Dinghy Cruising with Phillips
Chapter 7

Webmaster's note: As you are reminded in the thank-you below, the information in this chapter dates back to 1981. My thanks to CWA Cruising Secretary, Tim France, who has gathered together many useful addresses and web site URL's. To view these, click here. It would be wise to check out for yourself, any information - such as legal requirements, product prices, etc. - that might have become dated. Uncle Al (W3854)

I am grateful to Mr. Ronald Brillinger of Shortwave Marine Electronics Ltd., Mississauga, for information regarding suitable compact radio equipment. Prices are approximate "list", February 1981, and discounts may be available.

Communication Between Boats. Dinghies cruising together ought to keep within sight of each other if they are in unfamiliar and uninhabited areas, or if the weather is uncertain enough to give the slightest risk of a mishap. There will, of course, be a rendezvous for the night, or perhaps for a lunch stop; but what do you do if one boat does not turn up at the expected time? To start a search at night or in bad weather would endanger yourself or others, while the missing boat might easily be holed up safely, waiting for the weather to clear. It is therefore very important to keep in touch at all times, and preferably to keep within sight.

When we first went to Lake Superior as a little fleet of four dinghies, we arranged a system of visual signals by means of red flags flown at port and starboard spreaders. The signals were rarely needed or used. However, on one or two occasions prompt responses were obtained. Generally, however, the system did not work well, because we did not keep close enough to each other, and did not look for the flags on the other boats as a regular routine. In good weather you do not see any need and in bad weather you have enough on your hands looking after your own boat.

If you decide to try flag signals, our code was: 

  • Both flags flying: "all well". 
  • Flag: down-up-down-up-down-up: "all well; please come within hail". 
  • Either flag down: "come"; "help!"
Within earshot, a mouth-blown foghorn is an excellent way of attracting attention, but the sound does not carry far to weather when the wind is whistling in the rigging.

Two-way radios of the "Walkie-talkie" type should do well over water, but you need a certain discipline to keep a regular listening schedule. A good quality VHF such as the "Apelco AF6" transceiver by Raytheon ($400) would be better for range and reliability. With its own battery, it measures only eight by four by two inches and provides Channels 16, 6, and up to four others of your choice. You need an operator's license, which is not hard to get but does require an examination on rules and procedures. My personal preference is to rely on keeping within sight and to avoid carrying the extra equipment, which may go out of order in the sometimes wet rough-and-tumble of dinghy cruising. However, the VHF transceiver may be the best way to get VHF weather forecasts (see below).

Weather Information. To get reliable forecasts when you need them is not as easy as you might think. We have carried a little VHF weather receiver for several years and we bought a large expensive multiband "Transoceanic" but have stopped carrying it. On the North Channel and parts of Georgian Bay, we have often had difficulty in picking up any marine forecasts. A small portable A.M. radio and knowledge of the wavelength of the nearest city's commercial station is often more effective than the specialized equipment.

Within range (visual + 20%) of the C.N. Tower or one of the U.S. continuous weather forecasting transmitters, you can get the current forecast (not always updated as often as you would think reasonable) on a crystal-controlled receiver such as the "Forecaster" ($30) or "Weatheralert" ($100). The frequencies are 162.475 MHz (C.N. Tower), 162.40 and 162.55 MHz (U.S. Stations). The "Weatheralert" can be left on standby and gives an alarm signal when there is a warning about to be broadcast. 

The pamphlet, "Marine Weather Services", issued annually (free) by Environment Canada gives information on many other stations that transmit forecasts, including the Coastguard continuous weather service on VHF Channels 21 (161.650 MHz) and 83B (161.775 MHz). Do not be afraid of the broadcasts in "MAFOR" code. After decoding with the key a few times it is easy, and when reception is weak you may manage to read the code while the plain language is hard to catch. It is also easy to write down the two or three groups of five figures, which give the whole 24-hour forecast for your area. Then there is no doubt later about exactly what was forecast. The "Bearcat Handheld" receiver ($200) is a 4-channel instrument suitable for these frequencies; or of course the appropriate crystals can be installed in the "Apelco AF6" transceiver. The cost of good equipment (radio and other) may seem a large initial outlay, but you are going to acquire them gradually as you try a more ambitious cruise each year, and good equipment is going to last many years. If you compare the cumulative cost of motel and resort bills, meals out, etc., over even three or four vacations, your good boating equipment will not seem too much.

