The best dinghy for cruising

Teen dinghy expedition: Great Inagua, Bahamas, 2017.

Dinghies are analogous to cars for cruisers; is that why I stand in the cockpit with the faintest touch of trepidation and watch as our teenagers disappear around the curve of a palm-fringed island? They return later grinning with adventures found…stories from their snorkeling jaunt of caverns, coral, and glowering barracuda.

If a cruising boat is the magic carpet to faraway travels, dinghies are the critical last step to engaging in those places and realizing their promise. It’s all well enough to get there, but then you must get ashore (or out to the motu, or to that faraway reef, or to the village around the point) and get around. There are tradeoffs in different types and approaches. People generally like what they have (fortunately!).

We’re on our third dinghy and third outboard as cruisers. All three are rigid-hulled inflatable boats, or RIBs. Bundled with Totem, 10’ Avon gave nearly 19 good years before the threadbare Hypalon wore too thin. The Highfield we were able to buy when it gave up in Thailand was a little small for us (2.9m or 9.5’) and had a weirdly wet ride due to draggy tubes. We replaced that with a 3.1m AB coming up on three years ago; it’s has been awesome, used mostly with our 18hp Tohatsu (newly with a 15hp Yamaha).

Our new Highfield in the background…the Avon waiting to be taken away; Phuket, 2013

Here’s what I like about our current setup:

  • Easily gets on a plane with the 15 and 18hp outboards we’ve paired with it
  • The bow locker, the bow locker, and the bow locker. It provides a step, secure storage, and keeps the fuel tank forward. The latter means weight forward, which translates to safety, because the fuel hose runs between the double floors, it’s less subject to getting squashed, and both hose and tank are protected from UV damage.
  • Double floor: provides a comfortable flat interior and helps keeps things dry (bonus: strong. But…adds weight)
  • Aluminum hull (lighter! but harder to patch)
  • Hypalon tubes (preferred to PVC for durability)
  • Robust lifting points and secure, comfortable handles

My dream dinghy combination lay on the bow of a boat we met in Puteri Harbor, Malaysia: nested together were a RIB and a sailing dinghy. But given the choice between hard/rowing friendly and planing RIB, we come down solidly in the camp best described by my friend Pam Wall sings in our Cruising Women seminars: “bigger is better and faster is more fun!” Our current anchorage is just one example of why; it would be physically impossible to get back to where Totem is located during typically blustery afternoons thermal. It’s a good 15 minutes from ship to shore on a plane (going about 20 mph).

What’s out there in the cruising community? In general, RIBs dominate. It’s true to a lesser extent with coastal cruisers; at our anchorage here in Mexico, there are a handful of kayaks, inflatables and some hard dinghies. But in distant anchorages and on wider- ranging boats, the tenders are overwhelmingly RIBs. Of course, state a rule and the exceptions commence!

La Cruz’s dinghy dock today: 10 RIBs, two kayaks, and a Porta-Bote

My friend Jan is anchored in an atoll in the Tuamotus right now. She’s been cruising for more than 20 years, from USA, to the Med, the Caribbean and currently in the South Pacific; she and Doug love their rowing dinghy.

Doug and Dancing Dolphin sailing around Panama’s Guna Yala

Aside from having a ship-to-shore vehicle, she rows for exercise, and Doug regularly employs a sailing kit for tooling around an anchorage- or beyond (he’s talking about tacking upwind 6 nm to the ‘nearby’ village). Made from plans on the internet that set them back less than $20, the dink sits nicely on the bow of their Corbin 39, Hanna.

Jan tracks her distance rowed in a fitness app – brilliant! Who knows where this is?

Ben & Teresa Carey carry a Portland Pudgy as tender to their Norseman 447, Rocinante, but she came with what Ben refers to as a deflatable. It got them around in the Caribbean, but was UV damaged and leaky; they were happy to replace it with the robust Pudgy. “Tender” seems like the wrong word for these tough little boats. I like their reference to Pudgys as the F150 of dinghies! “Maybe she’s not the best rowing dinghy, or the best sailing dinghy, but she is multi-purpose and functional.” Exceptionally multi-purpose, considering a kit can be added to provide for use as a life raft.

Only ever on the bow while underway! Rocinante’s tender in the Caribbean…and sweet staysail Jamie helped them get!

With most boats tending away from the choices made by Hanna and Rocinante‘s crews – is there a voice missing? Jan shared more of her story, and it’s instructive.

