Mike Humphreys risks grounding his Halcyon 23 in fading light to assist two teenagers stuggling with a capsized dinghy...


The evening was warm and pleasant with just enough wind to keep the sails filled; autumn dusk had begun to obscure the distance. Yachts that had ventured up the narrowing Humber river as far as they dared before the tide turned, were hurrying back to the safety of their moorings in a creek off the broad river.

At low tide the river outside these moorings became draining mud flats, shifting sand banks, and a much-reduced river that had sometimes been waded. Further upriver, seagulls had revealed a barely hidden hill of mud, by paddling on it!

In another 15 minutes or so the bank would be exposed, and there was little time to waste for boats heading downriver. I was the owner of a 23ft sailing cruiser and had been justifying my decision to head back to our berth.

My wife, Lisa, maintained that there would be time to sail on and still return safely. I had learned the hard way, what it meant to be grounded, helpless on a mud bank.

Returning on the new tide from the mouth of the miles-wide estuary of the Humber, I wondered why I had to follow the dredged and buoyed channel that large ships used.

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Surely, with my yacht’s much shallower draught, I could cut the corner of the wide curve in the river and save time? It looked safe enough, with no disturbed water or other clues to danger, and yachts were sailing on the opposite side, so I didn’t bother to consult the chart.

Things went well until the boat suddenly stopped, and then lay over on one side with her keel stuck firmly in the mud. The unmarked spit had claimed another careless yachtsman!

Lisa began to worry so I explained that we’d gone aground on a low but flooding tide. The water would speed up and deepen as it reached mid-tide, and would continue to deepen until it reached high water.

Mike Humphreys fitted out Last Laugh at home before having her craned out and taken to sea

However, if we came off at high water the tide would change direction, and push us back down the estuary. I assured her that we’d get off long before then. On the chart the spit looked longer than it was wide and with gently sloping sides.

If I put out the main anchor, it would stop her from being pushed any higher up the spit by the rising force of the stream. I went to the bow and dropped the heavy anchor and its several metres of anchor chain, to ensure it would not drag, then secured the rope part on board and dropped the flapping sails.

“What do we do now?’ asked Lisa, and I replied: “Put the kettle on the stove and make us both a nice mug of tea. Then we’ll sit in the cockpit and drink it.” Her anxiety was partially diminished by my answer.

Mike in the cockpit

We sat in the awkward sloping cockpit and sipped our mugs of tea as we waited for enough water to float her. Ebbing tide It was not an age before we felt a familiar slight movement.

We had often moored in a shallow and protected corner of the lower estuary at low tide. After a rest and something to eat and drink we’d haul up the anchor when the new tide arrived.

Sometime later the yacht began to sit more upright and soon after that she was floating free, and the anchor rope was a taught and shallow curve. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Mike’s boat Last Laugh at Ferriby

“Can we go now?” Lisa asked, hopefully. “No. We’ll wait a bit longer to be sure, and then we’ll come off by the reverse of the way we came on.” I hauled up the anchor and we sailed the boat off the bank as the water deepened and we continued safely up the dredged and buoyed channel.

It could have been dangerous in a strong wind and a breaking sea; driving her up the bank while she lay over even more and allowed water to pour into the boat! Far from that place and much later, on the upper river, we were heading steadily down on the ebbing tide to reach the safety of our berth.

The evening had reached that time when it is still light enough to see, but distant things begin to lose their colour and forms start to meld. The evening light was shining across the shallows to the west, making them the colour of pewter.

South Humber landscape

It was small and quite hard to see at first, but the dark top of something like a section of thick tree trunk was silhouetted against the light. I pointed it out to Lisa, and she agreed that it was probably an old tree trunk.

We speculated on where it might end its journey; probably on a mud bank, but if it was hit by a yacht, it could cause it serious damage. I looked once again, a little harder this time, and something in its form seemed to have changed.

Closer look “I don’t think it’s a tree trunk now, but I don’t know what else it could be. I think I’ll go in a bit closer to get a better look.” Lisa thought this was a particularly strange idea, so soon after I had convinced her of the need to press on to our mooring!

“Why?” She asked. “It’s just an old tree trunk, and you know it’s shallow over there. Do you want to run us aground?” But as she was saying this, I was turning the boat west to head for the object, but wary of those shallows.

There was something strange going on that needed further investigation. I reached into the cabin for my 7×50 night binoculars, whose large lenses light up and magnify evening scenes as well as darkness and took a steady look at the mystery object.

It became clear that it was a capsized sailing dinghy and two people were struggling in the water. This could not be ignored, as darkness might find them cold and alone and still in trouble.