To be independent, we carry a barometer and keep a record of its reading four times a day in the log. You cannot do as well as the weather bureau, but with a basic knowledge of meteorology you can tell fairly well what is going on. The barometer also helps you to know when to expect the officially predicted changes, which often come earlier or later than the forecast says.

Radio Direction Finding. (ed. note: No GPS in those days!) You are unlikely to need R.D.F. while cruising by dinghy. If you were crossing one of the Great Lakes, and got blown off course by a storm, and if it were night or poor visibility by the time things had settled down and you were ready to start sailing, you would be glad to have it. For most cruises, I would regard it as an unnecessary luxury. The "Space-Age Pocket R.D.F." from England measures six by three by one-and-a-half inches, with a luminous compass, and is a good one ($180). Avoid radios with rechargeable batteries (like the "Sea-Spot 2" R.D.F.) for dinghy cruising or you are likely to be stuck with a flat battery, and they will not take dry cell spares.

Communication with Friends and Relatives Ashore. Many articles and books recommend leaving a "flight plan" equivalent, and imply that someone will start a search for you if you do not arrive when planned. I have not found that very easy to put into use and I like to be free to change my plans without inconveniencing anyone else. The Coastguard would not welcome a large number of calls every morning from dinghy sailors saying where they plan to go and when they plan to report in safe. But in the Eastern Georgian Bay area, the Coastguard have told us they would check on us if we filed a plan.

When sailing with other boats, arrange a telephone number ashore to receive messages, in case a boat gets separated, and is forced to put in at some other port away from an agreed rendezvous. This is rarely needed, but might occasionally save a lot of anxiety and prevent an unnecessary search. The same applies for the journey to the launch site by car, which is the most hazardous leg of the whole cruise.

Call your family at intervals if you can get to a phone. They can become anxious while you are basking in sunshine and gentle breezes. Let them know when, and from where, you might phone again and remind them that you might be delayed by lack of wind or might change your plans.

Distress Calls. If you are in trouble and out of sight of your cruising companions, you are probably going to have to get yourself out of it without any help. Give a lot of thought to reliable equipment and spares, good seamanship, careful navigation, and avoidance of dangerous situations. Don't spend much time thinking how to send out distress signals.

If you have any way of contacting the outside world by radio, know your position and tell them clearly and precisely, with cross-checks. (There are lots of islands, headlands, etc. with the same or similar-sounding names.)



Red flares - like SOS or MAYDAY - must never be used unless life is in danger, and if a ship comes in response to your call you must be prepared to abandon your boat and be rescued. Do not count on anybody seeing your red flares, however. If your boat is above 18 feet, you are legally required to carry six. My boat is only 16 feet, but a few years ago I bought six flares. You cannot keep the package dry all the time cruising in a dinghy, but you'd think they ought to be proof against a little damp. Six months before the "expiry dale" printed on them, I went out to a farm where I could safely fire them off. Only two out of the six worked. In three the firing chain was weakened by rust and broke just inside the casing. So much for flares.

There are various "EPIRB" transmitters advertised (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). I am told that only one has Canadian Government "Type Approval", the "NARCO" ($320). Some have been found unreliable. If you had one that worked as advertised, that might indeed be the right thing to use to summon help, providing you are prepared to abandon your boat and be rescued. A search is going to cost (the tax-payer) much more than the value of your dinghy.

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Planning
Chapter 3: Equipment
Chapter 4: Rigging and Sails
Chapter 5: Camping
Chapter 6: Cooking and catering
Chapter 7: Communication
Chapter 8: Navigation
Chapter 9: Heavy Weather
Chapter 10: Spares and repairs
Chapter 11: Clothing, Personal Items, First Aid
Chapter 12: Stowage
Chapter 13: The Record
Appendix A: The CWA Cruising Library
Appendix A1: Dinghy Cruising Logs on line
Appendix B: Book List
Appendix C: Recipes
Appendix D: Addresses: Government Agencies, etc.
Appendix E: Buoyancy Testing