Taking the Dinghy through Surf

The gleaming white beach is a few yards ahead. I am studying the rise and fall of the sea from just outside the surf line, where the swell of the ocean feels the bottom and begins to break on the beach. Linda, seated in the stern of our nine-foot (2.8 meter) Dyer fiberglass dinghy, is relaxed, anticipating the children's joy. Elyse and Sarah, ages two and five, sit in the forward seat in their life jackets, gripping the gunwale with one hand and their buckets and shovels with the other. Just offshore Intermezzo stands quietly at anchor, a gentle swell occasionally lifting her stern.

Our situation is one in which most cruisers find themselves at one time or another: an inviting shore beckons just beyond a "beach break" or surf line, and there's no protected way from boat to land. The basic approach to getting through the surf line is similar in many respects to that necessary to coax a yacht across a breaking bar.

The first rule in such a situation is to study carefully, from the outer edge of the break, the rhythm of the surf, counting the wave sequences and noting their size and where and how they break.

Two sets of waves pass under our little dink. "No problem," I say to the ladies seated around me. "I shall deposit you ashore in style."

I give a light heave on the oars, and we coast forward. Now, eyes glued on the sea before me, I jockey the oars to keep our bow straight and the broad stern of the dinghy square to the oncoming wave. Too late I realize I've made a mistake. I have forgotten that a beach break looks much smaller from seaward, from the back side of the wave, than it actually is.

With a rush, the surf has us in its grip. The bow starts to crab sideways. I am unable to straighten out our trajectory. The rail starts to tip while the stern lifts crazily. Instantly we're over, the wave crest depositing the four of us, dinghy, seat cushions, and one oar at the edge of the steep beach. Linda and I grab the kids out of the surf first and then the dink. We pull the oars from the next wave. The boat is intact, and except for a superficial cut on Sarah's head, we are physically unscarred.

Mentally it's a different story. It will be three years before Sarah voluntarily rides a dinghy to shore again unless a dock is present to ease the transition to land.

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