Having recently replaced our elderly tender, we were surprised to find what a lengthy process choosing the right one turned out to be. There are a baffling number of things to consider and we all have different needs and priorities … Inflatable or rigid? Hard or soft bottomed? Hypalon or PVC? Aluminum or GRP? Size and weight? What about price?
Perhaps the first thing to decide is what type of dinghy is best for you. Look at any dinghy dock and you’ll see that the vast majority of dinghies tied to it are some kind of inflatable, and not without good reason. Whether it’s a roll-up or a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) an inflatable dinghy probably gives most of us the features we need. The benefits of a roll-up are obvious. They are easily handled both on the beach and on board. They can be stowed below on a longer passage and can be readily reassembled. But a RIB has unquestionable plus points too. It will often take a bigger engine and have a greater load carrying capacity. It should plane easily with the right engine and generally be more robust when heading for the beach. If you plan to eat up the miles to that distant snorkeling spot then a RIB is your best choice. Look for one with a reasonably deep V hull; it will be more directionally stable and grip the water better in a turn. A flatter bottom will tend to give a skittish ride. If you really decide you need a roll-up dinghy then an inflatable keel section is a good compromise. Much better than a soft flat floor, with or without boards. RIB hulls have until recently been made from GRP but, due to its light weight and strength, aluminum is increasingly finding favor. The tube diameter is a factor often overlooked. Smaller tubes, fifteen or sixteen-inch, will allow swimmers to climb in from the water with less difficulty than the bigger more standard seventeen-inch tubes. But seventeen-inch tubes give far better stability and load capacity. Best to get the bigger tubes and buy a swim ladder if you need it!
And let’s mention a couple of other possible options. Often I have gazed longingly at beautifully crafted sailing dinghies beating back and forth on a breezy day. Or the same boat under oars with long easy strokes on a balmy afternoon. Many such dinghies would take a small outboard engine and perhaps be the ideal tender for some of us.
For us the number one factor was size. Wandering Star has a unique and wonderful dinghy lift and stowage arrangement but it does limit the width and weight we can handle. And for many of us size and weight will be one of the main considerations. How many people must it carry? Do you routinely carry four or five people? You’ll need a bigger dinghy than a couple with just occasional guests—perhaps nine to ten feet for two people or something ten to twelve feet for a family of four. A bigger dinghy will keep you drier in adverse conditions regardless of type; a smaller tender may require more trips to the store when you’re provisioning. Conversely that bigger dinghy will be heavier on the davits, or harder to lift to stow on deck. It’ll be harder to drag up the beach and will need a bigger and heavier engine. And it’ll cost more too!
The final considerations are materials and price. These are so closely linked that we’ll consider them together. Inflatables are made from either Hypalon (chlorosulfonated polyethylene synthetic rubber) or PVC (flexible polyvinyl chloride). Hypalon is without doubt superior being stronger, UV resistant to sun damage and easier to repair. But it is expensive. That said, PVC has improved markedly in recent years and can be considered as a more economical alternative if you’re on a budget. Choose a reputable brand and make a cover to protect it from the effects of the sun. We have friends who circumnavigated over an eight year period with a PVC tender. A PVC dinghy can be as little as half the price of its Hypalon twin.
In conclusion, when buying a RIB, get as big as you need and that you can lift or stow on passage and that you can easily handle on the beach with your normal crew. Buy an engine to suit, preferably the maximum recommended size. And choose Hypalon if you can afford it; if not, make a cover. For the dreamers, buy the sailing dinghy. And can I please have a go sometime?
Sim Hoggarth is a British merchant navy marine engineer now cruising in the Caribbean with his wife Rosie on board their yacht Wandering Star.