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The Tender Trap

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The problem with dinghies is that no matter how well they do one thing, they do the other thing poorly. Boats are a compromise; dinghies more so. Stable dinghies weigh a lot. Long rigid dinghies row well but are difficult to stow on deck. Dinghies that sail well, always power poorly. 

Most yachtsmen today have dinghies that they don’t understand. But this is of no consequence since they keep their boats in marinas and seldom use their dinghy. Ironically, when they do use their tenders, the subliminal message they get is: thank God they have enough money to stay in a marina and don’t have to deal with a bedeviling dinghy often!

Here’s the truth of it—in order to happily cruise the world on a shoestring, you have to make peace with your dinghy. 

The first two things to remember is that a proper dinghy is limited by its mother vessel and its intended purpose. The third thing to know is that it is perfectly okay to tow any dinghy that you don’t mind losing. 

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Huh? For a 38-foot sailboat to tow a ten-foot inflatable in protected waters is marginal though not terribly bright. But for a 38-foot sailboat to tow a ten-foot inflatable offshore, it is dangerous to both mothership and crew. 

Towing a dinghy is nothing but problem after problem. It will slow you down tremendously. In heavy weather, you won’t be able to claw off a lee shore towing a dinghy—and you and your vessel might end up on the rocks. It makes tacking more difficult and gybing far more dangerous. 

Soku, Carolyn, Roma, and Christian returning to Ganesh.
Soku, Carolyn, Roma, and Christian returning to Ganesh.

Worse, running downwind the dinghy can over-take and damage your transom or rudder—even sink the big boat! (If I must tow a dinghy in heavy weather, I toss a fender attached to a long line off its transom to stop it from surfing.)

If the dinghy is short-scoped, it can rip out the towing eye bolt in the dinghy or the cleat on the big boat. Rain sinks ‘em. They flip. (My Apex 9 Lite flipped so often that I painted the inside of its outboard with antifouling… well, almost!) On my current Caribe dinghy, I just remove the drain plug and it semi-sinks until only the air in the tubes keeps it floating. This prevents the forward-mounted gas tank from floating, flipping over, and filling with saltwater.

Oars as Barometer

And don’t forget that many too-frugal sailors have died attempting to get into-or-out-of a floundering dinghy at sea. That’s right—often, the most economical and safest thing you can do with an expensive dinghy is to cast it off before it kills you. 

The bottom line is this—experienced offshore skippers simply NEVER INTENTIONALLY TOW A DINGHY offshore, period. 

This means the dinghy must come aboard. If your pockets are deep and your boat substantial, one way to deal with this is davits. Davits can be wonderfully convenient, but have many disadvantages—expense, for one, but weight aft is another, along with reduced visibility astern. Also there is increased hobby-horsing from the heavy weight so far aft. Windvanes often prevent davits from being installed. Plus, davits make docking far more difficult as they are notoriously delicate. It only takes a slight ‘tap’ against a concrete seawall to leave a gaping hole in your deck… a hole that will be extremely expensive to fix. 

Here’s the bottom line: I have a wonderful, extremely strong davit system that I’ve used in port on a daily basis for over twelve years now—and never once offshore. 

Thus, in my humble opinion based on 60+ years of living aboard on my own hook or on a mooring; a sailboat that cruises offshore, even in benign waters, must be able to safely raise and stow its dinghy on deck. 

There’s no getting around this that I know of. 

Three-year-old Roma rowing her Tippy Dinghy made from one sheet of plywood
Three-year-old Roma rowing her Tippy Dinghy made from one sheet of plywood

That means that each and every time we’ve gone to sea during our four circumnavigations, our dinghy was stowed and lashed upside down on our foredeck. And, thus, we’ve never lost or damaged a dinghy while cruising—not one, not ever.

Some Dingy Thoughts on Dinghies

If you love this, you’ll love:

How to power a dinghy is a whole ‘nother can of worms. 

There’s something to be said for oars; they are light, cheap, and good for your cardio system. And people don’t die from oars exploding, like they do from dinghy outboard gas tanks. 

Yes, I believe that outboard tanks are a clear danger offshore—especially if lashed to stays or shrouds in tropical areas with severe lightning storms. How many sailors have died offshore from exploding gasoline on diesel-powered sailboats? I have no idea—as dead sailors have a tendency not to fill out accident reports. 

So, yeah, I like oars. They are my first choice when I’m singlehanding. 

But the main reason that I like oars is because I’ve used them on rowing boats—long and lean tenders that are DESIGNED to be rowed. And these slippery craft, while now rare, row well even in a blow. 

