CSYC Dinghy Sailors,
We are about to kickoff another season of dinghy racing in Roxborough Cove. We sail under a variety of conditions, and must be prepared as the wind and wave conditions can change rapidly during any given race, or a maneuver goes badly leaving us in the water.
Our dinghy fleet has boats that have one and two person crews. We are often able to complete from two-to-six races each Tuesday evening, so that’s a total of 12-to-36 races over a 6 week series. It is inevitable that on some evening, in some race, at some point, for some reason, someone will capsize. Whether you are racing or just out for a fun sail on the lake, capsizing a small centerboard boat is something every sailor should be prepared for.
Having spent many years sailing a 14’ Laser dinghy, and being under-sized for the full-rig boat, I’ve spent a great deal of time swimming, and practicing capsize recovery! Below, are some tricks that I’ve learned over the years, as well as two third-party videos of the complete process (below):
- First, there’s nothing wrong with capsizing, in fact, you’re probably not going-fast and pushing-the-envelope if you’re not capsizing once in a while. So, get out there and practice your capsize recoveries in varied conditions! This will prepare you for when it happens during a race.
- Second, always WEAR A PFD! It’s too dangerous to carry one in the bilge, or not carry one at all. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be conscious when you hit the water (a boom-to-the head packs a whallop)! If you’re wearing foul-weather gear, it’s imperative that you wear a PFD, as it’s nearly impossible to swim while wearing foul weather gear. Lastly, hypothermia is an issue in the cold waters and air temperatures that we sail in, so there’s no excuse not to WEAR A PFD!
- There are many tricks for avoiding a capsize…proper weight distribution, hike the boat flat, ease the sheets in a gust, etc.. The following tip helps to avoid the “death roll” or a violent capsize to windward when sailing downwind in heavy air. The unmistakable sensation is that the hull begins to rock side-to-side, the top of the rig will swing side-to-side (i.e. oscillate) through ~90 degrees, and the rig’s center-of-effort is moving side-to-side. Usually the sailor is abruptly dumped out the windward side of the boat on one of the oscillations. To avoid this phenomenon, while upright, aggressively trim-in several feet of mainsheet, putting consistent pressure on the windward side of the sail. This usually stops the oscillations and allows one to continue sailing upright!
- So, let’s say you do capsize, what are the steps to recovery?
STAY WITH THE BOAT! Do not attempt to swim to shore. Most modern dinghies have positive flotation and will readily float on their side. Even older design boats will sometimes swamp, but not sink. Potential rescuers will have an easier time finding you with your boat, as opposed to swimming in open water. Stay in contact with the boat so that you’re not separated by wind and waves.
If you fall into the water, clear yourself of all lines and gear. If you find yourself under the sail, push-up on the sail to create an air pocket to facilitate breathing. Clear yourself and move to the stern of the boat.
If you have crew, check to be sure they’re okay too, and meet at the stern of the boat. Signal thumbs-up for A-okay.
Ease the mainsheet, ease the vang, and point the bow in the general direction of the wind, if possible.
Make sure the centerboard is close to fully-down, and proceed to hang on the board extending from the bottom of the boat. If possible, press yourself up and stand on the extended board holding on to the uppermost gunwale. If you cannot press yourself up, put your feet on the submerged gunwale, and hang with your hands and body from the extended board.
Eventually, the sail will lift from the water and the hull will come upright. If the sail does not rise, pump the hull and rig a few times, to release the water tension on the sail, until the boat begins to right.
Steady the hull, press-up your body over the side into the cockpit. Or, go-over the stern, if your boat has an open transom.
Gather-up your mainsheet and tiller, and continue in the race!
- Sometimes in deep water, if you’re not prompt in righting the boat, your masthead will fully invert (i.e. go vertical) underwater, and you’ll find yourself in a “turtled” position. Make sure the mainsheet is uncleated and eased. Make sure the centerboard is fully exposed and vertical in its slot. Stand on the windward gunwale, with your hands grabbing the tip of the board. Lean-out with your body weight and the boat will slowly right to its side. Continue to put weight on the board until fully upright.
- Sometimes in shallow water, if you’re not prompt in righting your boat, your masthead may submerge and stick into the bottom, with the wind blowing the hull onto the rig, driving your masthead further into the bottom. If it’s a muddy bottom, you’ll be bestowed with the ignominious “mud-stain masthead” award for the day! To free yourself from this predicament, swim to the bow, and gently rock, or “horse” the bow, so that the hull is no longer blowing onto the mast tip (i.e. change the orientation of the hull in relationship to the wind). Be careful to not damage the rig in the process.
- Let’s say you capsize in heavy air, and you right the boat from it’s starboard side, and the wind fills the sail and promptly capsizes the boat on its port side. You right the boat again, and the boat promptly capsizes on its starboard side…and so on. To avoid the “flip-flop” make sure your mainsheet is well eased. As the boat rights, hug the centerboard with your arms and legs and submerge your body hugging the board underwater, Your underwater body weight will steady the boat and stop the “flip-flop”.
- If you’ve been practicing, you’ll soon discover that it’s possible to right your boat from a capsize without getting wet! This elegant “stepover move”, or dry capsize, can usually be done in light to moderate winds. Your rig gently lays down in the water, and you step on your leeward cockpit wall or hiking strap, and stepover the windward rail onto the centerboard. Gently depress the centerboard with your foot, and stepover again into the cockpit, without getting wet. Back in the race with little disruption!
- If you’re sailing with a crew, the “scoop” method is an efficient way to recover the boat. The crew member swims to the leeward side of the boat and lies in the bilge, hugging a fixture, like the traveller. The helmsman swims to the windward side and rights the boat by standing on the centerboard. The crew member’s body weight steadies the maneuver and his body rolls-into in the cockpit, in position to assist the helmsman getting onboard.
Below are two “How to Sail” videos that demonstrate capsize recoveries:
Have fun with this and I hope this will give you confidence in righting your dinghy following a capsize. Fair sailing!