Dude Where’s My Dinghy?

No mister, we haven’t seen it.

Panapompom, Louisiades, Papua New Guinea
September 10, 2009

It was on the fourth trip up on deck, in mid-afternoon, that we noticed something was, quite literally, amiss.

We were getting ready for a long sail to Australia, and were both busy and, as always, anxious, as we prepared the boat and ourselves. So much to do. So much on our minds.

Paul glanced at the back of the boat.

Holy Toledo, he thought, or something to that effect. Something’s missing. Something important.

Where’s the dinghy?

It wasn’t tied to the back of the boat where we’d left it. Paul had moved the painter from the cleat to the rail the day before, in order to put some varnish around the cleat. He thought that he had tied it well enough. Maybe he hadn’t.

Sima came on deck, and we both stared downwind. We were inside a lagoon that was about five miles deep by about ten miles wide. Before the dinghy took leave, it looked small. The lagoon is surrounded by reef, with some wide passes through which the current flows out quite strongly. We scanned the horizon, eventually using the binoculars. Squinting and peering into the green ocean and white caps, we saw nothing but green ocean and white caps.

Stupid dinghy.

We figured that it must have slipped away in the last hour or so, because, surely, if it had been gone longer than that, we would have noticed.

Trying to overcome our earlier lapse with a dose of cleverness, we carried three empty half-gallon size plastic juice bottles to the back of the boat and threw them into the water, one by one. We figured that the wind and current that stole our dinghy would lure them in the same wayward direction.

The bottles seemed to fly away from the boat, and were quickly lost from sight in the choppy water. We had anchored about a mile off of an island called Panapompom, which stretched laterally away from us downwind. The bottles seemed to move towards the far corner of the island, but it was hard to tell whether they would wash up on shore, or instead drift out to the larger lagoon and through a pass.

With about two and a half hours of daylight left, we figured it made sense to go looking for the dinghy right away. So we hoisted anchor and turned the boat downwind.
As we headed out, Erik, a friend on a nearby German-flagged boat, shouted to us and waved goodbye, thinking that we were leaving.

“We’re not going anywhere,” we yelled back. “We lost our dinghy!”

He offered to help, and to bring his dinghy in case it was needed to extricate ours, and so we welcomed him aboard. (Maybe his dinghy would attract our lost one? Or if not, we could instead lose Erik, and we’d have a dinghy again!)

(Well, we didn’t really think that. But, admittedly, after Erik offered us the seventh unsolicited tip on such topics as how to trim our sails, how to stow our lines, how to maintain our non-skid, and why our anchor was “the big sh**”, the thought of Erik meeting an untimely end tried to make itself known in the dark recesses of our mind.)

(OK, one more aside – his name wasn’t really “Erik.” Names have been changed to protect, uhm, us. Back to the story.)

We sailed down along the coast of Panapompom, scanning with our binoculars, but saw nothing.

As we approached the spot where a large pilot boat is anchored, near the corner of the island, we radioed the fellows on board, and asked if they’d come across a missing dinghy. No. Sorry. They hadn’t.

But they called back five minutes later.

“Some boys saw a dinghy on the beach.” They did?! Our hearts leaped.

“Yes, down by the big house.” What did he mean by “the big house?” There are only a handful of small huts on the island. We asked if he knew whether the dinghy was unclaimed, or if instead it might simply belong to another yacht that was visiting the island. He didn’t know. They added that it had been seen last night. But ours was only missing since today, wasn’t it? Could it have slipped away as early as yesterday, with us completely oblivious?

To be sure, we figured we would have a good look down wind, and then check the island later.

We continued away from the island towards the outer edge of the lagoon, a submerged reef some three miles away, still seeing nothing. Then, in the distance, a small bump. Too small for the radar. We got closer, and trained the binoculars on it. Our dinghy?

Nope. It was just a rock poking up out of the reef.

We tacked along the coast of Panaete, another nearby island that runs along the back of the lagoon, but saw nothing obvious there either. By this time, we’d sailed downwind for about an hour, and it was getting late in the day. We began to beat back up wind, a longer haul, to make it back to the anchorage before dark.

We dropped anchor at dusk. Erik offered to take us onto Panapompom to look, and we began to think good thoughts about him. Paul packed a flashlight and the VHF and set off, while Sima waited aboard Leander.

On the way in, Erik’s wife shouted to out to us as we passed their boat. She’d asked some locals in a wooden canoe if a dinghy had been found ashore, and was told that it hadn’t. Paul’s heart sank again.

