Runaway Car - Roncador Reef Part II

It doesn’t have a fancy automated trunk or bluetooth capabilities, but it does get us from point A to point B. Our dinghy is like our car. So much so, that when we visit the US and rent a car, many times, Mark or I will mistakingly call out, “Okay, let’s go! Everyone hop in the dinghy!” (Yes, it is always a big adjustment to living on land again!)

Well, today, Elizabeth, Mark and I decided to dive down to check out the anchor and the red snapper that we had seen hanging around beneath the boat. As we ascended from below, approaching the stern ladder, we were all careful to watch our heads - a habit that has formed to avoid hitting our heads on the steel bottom or sharp propeller of the dinghy.  Usually it is tied up behind Field Trip during the day when we’re anchored.

I was the last to surface, and on my way up, I saw Mark casually holding onto the frayed end of our dinghy painter. Something wasn’t right here. I looked behind him - oh no!  Where’s the dinghy?? I hurried to join them by the ladder, and right as I got to the surface, I yanked out my regulator and asked, “Where’s the dinghy?  The dinghy’s gone!!!”

In slow motion, Mark looked behind him, then down at the tassle of rope that he held in his hand. Realization hit him, and in a flurry of adrenaline, he was out of his BC and fins and grabbing the binoculars. While Elizabeth and I hurried out of our gear and lifted the tanks on board, he scanned the horizon behind us and finally spotted the dink. It was far away, right at the visible reef line. Both of us quickly went through different scenarios. “Start the engines, we’ll move the boat over there.” I started both engines, and Mark readied the anchor windlass.

Our Dinghy
But as the fog of shock cleared, we decided that the risk of moving the boat through these unknown, reef-strewn waters was not the best strategy. The time it would take to raise anchor, navigate around coral heads, and find a safe place to re-anchor would use up precious time. If that dinghy drifted beyond the shelter of the lagoon, it would be out in deep sea and we would be putting ourselves at high risk to retrieve it.  It was blowing 10-15kts , and the dinghy had drifted down wind about 2km.

But, how else could we go get it? We didn’t have a spare dinghy around! If we didn’t get out there fast, it would be gone! The paddle board! Mark ran to the forward locker and pulled out the paddle board and the electric pump. Within minutes it was inflated. Elizabeth got the oar out. Michael put the VHF handheld radio into a dry bag. Mark launched the board off the deck, grabbed the dry bag, put on his life jacket and took off.  Only then did I really have a moment to think of what things could go wrong. I quickly urged those thoughts from my mind and gathered the kids together for a prayer.

“Dear Lord, we know that you are in control. You love Daddy, and you’ve got this. Please give him the strength and energy he needs to get to the dinghy in time. It’s a long way out there. We trust in You, even though we don’t know how this will turn out, we trust You. Amen.”

Elizabeth perched herself up on the back benches and held the binoculars to her eyes. “Wow, he’s going fast!” Mark was paddling furiously, determined to get to our dinghy in time.  If we couldn’t retrieve it, we would not have any motorized means of transport - no way to go diving, no way to troll for fish, no quick way to get all of us to shore. Very much like having your car stolen and having to walk or bicycle everywhere, we would have to resort to using our paddle board to get anywhere.

Each minute seemed to be an hour as we waited.  Elizabeth continued offering updates on Mark’s progress while I busied myself rinsing out the dive gear.  “He’s getting tired now, Mom. I can tell. But he still has a long way to go.”

“What about the dinghy? Is it moving farther away?”

“Doesn’t look like it. There are some bits of coral sticking out above the water, so maybe it is stuck in a shallow part of the reef. Dad is definitely getting closer to it.”

My mind relaxed a bit more, knowing the chances of him getting to it were increasing with each stroke of his paddle. “He’s there! He’s putting the paddle into the dinghy!”  Elizabeth reported cheerfully.  I wasn’t sure what the state of the prop would be depending on how it was hung up on coral, but I prayed that it would be good enough to get him back to us without him having to row all the way.

“He’s tying the paddle board onto the back of the dinghy and the engine started! He’s coming back slowly now!”

The radio crackled to life. “Field Trip, Field Trip. This is Time Out. All is good and I’m heading back to you.”

“Roger that! Can’t wait to have you back on board!” The tension of the moment left my shoulders and my mind switched gears from “Will he make it?” to “How can we help him when he gets back?” I posed the question to the kids.

“He’ll be tired and probably thirsty.”

“Right Michael, why don’t you get some cold water ready for him and maybe a snack. And let’s get
all this dive stuff out of the way so he can come right up and sit down to rest.”  We were all so relieved to know both our captain and our car were on their way back to us safely. We said a collective prayer of thanks and prepared for his homecoming.

Bottom line, in a situation like this, you must be very careful.  There are no boats around for at least 100 miles.  Paddling a board upwind back to Field Trip in 15kts of wind for a couple of miles is no easy task.  The plan for Mark was to go no further than the reef (it was low tide and he would be knee deep on the reef).  If the dinghy was past the reef, Mark would have most likely walked a couple of miles on the reef to be abeam of Field Trip before paddling back to the boat.  The squalls at the time were packing 20-25kts of wind, so that was another factor that added some stress.

In reflection, Mark should have brought some water with him, and a long rope that he could use to tie off the paddle board to a piece of coral in case he was too exhausted to paddle, the tide we getting high and it was getting dark.


  1. Oh, Boy, I felt the adrenaline just reading your recount! Good point, Sarah about caution in circumstances like these. Aren't we just sooooo vulnerable out there. Sending love to you guys!


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