Captain’s Ramblings 1, Year 5 – Dinghies
July 12, 2010

Sometimes folks who follow our website write us with questions, ideas, or suggestions. Rich Corbett has written often and recently asked our opinion of dinghies. This is an area where everyone has an opinion and every prospective cruiser would like some suggestions. I know we would have liked more information when we were purchasing the dinghy we would take with us around the world.

In 2004, as we were preparing for our circumnavigation, sailing friends Suzie Klein and Jim Hammitt invited us to dinner with friends of theirs who had sailed around the world. We had hundreds of questions for Tom and Harriet Linskey. It turned out that Judy had just taken a “Suddenly Alone” course that Harriet taught. The point of the course was how to cope if something happened to your spouse and Judy only wanted to find out what to do with the body! But that’s another story. We had a small inflatable dinghy at the time and seemed to get wet any time there was the slightest chop. So Judy suggested to Tom that we probably needed a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with a hard bottom and much larger tubes than the current dinghy. The purpose of the larger tubes would be to keep us from getting wet all the time. Tom replied, “Judy, didn’t anybody ever tell you that sailing is a water sport!” We bought the RIB anyway and it is much drier than our old inflatable, but we have more than once repeated Tom’s reminder about a water sport. When the seas are really rough and the wind is blowing hard, we still get some spray over the bow, but not often. We have learned a lot from the three dinghies we have owned and from many other cruisers with all sorts of different means of getting from their boat to shore or to another boat or to their favorite snorkeling spot. What follows is what we have learned.

Your dinghy serves double duty as a family car and a utility truck on the water. You use it as a snorkeling or diving base, to haul fuel and water jerry cans from shore, to carry tons of groceries and drinks, to visit cruisers on other boats, as a platform to clean the topsides and waterline of your yacht, and to sail or paddle around the anchorage to explore. Sometimes you even use your dinghy for fishing which requires top speeds. The uses you make of it will determine the dinghy you need. Some people carry two because any one dinghy won’t meet all needs. For instance, a hard dinghy (fiberglass, plastic, or wood) can be easily rowed and may be adapted for sail. We know one boat that never uses an outboard as they sail their hard dinghy everywhere. On the other hand, a hard dinghy is difficult to get into from the water. If you do a lot of snorkeling (and you will) then this may not be the dinghy for you. Of course, your age and agility also have an impact on this. On the other hand, a RIB is much easier to enter from the water, especially if you get a dinghy ladder. But a RIB is difficult to row and is usually much heavier than a hard dinghy.

Many boats carry a kayak tied to the lifelines. A kayak can be an easy and efficient way to get around. There are many times when we would love to not have to put the dinghy in the water, lower the outboard, get out the gas can, and hook it all up. A kayak could be a perfect solution in those cases. However, you won’t be ferrying jerry cans of fuel in a kayak, nor many groceries either. People who have kayaks always have another dingy on board.

Inflatable dinghies are the most popular choice. If you decide on an inflatable, you now have a lot of decisions to make. If you get a RIB, do you have enough room on the foredeck to store it? Even if you have dinghy davits on the back of your boat, you will want to store the dinghy on the fore-deck on passages. We sized ours to fit between the inner staysail and the mast. We are a cutter so room was limited; a sloop may have more room there. Another option would be to get a collapsible or roll-up dinghy. These are easier to store, but more difficult to set up when you need them. They also have less carrying capacity, tend to be wetter, and are even harder than a RIB to row. Though they will have something on the floor to stiffen them when inflated (either boards, slats, or an inflatable floor) the floor will tend to flex with the seas passing under the keel. Speaking of keels, collapsible and roll-up dinghies usually have a small inflatable tube beneath the floor which acts like a keel. However, it is not very effective at keeping the boat from skidding sideways on a turn. The deep keel of a RIB tracks and turns much better.

