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⛵ Tragedy in BVI Highlights Dinghy Safety

Published 10 months ago • 3 min read

It's May, my personal favorite time of the year to charter in the Caribbean - the weather is generally settled, the crowds have begun to thin out, and the days are longer.

We're getting ready for our next bareboat charter - a week sailing Antigua and Barbuda. It was time to try something new after spending a lot of time recently in the Bahamas and Virgin Islands. I sketched out our sailing plan here if you're curious.

If you've been, let me know what we shouldn't miss!

I also wrote about how we prepare in the final days leading up to a trip in this post before our USVI/SVI charter this past November.

But, before we head out, I wanted to share some important principles of dinghy safety, highlighted by a recent tragedy in the British Virgin Islands.

What happened?

After dark, someone hit an obstruction in the water, fell off the dinghy, and appears to have been struck by the dinghy’s prop. This indicates they likely weren’t using a kill switch.

If you're heading out on a charter trip soon, take a minute to review these simple, but important safety principles.

Easy on the painkillers

Are you going to get stopped by authorities for operating the dinghy after a few beach bar drinks in most charter destinations? Very unlikely. But that’s not the point.

Alcohol will impair your judgment and physical abilities (especially if you’re bouncing on waves during a wet dinghy ride).

Choose someone responsible to be your DDD (designated dinghy driver).

Use the outboard kill switch

If you fall off the dinghy without using the kill switch, it will go in circles until it runs out of gas. This is an extremally dangerous situation if you end up in the water.

The kill switch immediately stops the engine and propeller if used correctly. Make sure it is tied off securely to the operators wrist.

You should also insist on a kill switch that’s in good shape with a functioning velcro strap. Not an old one that has a loop tied with an overhand knot.

Bring a handheld VHF radio

I once almost got myself in a pickle after we left dinner at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a few years ago. It was dark, and as soon as we got 50 meters off the dock, the dinghy engine sputtered and died.

It was mid-tide change and the strong Exuma tidal current was quickly taking us off course. This isn’t something we easily could have rowed against even though we weren’t going very far.

It turns out, someone’s foot was pinching the dinghy fuel line. We got it restarted after a couple pulls. But, I had forgotten to bring the VHF to radio for help, if needed. What if we weren’t able to get the engine going?

Many charter companies do not provide a handheld, portable VHF. Plan to bring your own and add it to your list of charter gear. This is the Cobra model that we bring – it’s affordable, waterproof, and has all the features you need for a yacht charter trip.

It doubles as a good way to keep in touch during the day if your crew splits up.

If it’s dark, light it up and go slow

It’s easier than you think to get disoriented in a dark mooring field after dinner.

Have a way to identify your yacht, and more importantly, bring one or two bright flashlights to light your course. Headlamps and cell phone lights do not cut it.

And apply common sense. Use a speed that’s appropriate for night-time conditions. Go slow!

Watch your fuel

I almost learned this the hard way too. Don’t assume that tank of gas will last for your week-long charter trip. This is especially true if you have a full crew that requires a full throttle to get moving.

If you are planning long runs or excursions in the dinghy, be even more vigilant.

Check the fuel level each day and don’t risk it if you’re low. Some charter companies will bring you a new tank. Otherwise, all fuel docks should be able to help mix you a fresh batch of 2-stroke fuel.

Verify your dinghy equipment before you leave the dock

Aside from dropping the dinghy in the water and starting it up yourself, make sure you have the right equipment to operate it safely. Be sure to check country-specific requirements, but at a minimum, have these items for your yacht charter trip.

  • Kill switch
  • PFDs – you may not need these for short dinghy rides, but what if you are heading out a mile or so for a snorkel run? Always have them with kids.
  • Oars
  • Bailing bucket
  • Cable lock
  • Dinghy painter for tying off or towing
  • Full fuel tank
  • Dinghy air pump

Hope you found this helpful!

-Matt


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