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HomeCruiseNavigating Dinghy Dilemmas: Finding the Right Fit

Navigating Dinghy Dilemmas: Finding the Right Fit

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Whichever dinghy you have, it’s the wrong one.

If it rows well, it squats and powers poorly. If it is light-in-weight, it flips over in a gust. If it is heavy, it is hard to get on deck. Even its hull material is probably wrong. The Aussies favor aluminum but their ‘tinnies’ are noisy and hell on the yacht’s topsides. Carvel-planked wooden dinghies are too heavy. Clinker-built tenders are both too expensive and fragile. Plywood dinghies rot with amazing speed. Plastic dinghies are West Marine toss-aways. Fiberglass tenders have their place but they tend to be heavy and keeping a non-marring rub-rail attached is a full-time job.

Even dinghy stowage is problem.

A wise sailor will tell you, “Never tow a tender you can’t afford to lose.” Davits are perfect for coastal work and wholly unacceptable offshore. (No exceptions!) This leaves the cluttered fore deck or cabin top on most cruising vessels as the only logical-but-regrettable choice.

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So what dinghy is best?

I dunno. Obviously, hard-bottom inflatables have many advantages. They are light, easy on the topsides, easy to beach, and have a good payload. But they have three major disadvantages: They are expensive, easily damaged by the sun, and don’t like sharp objects. While a good cover in the tropics greatly helps with Old Sol, I merely ‘touched’ an oyster once while docking in my Zod. Oops! The result was a three-foot slit in the starboard pontoon.

Despite these problems, an inflatable can be an affordable choice for the careful-if-frugal mariner. Our Apex A9, despite only weighing 72 pounds, lasted 12 years and two circumnavigations.

While this A9 was great for lugging up the beach, it was also great for flipping. I sail often in New Zealand, South Africa, and the Indian Ocean. Forty-knot gusts are common. My Apex was ‘bottom’s up’ so much I considered painting its outboard with antifouling paint under its cover!

I can’t remember all the times it’s flipped. I’ve even towed it upside down for miles while it submarined like a berserk balloon on a demented shark hunt.

The Tender Trap

Solution for a dinghy that flips? I have an alarm on my Maximum anemometer that rings at 30 knots. I immediately lower a 25-pound anchor into my inflatable’s bow. At forty knots a secondary alarm rings and I then pull the drain plug on the dinghy. This allows it to flood halfway—but not submerge my elevated six-gallon gas tank nor engine. Thirdly, I hook the painter on a ‘storm hook’ mounted as low as possible on my transom. This helps to ‘yank’ the bow down in big waves and inhibits the bow kiting.

I’ve never had a dinghy flip once flooded. However, beware! You’d best have a strong painter and attachment point, as the loads ramp up dramatically with half-a-ton of water onboard.

Many experienced yachties hoist their dinghy each evening. This almost eliminates theft and keeps the bottom growth-free. Alas, in a severe squall, the hoisted dinghy can become airborne. This usually happens around midnight on moonless evenings. Watch out stanchions, portlights, and (gulp!) spreaders! (I’ve never had a dinghy impaled atop my Windex but nothing would surprise me.)

Some modern boats have ‘up-the-butt’ dinghy garages under their cockpits but this eliminates sugar-scoop transoms and wind vanes.

We have a Monitor windvane on the transom of our 43-foot ketch. This prevents us from using our davits most of the time. But, occasionally, we remove the windvane when our grandkids visit in windless Southeast Asia, for instance.

Davits seem relatively benign, true, but are not innocent. I believe most are possessed by the devil. Mine are. It takes about twenty lines to strap my dinghy motionless to its davits and this motionlessness lasts about twenty minutes or so until a line stretches, allows some movement, gains momentum, stretches more, etc.

The next thing you know, you glance back to see your deflated dinghy (chafe!) swinging back and forth wildly. Damn!

You have decided to buy a new dinghy. What will you look for?

The only solution is to morosely spider-web your soon-to-be-chafed dinghy to the davits like the Lilliputians did Gulliver.

The Kiwis like to think out-of-the-box. It is rough down there. Towing is out of the question. Large boats have traditional davits for coastal work but small vessels often stow their dinghies on their sugar-scoop transoms vertically. This sounds crazy but actually works, with the dinghy end-tubes lashed to the hull and the bow pointed up against the (temporarily-padded) split backstay.

For over a dozen years, I had a fiberglass rowing/sailing dinghy (designed by Lawley and built by Graves of Marblehead) on our 36-foot Endurance ketch Carlotta. I must admit I loved rowing it when alone. Alas, eventually, my hatred for rowing it with my wife, child, and three sacks of groceries overpowered that love. (Perhaps age played a role as well.)

Even dinghy outboards have their own peculiarities. Those two horsepower engines are light and robust—but a single drop of water (rain or salt) plugs the carb. In India, they use kerosene to run their outboards, with gasoline only to start it. (Weird but true!) Supposedly, propane is the next big thing but I’ve never seen one in use. Electric trolling motors are increasing in popularity to get out to your yacht club mooring—but are less suitable for everyday cruising use.

Sailing with Charlie: Mega Rich

Here’s the bad news: any outboard engine capable of planing your inflatable is probably too heavy to easily toss on-and-off without an outboard deck/cockpit crane. (We use our davits to lower/hoist our outboard.)

So there you have it. You have the wrong dinghy, made out of the wrong material, stowed in the wrong place, and powered by the wrong device.

Isn’t yachting grand?

Editor’s Note: The Goodlanders are now dinghying around anchorages in the Caribbean after tying the knot on their third circumnavigation. 

We’d LOVE to hear your Tips and Tricks for Dinghies…  Please chime in through the Comments below.

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  1. With inflatables the bloody handles rope attachment points and ply insert retainers all decide to come off quickly . I have yet to find a glue that gets them back on successfully..

  2. Don’t forget to watch out of the spear guns which seem to have a spiteful mind of their own plus watch out for those bats fatty! HA!

  3. We have found having two dingies works best for us. We have a thirty eight foot yawl with a flush foredeck and we always stored our Dyer eight foot Midget between the mast and dodger on dedicated chocks. This dingy rows, sails and even motors well with a two hp Honda. This dingy served us well sailing around New England. However when we started cruising full time we found the Dyer a little to unstable in larger seas loaded up. So we purchased an eight foot roll up inflatable that normally stores underneath the Dyer. We also purchased a six hp outboard for the inflatable. We still use the Dyer eighty percent of the time but sure is nice having the inflatable when we have a long distance to go,seas are rough and or heavy loads to transport. Plus we have great redundancy. One dingy had to rescue the other when a certain someone was careless securing the painter; ).

  4. Port-a-bote never seems to appear in these articles. They look like a viable alternative to me. Fold out of the way. Plane with low hp engines. No fabric to tear. UV resistant, if not impervious…. ?


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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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