There was a group of villagers waiting for us when we arrived on the beach. Did they have smiles on their faces? Was it because they were happy to see us, or did they have news? Paul approached, and could swear they were nodding their heads. “Have you seen a missing dinghy?” “Yes,” said a grinning Toby, one of several friends we had made. “The boys had found one down near the end of the island.”

Yippeee!

Erik headed back to his boat, and Paul and Toby headed off down through the woods and along the beach. After a fifteen minute walk, we came upon another small gathering standing around our dinghy. The gas tank and oars were missing, and there was a cloth covering the outboard.

Thompson, a man of 20-something, spoke for the group. His English was quite good.

He said that they had found the dinghy early that morning. The painter, with a shackle on the end, had snagged on a reef close to shore.

I told Thompson about the method that we’d used to check the possible drift, throwing containers into the water.

“Were they juice containers?” Thompson asked straightforwardly. “Because they washed up here too.”

We all laughed.

We loaded the oars and gas tank back on, and connected the fuel hose. Watching, Thompson said that he’d tried to start the dinghy that morning, “in order to take it back to us,” but couldn’t get it going.

(We know what you’re thinking: If Thompson and others had known since that morning that the dinghy belonged to one of the several yachts anchored just offshore, and given that they can make the canoe ride out in about 30 minutes, and given further that other villagers had been passing by our boat to fish and trade, why hadn’t someone mentioned that our dinghy had been found? And why the cloth cover on the engine, and why remove the oars, fuel tank, and fuel lines? But you know, we don’t think that they were up to no good. Even if they could do something with the dinghy, and keep from the other villagers that it was stolen, our experience with Thompson and the other Panapompomers led us to believe that they were acting in the best of faith.)

Paul tried the engine himself, but couldn’t get it going. The connection between the fuel hose and the gas tank had been cracked, and needed special care to keep from being broken all the way. It was a repair waiting for Australia. When Thompson had tried to start the engine that morning, he must have snapped off the connection that was already on the way out.)

By now it was night, and a moonless dark had settled in. The wind was blowing at a good 20 knots, and Leander was straight upwind. Paddling one of the villagers low profiled wooden canoes out is one thing; trying to row a large rubber raft against wind and waves, on the other hand, would be a challenge. Paul would try. Worse case, he’d drift back to the same location, and spend the night.

Paul headed out into the surf. The boys had a small campfire ashore, and as Paul set out, they set it higher ablaze.

Paul tried to row a straight line to the boat. After about ten minutes of rowing, he realized that he had made a little bit of progress away from the shore, but was actually further downwind from the fire ashore than when he started! A new strategy was needed, and so he altered course to row parallel to the coast. That seemed to work better, and he made slow progress along the coast.

The locals kept feeding the fire, and Paul marked his progress by it. As he progressed down the beach, someone was marking his progress, walking along with a torch. Paul watched as the figure bent down with the torch, and lit another signal fire.

This was something primordial. Pulling along the waves under oar power, being guided by villagers using torches and signal fires. And after a half hour, Paul could no longer see torches or fires, but rather only the island’s dark silhouette, backlit only by starlight. The only way of measuring progress now was to line up the black outline of the island’s profile against the stars in the background. No wonder the Pacific Islanders came to know the starry sky so well, because at night it provides a road map against which to steer.

Paul pulled on.

After an hour, he realized that there was no way he could make the boat. He was beginning to fatigue, and the mild burning on the palms of his hands alerted him that blisters were in their early stages. He scanned the dark shore looking for clear place to beach among the fringing reef and encroaching rain forest.

About thirty yards from shore, Paul was startled when his oar cracked against something hard. (Confused in the inky darkness, all Paul could think about was the Truman Show, when Truman, sailing along at full speed, crashes into the wall of the dome that houses him.) What the heck could he have hit out here? Peering, he made out the form of a narrow pole, driven into the reef to serve as a mooring for visiting sailing canoes.

Paul drifted back to shore, and saw no one in the dark. But as he pulled the dinghy up, folks began to appear, including Thompson, who had followed Paul all the way down the beach.

Paul called Sima on the VHF, and learned that Toby had already canoed out to Leander to check on Paul’s safety. No one else in the anchorage had their radios on, so Toby paddled over to our friends on Equinox, who offered to drive their dinghy in to fetch Paul and the dinghy.

Thirty minutes later, after a soaking ride to the anchorage, Paul was back aboard, with a cold beer in hand.

Before going to sleep, we went out to check on the dinghy. It was bobbing happily, tied to a cleat.

And the rail.

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