On Watch: Tender Feelings

Choosing the right dinghy is just the start. Keeping it clean, not getting it stolen, and protecting it from punctures can involve a lifetime of learning.
Fatty with family on a dinghy
Fatty, with daughter Roma Orion and granddaughter Soku Orion, found that a sailing dinghy can be a learning-intensive experience for the family, as well as a social experience for sailing with friends. Courtesy Fatty Goodlander

Your choice of which dinghy to carry aboard is pivotal to successful cruising. This is especially true if your cruising kitty is small. A good dinghy is a requirement for frugal cruising. 

Notice that I wrote carry aboard. I never tow a dinghy that I don’t want to lose. Why? Basic seamanship. Squalls approach fast. A swamped or flipped dinghy is a major problem offshore—for you and the environment. Painters can end up in the prop. Personal watercraft run over the tow lines. Towed dinghies get caught on navigational buoys, lobster pots and bridge fenders. 

Towing a tender is fraught with complications. Even a skillful boathandler can get into trouble approaching a slip while towing a dinghy. And being forced into your gyrating dinghy while at sea exposes you to extreme risk. Many a sailor has met Davy Jones just after pulling in their dinghy, casually hopping aboard, ambling aft, and leaning toward their outboard—just as the painter sharply takes up and catapults them over the outboard and into the water.

I’ve known three sailors who have ended up overboard this way. One was in the Lesser Antilles, without anyone in the crew even noticing. There’s one thing that every offshore sailor dreads: watching the transom recede as their vessel sails away. 

Yes, innocent choices can have severe consequences. And we haven’t even talked about the evil dinghies themselves. 

Offshore, dinghies can seem demoniacally possessed, ­especially while running downwind in heavy weather. They can hole your boat or wipe off its rudder or twist up the self-steering gear. I’ve even had dinghies pass me—then stop immediately ahead. Having a rigid-tender ­submarine zigzagging 50 feet beneath the surface like a berserk shark is no fun.  

One more tip: Never tow kids you love astern in the dinghy without an assigned watcher. Do this only with someone else’s bilge brats.

But seriously, the first ­question to think about when choosing a dinghy is: rigid or inflatable? 

I love to row, so we carried a Lawton-designed, fiberglass Graves tender for 15 years aboard Carlotta, our 36-foot Endurance ketch. Rowing is great exercise and a wonderful way to meet your fellow cruisers. It’s quiet and nonpolluting—two nice qualities if you reside on a warming planet like I do. 

If well-constructed, these dinghies are almost ­indestructible. At worst, you might injure one cosmetically, but it is almost impossible to destroy a Tortola-style dinghy, even in boisterous trade winds amid sharp reefs. 

Unfortunately, everything is a compromise. Well-constructed also means heavy. Of course, these heavy, rigid dinghies do more damage than the lighter, softer ones. So, I always tell my passengers to “keep your hands inside the dinghy.” They always comply until, suddenly, they don’t, and jam their hands between the surging dinghy and the immovable dock.

If you row a rigid tender, always remove the oar horns before coming alongside a ­vessel—especially if the ­graceful vessel has long ­overhangs. Dinghies yanked under a counter (or multihull wing) can do major ­damage in an instant during an ­unexpected wake. 

Ash oars are best. Oar leathers aren’t just about style; copper blade tips will greatly extend the oar’s life. Yes, the sailor and the length of the oar are related for best results. Of course, you should learn to feather your oars, and stow them in such a manner that they can’t be yanked into the water by the painter or float away if the dinghy is swamped. (Consider an oar lock through the thwart as well.)

Here’s a sad fact: If a dinghy rows well, it powers poorly. And vice versa. 

Stowage is another factor. Davits are cool on monohulls if you sail in, say, a swimming pool. It is best to stow a dinghy upside down on the foredeck while offshore in monohulls smaller than 70 feet long. We think of our foredeck dinghy as our backup life raft. And we put extra water and bulkier survival gear under it—in suitably tied-in watertight containers. 

Part of seamanship is to, again and again, prepare for the worst while expecting (and, hopefully, experiencing) the best. We’ve never used our dinghy as a life raft (or our life raft as a life raft, for that matter), which is exactly why we prepare it so diligently before each offshore passage. Just in case. 

In blue water, I carry a knife with me at all times (even sleeping), and I have dive knives made of 316 stainless steel in my cockpit and on my foredeck. Think about having to launch your dinghy while sinking, at night, naked and disoriented, after being hit by freighter. Those knives just might come in handy.