The most popular choice among cruisers we meet is an inflatable with a hard bottom. Rigid inflatable boats (RIB’s) commonly have hulls made of fiberglass or aluminum. Fiberglass is probably cheaper and can be patched by most cruisers themselves. Aluminum is lighter which may prove very important when you and your spouse try to haul the dinghy and outboard above the high tide line, but it will take special equipment to repair a gash in the bottom. Ours is fiberglass, but I would seriously consider aluminum if I were buying again because of the lighter weight. We had installed wheels on the transom of our fiberglass dinghy to help when pulling her up a beach. However, if the sand is soft, as it usually is, then they only add to the friction as they dig in to the sand. Some wheels are better than others. I would go for the largest diameter wheel with the largest rubber tire I could fit on the dinghy. Of course, this means even more weight!

The next decision involves the tubes: What material and how big? The usual materials are PVC and Hypalon. Both have their adherents. Ours is Hypalon which we bought because it is supposed to have superior UV resistance. However, the glue for Hypalon (you will need glue and patches for either material as you will get leaks) is expensive and should be stored in a refrigerator. Refrigerator space is already at a premium on a boat so this can be a drawback. PVC is easier to patch, and if UV is a problem, you can get a cover made to protect the tubes. You may want to do this no matter which material your dinghy is made of. But the most important thing about the tubes is the size of them. Get tubes as big as you can; seventeen inches in diameter is a good size. They make for a more comfortable ride and will keep you drier.

Your dinghy will come with a seat and oars. Our seat is rigid fiberglass and attaches to the tubes with end brackets that slip into straps built into the tubes. I think it comes out far too easily – just when you don’t want it to. Friends have a seat that lashes to PVC tabs on the tubes – much more secure! Some seats are inflatable – just another small tube set athwartships, usually attached with Velcro to the tubes. You will need the seat in order to row, which you will do from time to time–like when your outboard won’t start or you need to tilt the outboard up so you can go over coral. While we’re on the subject of oars, it is worth considering the location of the oar mounts on the tubes. Ours are outboard and require us to turn the oar upside-down to get it into or out of the mount. The effect of this is that the oar is usually still in the mount as we come along side of our boat and it sticks out so that it can scratch the boat. Luckily most dinghies we have seen do not have this problem.

Our dinghy has a double floor which is nice as it provides a flat floor in the dinghy while allowing for a “V” keel. Some even have storage compartments built into the bow. But remember, every little bit of weight added will increase the difficulty of beaching or hauling the dinghy on board. There are many options that complicate the decision making process, and we haven’t even discussed the outboard motor yet.

I will make only a couple of comments on outboards. First is that Yamaha and Tohatsu motors have world-wide distribution and maintenance facilities. Many other brands do not. Check on that as you will need parts and perhaps even professional maintenance somewhere along the line. Secondly, consider size and weight. Check to see what the maximum horsepower outboard your dinghy can handle. We had an 8-horsepower Suzuki when we bought our 15-horse Yamaha in Malaysia. We made a mistake when we got rid of the Suzuki. We love the Yamaha as it allows us to plane our nine and a half foot fiberglass RIB with four people onboard. But it is heavy and it is a desirable target for theft. The Suzuki was old and needed constant attention, but it ran and we wouldn’t have to worry if it were stolen. Ideally we would have two outboards: the Yamaha for big loads and going long distances and a smaller outboard (maybe 2- to 4-horsepower) for normal running around. The Yamaha requires a 5-to-1 block and tackle to lift it from dinghy to its mount on the boat. A smaller engine can be lifted with one hand.

Everyone has their opinions as to what makes the best dinghy. I am no expert. I can only speak from experience. We currently own an AB fiberglass dinghy with a double bottom and seventeen-inch Hypalon tubes. It has a hard fiberglass seat that broke once when we came off a wave so has been reinforced. We also bought a dinghy ladder to facilitate getting into the dinghy from the water and this is a real plus when snorkeling. This dinghy has served us well. However, it is heavy and the older we get the harder it is to handle. If I were to start over again I might choose an aluminum hull. I would get more patches and glue for my tube repair kit. I would make, or have made, a protective cover for the tubes. I would definitely look for one with better mounts for the oars and a better way to attach the seat to the tubes. And I would have a small outboard in addition to the 15-horse Yamaha. Your dinghy is your only way to get from your boat to land, so don’t underestimate its importance in your cruising plans and budget.