Smallest Good Dinghy for Two

~~~ Return to Joseph Conrad & Lingard's dinghy

Previously published in Small Craft Advisor, September 2015

CLC Eastport Ultralight dinghy What is the smallest acceptable sailing dinghy for two sailors for coastal dawdling? Karen and I'd been sailing in October in decked canoe Bufflehead. We love the seated comfort, but want to move and stretch more, to stand up and see over Cedar Keys' oyster bars and marsh grass, maybe find new channels out to the Gulf, or into other meandering salt creeks.

Bufflehead, at fifty eight pounds cartop weight, is heavy enough. When I drag her into the water, she's close to a hundred pounds with day gear.

CLC Eastport Ultralight dinghy, loaded. John Harris and family CLC's John Harris recently drew a six foot, "ultralight dinghy experiment." Twenty years ago he'd built a sixty five pound dinghy he cartopped. At age forty three he wrote, "Something is wrong. That solo lift is now a struggle." John's six foot pram is thirty eight pounds. Can a suitable sailing dinghy's hull be as light?

What other qualities comprise acceptable? She should sail like a good witch, and, for her length, row like a dream. She ought to be relatively dry with two people, and their picnic or overnight gear. She should be useful for sailors into their eighties, and be achingly lovely.

John Harris Eastport Ultralight dinghy The dinghy floating in my imagination is Captain Tom Lingard's, in Joseph Conrad's novel The Rescue, A Romance of the Shallows. In the mid 1800s, Lingard's small trading brig Lightning roamed Indonesia.

From Conrad:
"The restless shade of Captain H. C. Jorgenson... would mutter to himself -'Here's Tom coming in his nutshell.' ... with her dark varnished planks."
Lingard "could pull her up a beach, striding ahead, painter in hand, like a giant child dragging a toy boat." Once, while it was blowing too much, "he had waded up a shelving bank carrying her on his head."
As he stood in the dinghy, talking to Mrs Edith Travers leaning down over the rail of her husband's yacht, the dinghy was a "lively little boat unsteady under his feet."
When Lingard "vigorously" rowed Mrs Travers to his brig, "water slapped loudly against the blunt bows... . She sat within two feet of him."
Bolger Fieldmouse, courtesy Josh Colvin Wasub, the brig's serang, "with half a dozen wiry hairs pendulous" at the sides of his mouth, while preparing the dinghy, "leaped in smartly, mast and sail on his shoulder. He ranged them alongside." He told Lingard, "The rudder dwells safely under the aftermost seat... . I have filled with fresh water the little breaker in the bows."
A few evenings later, "The brig's dinghy ran with broad lug extended," as Lingard and Edith sat together in the "stern sheets," sailing overnight from his brig anchored outside a booming reef along the "Shore of Refuge," into a river to a stockade, in which her husband was a hostage.

I re-read The Rescue, then daydreamed to a seamen's bar in Bangkok, a town Conrad and I have visited.

I assume a boomless, standing "lug-sail" and no centerboard or daggerboard, but, with a fine entry, a pair of protective bilge runners, an inch or two deep keel, full skeg and rudder. In flat water I expect Lingard could make a weather course.

The dinghy's length? Because she would not have been plywood, I think a little over eight feet. Freeboard? I imagine relatively deep, more as one might find in a high latitude lighthouse tender, versus say, a tropical resort boat.

Iain Oughtred's Auk dinghy In smokey haze, a small, slight, very old brown man waves me over. Although he seems to have a Buddhist's calm, his quick eyes have disgust for the drinkers. A couple of silver whiskers dangle from the corners of his mouth, well below his chin. Wasub! The brig's serang! Next to him is tall, "Captain H. C. Jorgenson, late of the Barque Wild Rose."

I ask them about the dinghy.

"I can tell you anything you need to know," gaunt Jorgenson repeats. His cigar occasionally glows; his eyes aim out beyond beautiful and attentive, small framed women.

Iain Oughtred's Auk dinghy Without grin or grimace, Jorgenson translates for Wasub. He says Wasub had taught Lingard to sail 'better,' and - Wasub nods and smiles - the dinghy had been 'good enough for a short, fat boat.'

What dinghy today is like Lingard's? Closest of which I'm aware, is Iain Oughtred's new, larger version of his "Auk," from 7'8" x 3'11", to 8'2" x 4'3", with another of Iain's masterfully drawn sheers.

Could an amateur build a hull light enough to balance on a sage head? A composite with a core of fine strips, thin ply or foam, with S-glass, carbon and kevlar, and reliable epoxy should do it - a damn fine boat, perhaps for one's Shore of Refuge.

(In 2011, in the column "Coral Tortoise", I'd written about Lingard's dinghy inspiring an imaginary, smaller, solo boat.)


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