Currently, we have a 10.5-foot Caribe RIB for a tender, as we have for the past couple of circumnavigations. With a Tohatsu 9.8-­horsepower outboard (lighter than most and super dependable), the Caribe planes with both of us aboard, along with a case of beer and a full gas tank. This dinghy is small enough to hoist easily into our davits while coastal cruising in light-air venues such as Southeast Asia, or to bring on deck if we venture offshore. 

While initially expensive, the Caribes generally give us 12 years or two circumnavigations. This makes them quite affordable. How do we get twice the longevity that the average cruiser experiences? We always keep our tender protected by a Sunbrella cover, and we are careful where and for how long we leave it. 

The Achilles’ heel of modern inflatables isn’t abrasion; it’s puncture. Keep the tender away from sharp objects. I’ve poked a small hole from a nail sticking out of a dock, and my wife, Carolyn, barely touched a piling with a sole oyster that made a 6-foot slit in a ­dinghy’s starboard pontoon (that took three laborious attempts to fix). 

Sadly, some popular ­anchorages are regularly visited by organized dinghy thieves. An older guy, in his 20s, piles a bunch of local kids into his boat, gives them each a knife, and drops them all into the water. The kids cut the dinghy painters as they swim through the anchorage at 3 a.m. The older guy eventually collects all the drifting ­dinghies and swimming kids. 

We had our dinghy out of the water in South America when this happened in one anchorage, and were the only anchored cruisers with a dinghy left come morning. 

Now, about folding ­dinghies: They fold well. At least that’s what the guy with all the dripping cameras around his neck told me after I fished him out of the water off St. Barts. 

And while I love T-tops, ­center-consoles and fast boats, I keep my own dinghy as simple and light as possible. Sadly, too heavy and too light are both problems. When I had a lightweight 2-horsepower outboard on my inflatable, it would flip so often that I painted the outboard with antifouling inside the case. (To avoid this problem, pull the transom plug at anchor during a sudden squall. The inflatable dinghy won’t sink and will never flip, even in a gale.)

Another bonus of inflatables is that other yachties don’t cringe like they do if you approach their boat in a rigid tender, especially one lacking a soft rub rail. 

I was amazed in Western Samoa to have a fellow Virgin Islander come up and rail-cling while his heavy wooden tender banged repeatedly into my delicate gelcoat. When I said something like, “Careful, don’t allow your dinghy to hit my boat,” he just grinned, took another swig of his bottle of rum, and replied: “Don’t worry, Fatty. My rail is air-dried oak and through-bolted. Not a problem.”

Sure, for him.

One of the reasons we love our inflatable so much is because it saves us money while providing us with so much peace and tranquility. Marinas can be expensive, noisy and hot, so we almost never tie up. However, the anchorage closest to a marina is often also crowded. Our lightweight dinghy and its powerful engine allow us to anchor amid nature a couple of miles away, and yet have all the benefits of civilization when we want and need them. (We also have good ground tackle, a stout companionway locking system, and a loud burglar-alarm system on the main boat.)

It’s great to be able to sail a couple of miles to the inlet, catch a hundred pounds of grouper and snapper, and sail back again without raising a sweat.

Sailing tenders are another option, especially if you spend four months in deserted Chagos, as we did. It’s great to be able to sail a couple of miles to the inlet, catch a hundred pounds of grouper and snapper to share with the entire anchorage, and sail back again without raising a sweat. Or making noise. Or polluting in a pristine paradise. 

Alas, everything is a compromise. Rigs, a rudder, sails, and centerboards all take up room and cost money. I love sailing tenders dearly, but the confusion and weight of the gear doesn’t help you while passagemaking. Having clean, clear decks is a safety advantage offshore, especially in a breeze. 

On the plus side, there’s no denying how romantic sailing tenders are. If we have long-term guests aboard, we often disappear for an hour or two because (we tell them) the wind dropped on the other side of the island.

One more thing: If you haul out your dinghy each evening, as we do, it probably will never be stolen or acquire too much growth. However, it you leave it in the water, the clingy barnacles will certainly discover it. Sure, you can paint it with antifouling, but then, on passage, you, your sails and your sheets will gradually turn blue (as happened to us). 

If you don’t paint it, you’ll have to take it to the beach regularly, empty it, remove the outboard, and flip the dinghy over to scrape it. That’s not the bad part; the bad part is that it is easy to damage the RIB’s fabric while cleaning it. We’ve learned this the expensive way. Thus, we hoist at sundown, a nightly ritual in my life for 63 years now. 

The bottom line is that a proper tender, properly tended to, will save you money and time as it brings you joy. Seamanship is important. The wrong tender in the wrong sea at the wrong time at the wrong end of a tow rope can cost a life.

The choice is yours.

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