A Dinghy Tale
By Howard Eskildsen
While preparing for our first trip to the San Juan Islands in 1993 on the Fairy Boat, it slowly dawned on me that we would need some means to get to shore if we ever anchored or tied to a mooring buoy. On the Columbia River, where we kept our boat at that time, this had not been a concern since dock access was readily available, and we did have a cheap, plastic inflatable hidden somewhere in the v-berth just in case. After searching through catalogs and want ads for a proper dinghy, I let impulse overcome good sense and decided to just tie to docks at night and use our inflatable only if we had to.
I had purchased the little, yellow boat from a newspaper ad that for a “limited time” offered four-man, inflatable rafts for just $79.95. They were made of heavy gauge PVC “for durability and long life,” and came complete with oars and patch kit. Wow! I later discovered just how special the deal was when I found the same raft on sale at a local store for $49.95. I took it philosophically, though, for just $30 more I not only gained the tiny raft, but an education in want ads as well.
We used it once to drift ten miles down Wyoming’s Green River, near where we lived at the time. It carried Fairy, our two daughters and me without problems, but the girls were pre-teen and hadn’t much cared whether they were in the raft or in the water. After we moved to Kennewick, Washington, the inflatable took up residence in the v-berth of the Fairy Boat and eventually found its way underneath the barbecue grill and the spare anchor. I never bothered to check its seaworthiness before we left for the San Juans. After all, we never used it, so what could possibly be wrong with it?
We began to find out at Saddlebag Island on the first day of our two-week trip when the kids took it out to explore the nearby shoreline. A slow leak developed while they were out, and they had to use the air pump periodically to keep it afloat. When they returned I found a couple of the small leaks and also noted a crack in the plastic cap at the air fill. Something told me that we would need more than the original patch kit, which was also somewhere in the v-berth, to keep the raft afloat. We made a quick trip to the Cap Sante Marina and bought a new cap and some leak sealant at West Marine.
With repair supplies in hand, we traveled towards James Island for the night and planned to tie to the dock on the west side of the island. The dock was full, however, so we took the last unoccupied mooring buoy in the little bay. Obviously I had underestimated the demand for mooring space and had to find a way to make the dinghy seaworthy.
I decided to squeeze in a quick trip to shore to register before patching the dinghy, since I didn’t want to have to wait for the glue to dry. The raft started to sag in the middle as I desperately rowed towards the beach, and my eyes widened as I sank deeper and deeper into the water. When the boat finally reached land, I let out a sigh that rivaled the sound of the air hissing from its chambers. On shore, it looked like a limp, yellow sausage draped over the rocky beach like a senile slug. When the registration was complete, I pumped some life back into it and rowed as fast as I could back to the boat. During the repair session that followed, blue freckles sprouted all over the yellow raft. I hoped that I had found and fixed all of the holes on the “Leaky Dink,” as we started calling it, since we were out of patches.
I do not know whether I had missed some holes or new ones magically appeared, but by morning the raft draped limply over the swim deck like a soggy pancake on its side. I then applied sealant to every little abrasion and puncture that I could find and covered each one with duct tape. That, combined with a few choice words, finally got the boat to stop leaking air, and we headed to Sucia Island.
The saga was not over, however. At Shallow Bay, the floor of the boat began to separate from the sides where crease marks from being folded in the storage locker for so long had weakened the seams. Though we were no longer in danger of sinking, water flooded through the holes and soaked our feet. Two members of our party actually elected to swim, rather than ride the rickety little craft back to the Fairy Boat. While reciting the secret chant of the soggy-soled landlubber, I attacked the new holes with more duct tape and applied seam sealant around the margins of the tape. After a couple more days, I finally won the battle; the boat stayed inflated and no more water came in through the floor. The formerly-yellow boat sported more spots than a kid with chickenpox. With the leaks finally stopped, I tried to change its name to “Patches,” but the mutinous crew insisted on calling it the “Leaky D.”
From then on we tried to keep everyone onboard while traveling to and from shore and did our best to prevent new punctures. At times we looked more like survivors from a shipwreck than experienced boaters as we rowed our carefully balanced load over the water. We did provide some cheap entertainment for others sharing the same anchorage, however. Somehow the dinghy lasted for the remainder of the trip, although we eventually wore out the air pump. I had learned my lesson, and when we returned home the plastic raft took its last voyage to the dump. We replaced it with a proper inflatable dinghy from West Marine that we named Tink and it has served flawlessly ever since.
The ghost of the “Leaky D” did come back to haunt me one more time, however. The next boating season I was sitting on an inflatable cushion and rowing Tink back to the Fairy Boat, with Fairy sitting near the bow, when I heard a sudden whoosh of air accompanied by a sinking feeling. Visions of a sagging yellow raft terrorized my mind and for a moment I thought we were going down. As I pulled hard on the oars, the last of the air hissed out of the cushion and I sprawled backwards and landed with the back of my head in Fairy’s lap. With arms flailing and one leg draped over the transom, I blurted “WE’RE SINKING!”
The startled look on Fairy’s face folded into a grin, and she giggled, “You’re the only one that’s sinking.” I tried to regain my composure while stacking our life jackets into a makeshift seat and then started rowing again.
“Maybe it’s time to get a motor.” I mused aloud, while trying to ignore the laughter coming from the front of the dinghy.
© Eskildoodle 2021