the boat so that water cannot. If you are going to do this often, filling every available space in the boat with well secured float bags would be smart. In addition, this will make sure that the boat will not sink.
As to what to wear, a drysuit with synthetics underneath would be ideal but quite expensive. A thick (5mm or thicker) wetsuit with a hood would be a lot less pleasant but would work quite well. The fabric that pdqaltair is referring to works like a wetsuit and is really nice, kayakers call it fuzzy rubber. And then a lifejacket is a given.
The most important thing in all of this is the operator. If you have never rowed a boat in surf before, try it on a day when the water is warm and don't be afraid to really get inside the surf line. I did this several years ago with an old beatup dinghy and wore a wetsuit and helmet and got a lot better at handling the boat. For people that are whitewater kayakers or surfers, getting out through the surf will be a lot easier. For me, we have the situation that you describe with the boat being in a very exposed place but luckily there is a cove nearby that tends to be a lot calmer where I can launch. Being a whitewater kayaker, I was able to quickly pick up how to get the dinghy out through the surf line but the part that worries me the most every time is getting aboard the moored boat.