Few items carried aboard your boat, embody the freedom of the cruising lifestyle more than your dinghy, or “tender” if you prefer. These often abused and rarely waxed little boats are a valuable part of cruising adventures. They allow you to moor or anchor out, enjoying the peace and quiet of a secluded anchorage, yet still take advantage of amenities on shore.
They take you on excursions through back water, narrow channels, and man- grove forests, too small or shallow for your primary vessel. And if you have a four- legged friend on board, you know not only the importance of getting them to shore, but oh how they love a dinghy ride.
They can even make stays at a marina more enjoyable. For instance, Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, ME, provides guests aboard boats in the marina with charts showing a half a dozen dinghy trips you can take around the islands of Casco Bay to scenic coves and remote islands that would be impossible to get the big boat into. And if you plan to cruise to the Bahamas, Caribbean or remote destinations, you need dependable transportation to shore.
The most important feature of a dinghy is that it must be easy to use. If it requires too much effort to launch and operate, you will be reluctant to anchor out as often as you might like. Ease of use is determined by several factors, such as whether you must inflate the dinghy, mount the engine, or need three people and a crane to lower it into the water. Many of these choices are determined by the size and configuration of your boat, but regardless of your boat’s size or your budget, you can create a setup that’s easy to use.
The choices for how and where to carry a dinghy fall into a few basic categories. If you do not have the option of a crane- style lifting device, you may be limited by the size and weight of your dinghy, but that does not mean you are relegated to the equivalent of a rubber toy boat. Efficient davit systems can be mounted on medium size swim platforms. These accommodate a variety of dinghy styles, both rigid and inflatable, and allow you to keep the engine mounted to the dinghy.
Also, hydraulic lift systems can carry a tender off your stern, but your transom must be capable of carrying the device, and your boat should be heavy enough to stay balanced with that much weight aft of center. If your boat meets those require- ments, the hydraulic lifts are about as easy to use as it gets.
Another option some cruisers choose is to tow a dinghy. While I’ll admit to having done this in protected waters, it’s generally not a safe practice. There are too many documented cases of towing components fouling up props and leaving boaters stranded. If you travel to the islands, you will see many cruisers towing dinghies, but please use extreme caution if you choose to do this. Learn where and how to safely attach the dinghy to your boat, and if there is any threat of rough seas, retrieve the dinghy immediately and secure it to the mother ship.
Dinghies come in a variety of hull styles and materials, including plank- reinforced fabric bottoms, high-pressure inflatable bottoms, and rigid hulls of fiberglass or aluminum. In general, soft-bottom styles are limited to what they can do and endure, even with a high-pressure floor with a keel.
If you intend to transport serious loads of supplies and people, a rigid hull is a must. Its durability is also important if you are cruising in the tropics, where you are as likely to land on a beach as tie up at a dock. Rigid bottoms can be part of a fully rigid boat, but more often they are connected to an inflatable top tube and called “rigid inflatable boats,” or RIBs. These have become the ubiquitous tender of choice for most cruisers. You get durability and stability from the rigid hull, and buoyancy and lightweight from the inflatable top tubes. The top tubes are much gentler on the sides and finish of your boat when tied to it.
RIB’s hull bottoms have been primarily fiberglass, but aluminum hulls are gaining market share with even lighter weight then fiberglass and more durable for beach landings. The inflatable tubes come in a range of materials, including PVC, coated neoprene and Hypalon, which are widely considered the best material for the inflatable parts of a dinghy.
A well-built dinghy will provide many years of service, but it won’t last forever. A sign of a good-quality RIB dinghy is the ease with which it can be serviced and even re-tubed when necessary.
An example of a feature that could affect serviceability is the fuel tank’s type and location. Separate fuel tanks carried in dedicated compartments are easier to inspect or replace but have limited carrying capacity; built-in fuel tanks may carry more fuel and be better balanced, but may also be difficult or impossible to repair without completely un-assembling the dinghy.
It used to be your only choice of power for a dinghy was a gasoline powered outboard engine, however innovative companies have been actively introducing clean burning propane powered internal combustion engines, and most recently electric motors with impressive power and range.
When shopping, it’s best to purchase from a dealer that in addition to sales, performs complete service on the dinghy and engine. A high-quality dealer will be willing to visit your boat to determine if a particular model can be carried, launched and retrieved safely.