They might spend the night on a mud bank before being found. Even if located, the water might be too shallow for a boat to reach them. I edged in slowly and carefully.

If we touched the mud, I could easily back her out again, with the inboard motor in reverse, but the risk of grounding was in my mind as I stopped her close to the capsized boat and two teenage lads.

Luckily there was almost no current there, to sneak us and them into trouble. They looked tired and cold and were trying to heave the boat upright but could not do it, as the baggy, curved belly of the mainsail was holding a heavy load of water. They seemed relieved to see that someone had come to help them.

“You’re trying to lift her with half a ton of water in the belly of the mainsail, and it’s holding her down. Get the mainsail down, and then you can turn her over.”

‘They looked tired and cold and were trying to heave their capsized boat upright’

I knew that their boat could not sink, as it was sure to have extra buoyancy, and I assumed they knew the way to right an upturned dinghy. I had often carried out the standard capsize drill, on the 15ft sailing dinghy in which I’d learned to sail.

I knew that dinghies often capsize during racing or in strong winds, but are easily righted by their crew, who then put in a reef or two. I assured them I’d stand by, and they could come on board if they liked, and we’d tow their dinghy in.


Boats at low tide, Stone Creek, Humber Estuary

They did as I’d advised and then righted the boat in the normal way. Soon she was sitting upright and they were bailing her out. They thanked me for helping them but refused my offer of a tow, with or without them in the dinghy, and said they’d sail her back.

It was probably a matter of pride. I was more than a little unsure of this plan, but I thought I could keep an eye on them. Back at the sailing club the next day, a stranger strode determinedly towards me, grabbed my hand, shook it and thanked me.

He was clearly the father of at least one of the boys. I replied that to help others in trouble was the law of the sea and I was sure other sailors would do the same for me, if I was ever in trouble.

Lessons learned

  1. Stick to the marked channels. They’re there for a reason. In areas like the mud flats of the Humber Estuary, banks accumulate and erode rapidly. Over years, entire creek entrances can become obstructed and the deep channels may shift from one side of a river to the other.
  2. On a rising tide, avoid being pushed harder into the bank by putting out an anchor and dropping the sails. Waiting until the craft is free avoids unnecessary hard work, if you can keep your nerve.
  3. Lowering sails before righting a capsized boat avoids heaving up a great weight of trapped water.
  4. Follow your instincts. I’m glad I took a closer look – we nearly missed the two boys in the dark.

What the experts say

PBO282.LFE_dinghy_rescue.stuart_carruthersRoyal Yachting Association (RYA) cruising manager Stuart Carruthers responds: “This tale underlines two key pieces of RYA safety advice and reinforces the need for planning and having a method for keeping in touch.

“An element of passage planning is required for even the simplest and shortest of journeys if you want to avoid ruining a good day out on the water.

“A passage plan needn’t be complicated and the trip you are intending to take will determine how much planning you need to do.

“At the very least your plan should cover the route, this will show any hazards that need to be avoided. Check tidal predictions for your trip and ensure that they fit with what you are planning to do.

“Have a suitable means of communication on board for routine messaging and emergency situations. A handheld VHF radio is in most cases practical and will suffice if only a limited communications range is required – typically five miles offshore around the coast.

“It is good practice to let a friend or relative ashore know what your plans are and any changes you make so that they can notify the Coastguard if they become concerned about you. The RYA SafeTrx app can help those who might not have a VHF radio with this in UK territorial waters.”

More information is available at: rya.org.uk/knowledge/safety


RS Aero dinghy sailor Ken Fowler responds: “My varying dinghy adventures have taught me that you never know what is going to happen on even the shortest sail. Consequently, my focus is always on minimising risk for every trip and being suitably equipped to deal with unusual situations.

“Minimising risk is all about doing your planning and research. Note down the tides and winds, and talk to local sailors about conditions. Rig for the worst conditions expected – going slower is safer than being overpowered and dealing with a capsize.

“Ensuring people know where you are sailing and being able to communicate are crucial. I’m a regular user of RYA SafeTrx app. Its checklists are really useful. I carry a VHF radio and mobile phone (texts require less signal).

“I carry a YB Tracker on my dinghy, plus a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and safety knife in my buoyancy aid. On board are water bladders, grab bag with an LED flare, energy bars/gels, additional warm clothing and the ever-helpful paddle!

“My final tip is avoiding time pressures – the cause of more poor decisions and dangerous situations than anything else.”

After sailing from Lands End to John O’Groats in his 4m dinghy Ken is currently attempting a charitable challenge to sail around all the islands in England and Wales for Cancer Research. Find out more at: yodare.co.uk

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This feature appeared in the December 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

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