Dinghy Down the Keys

Article about Bahamian Workboats

A ragtag Article about Bahamian Workboats cruises close to nature in the Florida Keys.

by Lowell P. Thomas
illustration by David Aiken

SMALL BOAT JOURNAL #71 February/March 1990

There was absolutely no wind, but current carried Sunrise along at a steady 3 knots. The tide swirled through oyster-hung red mangroves along the shore, and occasionally I nudged the sculling oar to move away from an overhanging tangle or keep off a shoal. The creek bottom was irregular; great shoals of manatee grass loomed out of the rocky depths and then, just as abruptly, dropped off again. Sometimes my keel just touched the grass, whispering a warning up through the quiet ripple of water.

A great blue heron watched silently from a cul-de-sac as I swept by. Behind him a reddish egret, wings akimbo, neck outstretched, staggered about in his peculiar, clumsy search for food.

A motorboat appeared, roared by, and vanished around the next bend. The small noises of the mangrove creek again enveloped me and I smugly wondered if the boat’s two occupants knew what they were missing, or if they cared. Of course, they’d be outside fishing before I barely began my morning’s journey, but I had seen a heron feeding and watched an eagle ray glide across a shallow grass flat. Oh well, different strokes for different folks.

I wondered what lay ahead. This was my first trip through Angelfish Creek, connecting Card Sound with Hawk Channel south of Miami, and my chart was vague about depths on the ocean side. All these creeks shoal at their entrances. I hoped the tide hadn’t ebbed too far before I entered the bayside, but I had no choice. The sail from my night’s anchorage had been a long ghost with only the lightest breeze.

Coming off a shoal, the creek widened and deepened. I could relax for a moment until the next bend occupied my attention. My eyes dropped to the sturdy little dinghy beneath my feet. Sunrise was a 14-foot Bahama dinghy, a replica of the little Abaco fishing dinghy whose lines Howard Chapelle included in American Small Sailing Craft (Norton, 1951). She drew 18 inches and was of glassed strip-planking sided 1/2 inch, with no framing save an after bulkhead that formed the forward end of her watertight lazarette, and several floors that stiffened her and supported the floorboards. Sunrise could easily carry four adults, and was burdensome enough to support my 180 pounds on her gunwhale or at her stemhead with no danger of capsizing. She was no racing model, but a husky, fat little dinghy with an entrance shaped to carry a load, yet with a sweet run to speed her along. She had sailed 24 statute miles in 4 hours and 20 minutes the day before. Even given a lift from the current, that’s moving for a plump packet.

Built for Cruising

Sunrise cost me about $300 to build in 1970 (I scrounged a lot of her materials!). She was built with two concessions to cruising: her watertight lazarette and her removable midships seat that could be stored forward to provide sleeping room on the floorboards. Actually, I usually slept with the seat in place, as it was high enough to clear my scrawny hips with room to spare.

Surprisingly, Sunrise came close to being an ideal cruiser. With her long straight keel she sailed like a ship. I could climb forward, leisurely search for the spare anchor in the snarl of line at the bow, come aft again, and she’d only have just started coming into the wind. She knew where I wanted to go and generally headed in that direction, sailing herself with a minimum of attention. Her hardware was cheap and simple: home-made lignum vitae blocks and bull’s-eyes, and wooden cleats. A canvas tarp over her boom was her cabin at night. Her head was a plastic bucket; her galley was a plywood box filled with eating utensils, sterno stove, and plenty of food; and her bunk was an air mattress and light blanket that stored in the watertight lazarette. This lazarette was an absolute necessity, for here I could store my charts, compass, battery-operated running lights, a kerosene anchor light, clothing, and the dozen or so other bits and pieces necessary aboard a tiny cruising sailboat. I even carried a fire extinguisher because I feared the kerosene of the anchor light and the flame of the sterno can.

The trip I had begun the day before was no dangerous cruise on uncharted shores, or exciting beat along an ironbound coast. It was only the first leg of a vacation trip to the Florida Keys. Still, all things are relative, and sailing a dinghy in 2 or 3 feet of water yields danger and excitement that the big-boat sailor never encounters. The skills are the same but the challenge is on a different scale.

Yesterday had been a beautiful day, a sail to remember. At 3 PM, I’d freed Sunrise from the dock. She slowly dropped back, spun off the wind, and heeled down to her work. Occasional white horses tumbled in Biscayne Bay as a northeast wind, unusual for this time of year, started us on our long reach southward. The seat and floorboards lurched beneath me and I braced myself against the constant motion. Soon my fingers cramped with the strain of holding the sheet, and I cleated it. No danger of this fat little packet putting her rail under today.

Fat as she was, Sunrise moved through the water beautifully. Through her hull I could sense what I could not see: the slice of her bow into the sea, her quick buoyancy as she rose to each swell. I could even feel the grace and power of her lines in the swish of the bubbles that churned along her keel and slid smoothly up her run and out onto the flat ribbon of her wake. It was as if she invested me with her own power. Separately there was only wind, water, sail, and hull, but at my hand the four had been given purpose and direction. Most sailors of small boats know what it’s like. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but I couldn’t have been happier at the helm of a full-rigged ship.

My log reads like a railroad time table: off the Coral Gables channel at 3:32, Ragged Keys in sight by 4:30, Black Ledge marker to port at 4:50. One after another the markers slipped astern, a cormorant or two flapping ponderously off each one as I passed. Still, Featherbed Channel lay ahead, out of sight. Was I too far west? My little compass, a $2 model with a wrist strap, skidded slowly to leeward across the top of the lazarette. I wondered, as usual, if it was misleading me. With the daymarkers vanishing astern and the low shoreline of Elliott Key yielding no landmarks, that compass had to show me the way. I grabbed for it as it slid off the lazarette onto the floorboards. Back by my side, it again began skidding slowly to leeward. I squinted at it, then searched the horizon for landmarks. There were none. Soon the compass bounced onto the floorboards again, and I cursed and retrieved it. I fumbled with my tattered chart and tried to estimate my bearing from the almost vanished Black Ledge marker. Finally, I lined up a cloud and hoped for the best.

Featherbed Channel appeared exactly where the compass said it would, of course, and I slid between the first two markers at 5:49. As my fingers fumbled to free the sheet for a booming run down to Caesar’s Creek, I realized the wind had held steady for almost 3 hours. Any other day I’d still be beating past Black Ledge. I felt excitement surge through me. This was some kind of record! Then I grinned like an idiot as I wondered just what kind of record it was. Just a “great sail” I finally decided, but still, great sails don’t happen every day. They always sneak in between average sails, bad sails, and worse sails. They make the rest seem worthwhile.