How to lose your dinghy and not your mind

Our time in Courtenay/Comox was…eventful.  We were hoping to spend overnight, but due to the rubrail issue, we knew we might be in town for a few days.  In the end, fixing the rubrail was straight forward.  After some internet searching we figured out that it was riveted on and that we could replace the rivets ourselves at a pretty low cost.  So after a trip to Canadian Tire, I came back armed with a pop riveter and the wrong size rivets.  Back to Canadian Tire.  Thank god for folding bicycles and Fiona’s dad.

Ian McGlynn on a foldy.

I worked myself around the boat in the dinghy riveting as I went.  I found quite a few loose rivets in other places, so I drilled them out and put in new ones.  It felt good to be not only fixing, but improving.  On the second last rivet, the gun jammed and the rivet wouldn’t release.  I tugged on the gun and squeezed at the same time.  Suddenly the rivet released and I lurched throwing my arms up to stabilize myself rather than fall out of the dinghy.  I watched the riveter spiral 20′ over my head and land with a kerplunk.  Back to Canadian Tire and another day in Courtenay.  Lesson: tie everything to everything.

Another job while in Courtenay was to get our satellite phone working to receive weather data.  It took a day and a half of fooling around at Fiona’s dad’s house, using his internet, until we realized we were supplied with the wrong driver.  With the right driver installed, our first query using the satellite phone was to discover the weather forecast for the near term.  We were a bit surprised to learn that it was already blowing 20 kn in the harbor and would be building to 25 kn later in the evening.  With our work nearly complete we though it prudent to return as quickly as possible to the boat and ensure everything was properly secured and the anchor was holding.  We said goodbye to Ian once again, for what we though may be the final time, and motored out to our vigorously swaying home.

The wind ended up blowing stronger than the forecast had predicted and we spent an uncomfortable night between the constant tossing and rolling and the sounds of lines straining and singing in the wind.  I woke up to check the anchor repeatedly.  I became obsessed with a fear of the anchor rode chafing through and eventually strapped some old bicycle tire rubber around the rode where it contacted the bow roller.  Later we were recommended to set up a bridle to even the load on the cleats and also to act as a sacrificial layer.  I had a dream all the boats were blown into a pile at the far end of the bay and I was walking around on top of the pile trying to figure out how to get back down.

At around 5am the wind stopped and we were able to sleep more soundly for a couple of hours.  I awoke with more energy and clarity than I had hoped for and made my way out to the cockpit.  The plan was to take the dinghy to shore to pick up our folding bicycles.  I was also going to surprise Fiona with a specialty coffee and chocolatey croissant from a local coffee shop.  Already congratulating myself on my romance I almost stepped off the back of the boat into empty water.  Where a dinghy should have been, it was not.  Instead a blue, polypropylene line led away from the boat and disappeared after 10 feet.  I was stunned.   I quickly grabbed the line and gobbled it up to find that it was not attached to anything.  It was not frayed and showed no signs of tampering.  The knot was simply undone.

It is a natural reaction not to blame oneself, especially when one is obviously to blame.  If a wallet or pair of glasses go missing, the first thought is that somebody has stolen them, even if it is far more inconceivable that somebody else broke into your house, rummaged through your stuff and found your glasses to be the only thing worth stealing, then quietly left and, impossibly, locked the door behind themselves, than the reality that your glasses are atop your own head.  This phenomenon likely extends well beyond the purview of misplaced items.  It seems a sort of survival mechanism.  It’s not my fault it is somebody else’s.  I’m not to blame, somebody else is.

After I considered the various ways dinghy pirates could have stolen our dinghy, I concluded that in actual fact, the knot had come loose and the dinghy had stolen itself.  I went below to get binoculars and tell the bad news to Fiona.   Given the complexity of the currents in the bay and the time that the dinghy had likely been untied, it could be almost anywhere, including the middle of the Salish Sea.  Our first call was to the harbor authority to let them know of our predicament and to find out if they had anybody report an errant tender.  As I was on the phone with the woman at the Harbor Authority I caught site at the far breakwater of a small boat of about the size of our dinghy.  There was a dark shape moving around it as well that was difficult to see.  Through the binoculars it was clearly our dinghy and a bearded man in tattered clothing was clambering on it, looking like he was trying to get the motor started.  Unfortunately the window in the Harbor Authority office did not face that breakwater and so there was nothing that the voice on the other line could do.

We stood on deck and whistled and honked our air horn in the direction of the dinghy thief.  He made no acknowledgement of our presence or our concern.  A couple of people passed us in their power boats without even looking in our direction.  A man even kayaked by without offering assistance.  I had the eerie sensation that perhaps we had died in the windstorm and nobody could hear our ghostly wailing for the lost dinghy.  I dialed the Comox police department but didn’t complete the call.  As sure as I was that we were witnessing the theft of our dinghy, if I was wrong it would be embarrassing.  Such is the social conscience, that we would rather risk loss of property than loss of face.   Eventually the tattered man got back in his little boat and started paddling with our dinghy in tow.  Instead of heading around the other side of the breakwater towards the beach, he started paddling towards us.

“Is he going to try to sell us our own @#$%ing dinghy?” I asked Fiona.