“I’ve chosen to use a rowing dinghy almost exclusively for as long as I’ve owned a boat, over 25 years. For a couple of years, as a singlehander, I even owned two rowing dinghies! Once, a kind couple insisted on giving me their outboard when they upsized. I quietly regifted it as soon as I’d moved on to a different cruising area. My husband made the same choice to row, long before we met. We have an inflatable, and carry two outboards, but we only use them when we have guests, so they have their own transportation if they wish. I like rowing for many of the same reasons we have a sailboat rather than a motorboat. I feel closer to nature. It’s a gentler way of Being in the world. It means less maintenance and less pollution: sound, smell, and schmutz. While we are not absolute purists in our cruising lifestyle, we do love the self sufficiency of our dinghy in so many ways. No searching / waiting for parts or planning stops based on fuel availability.

Jan with recent rowing territory behind her; Doug sailing in the Tuamotu

“We’re still using the same pair of oars Doug made for me as a wedding present almost 23 years ago. I can hoist her on deck and lash her down on my own, in about 10 minutes. Rowing keeps us a bit more active, and our Dancing Dolphin is a great conversation starter at any dinghy dock. She is my friend and my freedom. When we were building her, some neighbors kept asking, “Well what are you going to do with it when you’re finished?” They were incredulous that one could actively cruise with a plywood dinghy, but here we are 5+ years and 7000 miles later, and we wouldn’t have it any other way! ”

Is one kind of dinghy a better choice than another in terms of risk for theft? Where theft is tied to financial desperation (hotspots around the coconut milk run) as opposed to joy riders (we experienced this in Australia), dinghy type matters only as far as the kind of outboard that’s attached to it. Stolen dinghies are often found later, adrift or in mangroves, outboard missing…the real objective.

Utopia, Totem, and a fleet of tenders: Martinique, 2017

In higher risk ports, it helps to live by the mantra of “lift it – lock it – or lose it.” Davits on our stern make it easy to hoist overnight and splash in the morning. Without davits, a halyard clipped to a harness on the dinghy can lift and hang it on the boat’s hip. Be cautious, though, as the angle can chafe the halyard at the sheave (we found out the hard way). In either case, depending on where you are, it may still be prudent to have a stout cable that locks it to the boat, and a bar lock that fits over outboard clamp handles. RIBs tend to have bigger outboards; that makes them bigger targets for theft (nobody wants Torqueedos or the snail-to-bunny speed couplea horses), but it’s not about the boat.

Different priorities and cruising grounds: outrigger on a Papuan beach next to our old Avon

The right tender is not about what’s best at all. That doesn’t unilaterally exist. Instead, what’s important is to match the mode transportation to your cruising grounds and style. There are a range of others dinghy types, from the home-built to the Porta-bote, the classic aluminum skiff or Walker Bays. For our family, prioritizing the ability to travel distances with speed while carrying our full load guided our choice. We want to get from a quieter anchorage around the point into town, keep the laundry or groceries dry in a chop, or reach that distant reef.

It might be a utilitarian tool, but I am kind of fond of our tender! It’s vital cruising gear that features in great memories: from watching our teens set off on adventures, sunset dinghy rafts, or drifting with friends across a Maldivian atoll, telling stories while the sun sinks into the horizon.

Teens off to explore: Mystic River, 2016

25 Responses

  1. All dinghies are great until it comes time to stow them for passage or rough waves in a strait. Davits seem like the easiest solution certainly. But some boats can’t fit them – or don’t want the expense, appendages, and additional marina moorage expense. Then the compromises come into play. That’s why we chose a Portabote. But I wouldn’t call it our perfect dinghy – perhaps the perfect compromise though.

    1. Disagree that davits are the easiest solution for passages/ rough conditions, we ALWAYS put dinghy on the bow! But we do love our davits as a convenient option to raise/lower dink for day hops in good condition and deter theft at night. We have NEVER been charged “davit bonus” for length. I’m glad you like what you have!

      1. Ah, yeah I don’t have a good understanding of what conditions preclude the use of davits. I guess what I’m saying is the stowing aspect is often a royal pain so I’d love to hear more about how other cruisers handle that. With our Portabote almost all the downsides are in the stowing process / design.

        1. I hear you on the stowing hassles! And, glad we have the easy option. But not every boat fits davits, or wants them. Wish I had silver bullets for you to make stowing easier!

  2. Great write-up! So many choices these days.

    We chose a Hypalon inflatable plain vanilla for it’s durability, repairability, and fold-up-ability. As you noted, tubes are draggy at speed but that’s an acceptable compromise for us. Regarding foldability, in heavy weather on a passage, having a clear foredeck is an important safety consideration for us. On our 36′ ketch a 9′ dinghy lashed down up there is a non-starter. Deflating and stowing the dink is a chore but with the help of a 12v inflator-deflator pump we save the time of foot pumping.