So oars have sizable pros and cons—especially for the lazy, which is 99.8 per cent of sailors today. People who row tend to anchor close to the dinghy dock with good reason. Nonetheless, many of my retired  single male sailing friends prefer to be oar-driven—and laugh heartily as they pass me changing spark plugs, cleaning my carb, replacing my lower unit grease, etc. 

In deserted Chagos, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, many cruisers bring sailing tenders to flit about the coral heads—alas, sailing tenders usually don’t row or power well.

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

Rigid tenders have many advantages over inflatables. I grew up with a clinker-built riveted dinghy that never leaked a drop. I built a one-sheet-of-plywood dory for our daughter when she was around five years old—she had fun with it for years. 

Hint: exterior plywood is cheap, and grows on ugly billboard signs that often blow down during wind storms. (I once built an entire interior out of plywood salvaged from blown-down billboards—inside the cabinets, the Marlboro man stared!)

Getting pizza in the Virgin Islands by dinghy from the Pizza Boat
Getting pizza in the Virgin Islands by dinghy from the Pizza Boat

Early inflatables were awful—they punctured easily and the sun got to them in months. Then Avon started using Hypalon. That solved both issues. But their transoms deformed until the French gave their Zodiacs rigid floors—which instantly made them the tender of choice for well-heeled yachties. They lasted a decent amount of time, they were puncture resistant, light in weight, strong, and powered well with ever-increasing horsepower. Plus, they didn’t damage the yacht’s topsides… win, win, win!

Super Tenders For Superyachts

Alas, they were almost impossible to row, didn’t sail, and didn’t like being dragged over barnacles. 

The next big advance was Rigid Inflatable (RIB) craft that offered even more advantages. They were easier and safer to move around inside, rowed and tracked better, and could handle far more abuse being dragged onto a beach. 

I currently have a Caribe 10-footer. Why? Because the last one I had lasted for 12 solid years while circumnavigating twice. (My Apex inflatable lasted nearly as long under equally trying cruising conditions.)

Weight is, of course, a consideration. But it is the whole ‘package’ of weight that is important as you grow older—each night we either hoist our dinghy on the hip (alongside) or use our davits. 

Carolyn and Fatty after lowering the dinghy from davits on Ganesh
Carolyn and Fatty after lowering the dinghy from davits on Ganesh

Outboard choice is another consideration. Most 10hp and 15hp outboard models weigh the same—except for Tohatsu. My 10hp is far lighter than a 10hp Yamaha. Thus my Caribe 10-footer with a Tohatsu 10hp and a full 3 gallon gas tank planes off with me, my wife, and a case of brewskis—the universal sailor’s measurement. 

One way that all cruising vessels use a dinghy is to put out a second anchor as a blow approaches or kedge off from a minor grounding. 

Never attempt to ‘drag out the rode or chain;’ always pile it in the stern of the dinghy and then pay it out as you row by using your foot to meter it out. (Hint while kedging off, beware putting excessive sideways strains on, say, your roller chock on a bowsprit.)

The worst ‘dinghy trend’ I see are small sailboaters with ‘center console envy’ of the mega yacht sailors. I once sold a sailboat to a newbie who quickly replaced its tender with a giant center console RIB with a huge engine—despite everyone with experience telling him not to. Since he couldn’t put the dinghy on deck, he tried to tow it down the Lesser Antilles—and scared himself. Once in Grenada, he walked away from both vessels, never to return. 

Since, one way or the other, we hoist our dinghy nightly (and have for decades), our bridle is well-thought out. When we hoisted the dinghy on the hip, I first used the main halyard winch—and only switched to my larger sheet winches when I turned 65. While on the hip it is possible for the dinghy to ‘sky’ during a severe squall—we experimented with ropes, weights, and poles to prevent this, with mixed results. That’s why we currently use our davits when not cruising, despite this requiring us to remove our Monitor windvane. 

Carbon Craft: Luxury Yacht Tenders

Why not just leave the dinghy in the water and clean its bottom occasionally? That’s an option. But it is easy to damage an inflatable with a sharp putty knife while removing marine growth—and hoisting a dinghy nearly eliminates swimmer’s theft. Some harbors in the Third World have a large open boat filled with ‘teefing’ teenagers that they drop off. These youngsters then drift through the harbor silently cutting dinghy painters. The dinghies are then harvested, along with the kids, to leeward. In the morning, the entire harbor wakes up dinghy-less—except for the hoisted dinghies. 

The bottom line for us frugal circumnavigators—our dinghies save us a small fortune annually while allowing us to experience an international watery lifestyle that most human beings can only dream of. And, if we’re careful, they’ll do this for pennies a day and last for more than a decade despite the tropical sun. However, they’ll only last for a dozen years (under heavy use) if three simple rules are followed: 

always hoist, 

alway cover, and 

never tow. 

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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

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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