Not since Elvis Presley crooned an ode to his dinghy, "Love My Tender," has the world shown so much affection to our lonesome ship-to-shore transportation. Okay, so maybe I didn't fully understand the lyrics to that song, but our often abused and rarely waxed little boats are a very important part of our cruising lives, so let's pay a little attention to them.
For most coastal cruising in this country, you could happily travel from marina to marina without the need for a dinghy. But if you occasionally enjoy the peace and quiet of an anchorage, or if you plan to cruise to the Bahamas or the Caribbean, you will need dependable transportation to shore, and that can take several forms.
The first lesson: a dinghy should 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 have to inflate the dinghy, whether you have to mount the engine, or whether you need three people and a crane to lower it into the water. Many of these choices will be 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 works for you.
Let me count the ways. If you do not have the option of a crane-style lifting device, you may be limited in terms of the size and weight of your dinghy, but that does not mean you are relegated to the equivalent of a rubber toy boat. There are efficient davit systems that can be mounted on medium-size swim platforms. These will accommodate a variety of dinghy styles, both rigid and inflatable, and will allow you to keep the engine mounted to the dinghy. There are also hydraulic lift systems to carry a tender off your stern, but your transom has to be capable of carrying the device, and your boat has to be heavy enough to stay balanced with that much weight aft of center. If your boat meets those requirements, the hydraulic lifts are about as easy to use as it gets.
Now let's address towing a dinghy. While I'll admit to having done this in protected waters, I generally do not consider it 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. Generally speaking, the soft-bottom styles are limited in terms of what they can do and endure, even if they have a high-pressure floor with a keel. If you are using your dinghy to regularly transport serious loads of supplies and people, a rigid hull is al- most a must. And if you are cruising in the tropics where you are as likely to be landing on a beach as tying up at a dock, all the more reason you'll need a rigid bottom.
Rigid bottoms can be part of a fully rigid boat, but more frequently they are connected to an inflatable top tube and are called rigid inflatable boats, or RIBs for short. These have become the ubiquitous tender of choice for most cruisers. You get durability and stability from the rigid hull, and buoyancy and lightness from the inflatable top tubes. The hull bottoms are typically fiberglass or, recently, aluminum, which also makes the craft lighter. The inflatable tubes come in a range of materials, including PVC, coated neoprene, and Hypalon. Hypalon is widely considered the best material for the inflatable parts of dinghy. Neoprene is also excellent, but does not have good resistance to UV. Very high quality dinghies are Hypalon-coated neoprene. Besides the material used for the tubes, the size of the tubes is also important. The larger the tube, the more freeboard you get and the dryer your ride will be.
An additional hull feature to consider is whether you want a single or double floor. A double floor provides a flat bottom on which to stand, but it also adds weight. And you'll need to decide if you want enclosed spaces for cargo or fuel, or a steering-wheel console instead of a tiller.
Of course another important question: How big a dinghy should you buy? In part this will be determined by your available carrying space and how you intend to use the dinghy. A typical dinghy is 8 to 16 feet in length. Look for the required capacity plate to find out how many people and how much weight a particular dinghy can hold.
Engine size is the next important consideration. The horse power of your engine will go hand in hand with some of the other factors you've already determined, like the weight capacity of your lifting device and where on your boat you'll be carrying your dinghy. A heavy dinghy and engine carried too high on a vessel can affect the vessel's stability. The dinghy's capacity plate will also list the maximum engine size the dinghy is rated to carry. Some of the larger dinghies may have an optional internal jet drive. Many smaller dinghies are well suited to some of the new, environmentally friendly engines that run on electric or propane. The typical RIB has a V-shape planing hull that requires a certain amount of horse power to get it on a plane with a given load. For instance, a 9 horse power engine will get an 8-foot dinghy on plane carrying two average-size adults, but not four. Most anchorages and mooring fields are located within no-wake zones, so if you are strictly using your dinghy for shore transportation, there is probably no need for it to travel at warp speed. But if your dinghy will double as a recreational vehicle for pulling skiers and water toys, you'll need enough horse power to perform those tasks.
Meaning that dinghies are subject to the same rules and regulations as our primary boats. They require registration, running lights, life jackets, and, if there is an enclosed fuel tank, a fire extinguisher.
Like automobiles, dinghies' lives can be cut short by overexposure to sun and general abuse. Just as sunscreen protects our skin, there are polymers and waxes to protect dinghies from the harsh sun and salt water. A regular application of these coatings will prolong your dinghy's life, as will a good cover. Most modern dinghy engines have hose connections to run fresh water through the internal components -- doing this regularly, and especially before any prolonged lay-up, will extend engine life.
A well-suited dinghy can add freedom and adventure to our cruising lives. The more clearly you can define how you will use your dinghy, the more accurately you will be able to match your choice to your needs.