But consigned to our fate we simply sat down on the deck of the boat and waited, relieved that at least something was happening.

‘Were you the people hootin’ and hollerin’?’

So he had heard us.  We aren’t ghosts.

‘Ummm, yes that would be us.  Would you like to come aboard?”

The man’s name turned out to be Sailboat Brent – not his birthname.  He didn’t wear shoes, and had matted braids in his hair.  Most of his teeth were missing and he smelled very strongly of being human.  He had a half-mad twinkle in his eye that was instantly likeable.  He looked like how I want Thoreau to have looked.  A natty haired hippie wandering through the forests of New Hampshire..   Sailboat Brent was a person who did not feel compelled by social norms in any sense.  Behind the disheveled appearance was a soul of conviction and truthfulness.  We had seen him on a previous day in the park, pick up somebody else’s piece of garbage and deposit it in the garbage bin without hesitation and without looking around to see who had noticed him do this good deed.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth – Thoreau

We made breakfast and sat chatting with him for almost two hours.  He had the usual stories of being hard-done by the laws of the land but didn’t seem to begrudge the people with whom he had poor dealings.  It was as if he saw himself as part of the cosmic balance.  The more perceived wrong doings he was subjected to, the more it affirmed his conviction to be a kind and compassionate person.  He said of somebody who accused him of stealing, “you have absolutely no idea with whom you are dealing.”  His meaning I took to be that it would be absolutely and unequivocally out of character for him to do another person harm.  He reminded me of the dictum, ‘a wise man sits above the law.’  The law was a small dot to Sailboat Brent.  We tried to give him money, but he refused, only accepting four beers.

In the end, the outboard motor, which had become submerged for hours in the salt water, was beyond repair and it took us two days to sort out the purchase of another; our requirement being primarily one of cheapness.  I had been reading Steinbeck’s account of his taxonomically inspired trip through the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), where he describes at length their euphemistically named, ‘Hansen Sea-Cow,’ as almost evil incarnate in outboard form. So it was with no small degree of trepidation that we bought a 1980s Johnson Sea Horse.  My rationale was that they must have made some improvements in the intervening 50 years between Steinbeck’s experience and our own.  They didn’t as far as I’m concerned.

Hansen sea cow
Steinbeck’s Hansen Sea Cow

So with our new outboard and availing ourselves of Fiona’s father’s hospitality for another two days, we were ready to head further North.  The passage on the inside of Vancouver Island becomes quite narrow in its Northern half and is subject to strong currents, making timing a very essential part of navigation.  After a few days we came to Blekinsop Bay, which the sailing directions described as a well-placed, sheltered anchorage.   It blew 30 knots in the anchorage and we spent another pitchy and rolly night interspersed with the usual nightmares such conditions bring.  The currents required us to be up early, which in such circumstances, can come as a relief rather than a burden.  As we motored out of the anchorage, the wind still howling, we noted that the rpm were dropping of their own accord.  We would set the rpm at 1600 and it would drop to 1400 almost immediately.  We’d reset to 1600 and again it drop to 1400, or 1300.  Seeing a larger problem in the making we decided to immediately troubleshoot it.

The usual causes for a drop in rpm are an imbalance in the fuel, oil or air mixture supplied to the engine, with fuel being the most likely culprit.  We decided to replace the fuel filter as we had been told that they can clog and still look like they are new.  Replacing the fuel filter required taking the old one out, which is saturated with fuel, and dropping a new one in its place.  Diesel has to be added to the new filter to prevent an air lock forming in the fuel line.  Unfortunately we did not have diesel in a jerry can onhand, so we had to run the engine and hope that the airlock would resolve itself.  It didn’t.  After about 10 seconds the engine cut out.  The wind picked up and we were forced to reef the sails.

“I think we should go back,” I shouted to Fiona.


“We need to go back,” I fairly screamed in a high-pitch falsetto more due to panicky fear than the knowledge that higher tones carry better in wind.

We are a sailboat and even if we called the coast guard with engine trouble they would not come to our assistance.  This is both emboldening and terrifying.  We should be able to get out of most situations with our sails up, for that is the point of our craft.  But in the challenging conditions of a narrow passage with strong currents and contrary winds and lack of experience, the prospect of sailing alone becomes daunting.

We turned around and started sailing back to the bay while I worked away at the engine.  As we approached the bay the wind began to die down.  The current which we now had to fight was slowly but inevitably pressing us against the rocky shoreline.  Fiona perceiving the wind change tried to take us out to the middle of the passage with what little wind was available.  I almost desperately googled ‘engine airlock diesel’ on my phone, to which I almost added the search terms ‘fuck…please…help!’

Thankfully we had some cell service.  After a short and informative YouTube video, we were able to bleed the air out of the engine and get it started.  The morning’s trials, while seeming like 15 minutes, had absorbed a full hour and a half.  We were now in danger of not being able to make our next destination before the current switched on us.  However, feeling exhilarated and a little pissed-off we decided to try for it anyway.  We reached the anchorage mid-afternoon and had a pleasant rest of the day walking around the island as if it was a regular Sunday afternoon in our suburban lives.

Two days later the bolt holding on the alternator sheared clean off.

Engine running again


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