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Lessons Learned the Hard Way - Surf Landing at San Simeon!

Norm Cooper

Sarah Jean II
Saga 43
November 30th, 2015

Norm shares another valuable lesson learned the hard way when sailing along the coast of California.  Many anchorages in California and Mexico are open to Pacific swells.  Large surf that pounds onto the beaches is common and can make dinghy landings a challenge!  Read on to learn about Norm & Beth’s first surf landing in San Simeon, CA.  He explains what went wrong and what they’ve learned since then.

Situation

We were working our way southwards en route to Mexico.  It was a warm and cloudless Californian morning.  A steady procession of swells rolled Sarah Jean II from side to side on her anchor rode.  The swells marched towards shore, curling and crashing loudly onto the long sandy beach.  A veil of salty mist hung over the beach and breakers at San Simeon, home of the opulent and fascinating Hearst Castle.

Our plan was to go ashore and catch a bus up to the castle, located high above the anchorage.  The surf intimidated us.  We were fearful of being dumped and immersing our new outboard in salt water.  We decided to play it safe and just row our inflatable ashore.  As we got closer to the beach we could see the breakers were big  –  certainly much bigger we had anticipated.  Our plan was pretty basic: row like crazy, catch a wave and ride the surf up to the beach  –  like boogie boarding on a big scale.

Within seconds of catching a wave our dinghy turned sideways and rolled over, dumping us into the surf where we were rolled and tumbled ashore!  We emerged shocked, humbled and very wet with sand and saltwater in everything we were wearing and in every bodily orifice.  Our plans for a day of sightseeing had literally turned upside down.  We then pondered how to row back through the surf to our boat where dry clothing awaited.  We met other cruisers on the beach who had given up on getting back to their boat, had dragged their dinghy into the bushes and gone looking for a cheap hotel for the night.

Our soggy clothes hanging to dry on Sarah Jean's life lines.

Our soggy clothes hanging to dry on Sarah Jean’s life lines.

Already wet and with little to lose, we studied the breakers for a while and with more luck than skill managed to row through a short lull in the surf.  Once back to the boat it took us hours to rinse the salt and sand from out cloths and bodies.  We then send sat down and chatted about what we could have done differently.  We knew there would be many more surf landings in our future.

Mistake Made

Inflatable dinghies can’t be rowed quickly, especially with two people aboard.  Nor can they be easily steered in surf conditions using the small oars typically provided.  Our plan to row ashore in big surf was a recipe for disaster.

An outboard engine works much better by providing speed and control.  But at that point in our cruising adventure we had yet not learned the proper technique for surf landings.  In those conditions, lacking the required technique and skill, we should have just stayed on the boat and waited for the surf to settle down.  In the coming months, through discussion with other cruisers and lots of practice, we became pretty good at surf landings.  We did not dump again after this learning experience.

Lessons Learned

Don’t  Row Inflatable Dinghies Ashore Through Surf: It is very difficult to row an inflatable through the surf, especially with a passenger.   You will not be able to match the speed of the swells and will likely get caught in a breaking wave, broach and flip.

Use Your Engine and Large Pneumatic Dinghy Wheels: The best technique is to use your outboard to match the dinghy’s speed to that of a shore-bound swell.  First, lower your dinghy wheels.  Then, ride the back of the swell until it breaks and drops the dinghy onto the beach.  The large pneumatic dinghy wheels will allow you to leave the engine down as you hit the beach.  Kill the engine as you hop out of the dinghy.  Then pull the dinghy up the beach.  See the illustration.

Surf Landing - with text

Remember You Must Go Back Out Through the Surf:  Before making the decision to go ashore, remember that at some point you will have to get back to your boat.  Going out to sea through the surf is more difficult.  Look along the beach.  Sometimes the surf is smaller at one end or the other.  Consider rolling your dinghy to the better spot.  Watch the waves for patterns.  Often a break in the surf will be predictable.  Launch your dinghy bow first.  You can usually keep the wheels and engine down to get started.  When it’s time to go, have the passenger sit in the bow to keep the weight forward.  Try to move forward yourself to keep the dinghy from flipping over backwards.  It happens.

Always Wear the Outboard Kill Switch Tether: You do not want to be under an overturned dinghy with the propeller spinning beside your head.  Before going ashore or back to your boat through the surf, fasten the outboard kill switch tether to your wrist or jacket.  When you land the dinghy and hop out to pull it up the beach, the outboard engine will be killed automatically by the tether.

Place Everything in a Good Dry Bag:  Always plan on getting dumped, even if you have mastered surf landings.  Place everything in a good quality dry bag typical of those used for kayaking.  You can get good dry bag backpacks from Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC).  Consider putting all your sensitive gear such as cameras and phones in a second dry bag or in a sealed plastic case.

Consider Other Landing Options:  If the surf looks untenable consider other landing options.  Often there are protected areas behind breakwaters.  Maybe the next bay, while not an ideal anchorage, may have less surf and be better for going ashore.  Go exploring by dinghy.  Cruising guides often make suggestions for the best landing spots.

Take Your Portable VHF Radio Ashore: If you have a portable VHF radio (and you should) always take it ashore with you in your dry bag.  Make sure it is fully charged.  In the event you have problem you will be able to contact other cruisers in the anchorage.  In the event surf builds and you are unable to get back to your boat you will be able to contact others in the anchorage to keep an eye on your boat.

Large diameter wheels mounted on the transom of Sarah Jean's dinghy. Note the engine is down.

Large diameter wheels mounted on the transom of Sarah Jean’s dinghy. Note the engine is down.

Thoughts on Dinghy Wheels

Large diameter pneumatic dinghy wheels are important for making surf landings and pulling your dinghy up onto the beach.  They will also save your dinghy bottom from cuts and leaks.  Air filled wheels are good for rolling over rocks and other obstacles on the beach.  The wheels should be mounted on the dinghy transom so that the outboard motor can stay in the down position when landing on the beach and when pulling the dinghy around.  Carry spare inner tubes, a pump and fill the inner tubes valves with grease to prevent salt water corrosion.  For further information on wheels and recommendations please contact Norm.

Repairs

No repairs were required other than rinsing and drying our clothing.  Fortunately our valuables were protected inside dry bags that washed up on the beach.  We did not lose any gear.

Have a Story?

We have all made mistakes and learned valuable lessons the hard way. Do you have a story you want to share with BCA members, so we can learn from your experience? If so, please submit it for publication in this column.  Thanks!

Send your story to currents@bluewatercruising.org with ‘OOPS!’ in the subject line.

Cover image attribution: Public Domain

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  1. Brian Short says:

    Norm, good report as always However, during last year’s Baha HAHA we watched numerous beach landings (and failures). Most people did not have dingy wheels, and my dinghy (Caribe) is shaped such that I cannot mount d wheels. With an engine assisted landing, often by the time the engine is stopped and raised, the dinghy is turned sideways and in danger of flipping. I am in favour of not using an engine, and using the paddles not so much as propulsion, but to steer the dingy so that it is always pointed towards shore. With two people working together, this seemed to work fairly well, and ensured the engine was not dunked.