    This coming season (Northeast USA) with no passages contemplated, will be bringing along our Dyer sailing dink which will garage on the davits. Very utilitarian for the quiet little sunset sail around the harbour or a pick-up rabbit-start race with the like-minded… great way to meet new friends.

    1. Sounds like a great fit for your cruising grounds & purposes Jim! I’ll be jealous if you achieve my RIB + sailing dink tender nirvana.

  3. I had a hard 8′ lapstrake fiberglass dinghy that I never liked. It did not support my 200+ lbs very well, nor did I like the deck and visibility space it occupied on my 28″6″ Pearson Triton. I researched long and hard on alternatives. I needed a strong bottom, that did not rise too high on the deck, did not take up too much deck real estate, and was affordable in time and cost. I came up with the following, Achilles HB-AL Series Inflatable Boat HB-240AL 2019, 15″ inch deflated height, aluminum RIB, Hypalon, 7″ 10″. It is small, as is my boat, but it is all about compromises. I will have to be wise in the conditions I use it in.

    1. It really is all about compromises! Sounds like you got to figure out the best for you. Triton packs a lot of boat into 28’6″!

  4. Our current ride is a Gig Harbor rigid 9.5 footer with oars and a nice little electric EP Carry outboard. Like Jan and Doug, we don’t miss the repair and maintenance of bigger motors and inflateables, and do enjoy the exercise and lack of attention from theives. We often cruise remote places and have long followed a safety rule – don’t motor out so far that you can’t row back in the event of engine trouble. A fast rib can get you a long way in a short time, and rowing back could be impossible – not a big deal if there are others to help, but a very big deal if you are alone! We also carry a backup tender – an inflatable kayak. It’s very fun in surf and rivers, and sometimes it’s nice to have two “cars.”

    1. We used to have a backup “car,” an inflatable we kept in a ocker; after 5+ years on board it was used for about 2 weeks in Thailand between the Avon and Highfield. We promptly sold it! But we’ve always had either a SUP or kayak for other get-away-from-the-boat options. I’m glad what you has worked so well for you, you’ve had time to try options and work it out. We would be utter failures with your safety rule – I get it, but getting out to remote spots is one of our joys! There are other ways to play it safe when dinghying a distance.

    1. They are sexy beasts! The design is really interesting, but we have heard mixed reviews in practice (filtered though “people like what they have,” especially if it cost them a chunk of change). I’d be very interested in trying one, but not sure it can improve the combo we have now.

  5. We have an Avon 310 lite. RIB with a folding transom so it’s low profile when stowed on deck. It came with dinky little oars. We lowered the center seat and got decent oars. We row it much more than we use the 6 hp outboard. Miss our hard sailing dinghy.

    1. I’m interested that you row it more than use the 6hp, I’d have thought it would be a challenge to row. good onya, that’s great exercise!

      1. Setting it up to row by lowering the seat was key and long oars. It’s definitely not a rowing shell but it’s not a pig either! We like the exercise, not having to haul dink and heavy outboard up on a beach and the quiet. But we do pull out the outboard on occasion. Outboards really like to be used! Our Yamaha has on internal tank that we have ethanol free fuel in and and external tank we run on. We run the ethanol free fuel through the last 10 min. of use. Seems to keep it from gunking up.

  6. Stepped aboard a Halberg Rassy 47 to do a fall delivery from Puget Sound to San Francisco. On the foredeck was a big hard bottom RIB sitting upright in permanent chocks, fully inflated. About 3,000# filled to the gunnels with water. The second problem was that the owner was coming along “to get offshore experience.” I told him that either the dingy/bathtub or I stayed on the dock. I heard later that he had a little more experience than he bargained for off the southern Oregon coast—.

    A couple of years later I flew into Newport to bring a big Oyster down to St. Martin. Same deal, except this owner was a reasonably seasoned sailor. Oysters have massively davits that look like you could hoist the entire boat from them. And our hard bottom was only 9′. The owner hoisted the dingy up to the davits and pronounced us ready to go. Not! I added a diamond hitch from a spare halyard like we used to use packing mules on trail crew. Typical November Gulf Stream crossing—- we were glad that the dingy never moved.

    PS: OC tenders are the Ferrari of RIB’s!

  7. This posting is quite timely for me as I just bought my first real boat, a 1969 Morgan 30, and I am in the market for a dinghy. I already have a 9 ft fiberglass sailing dinghy, the only other boat I have owned. Initially I thought maybe I could tow it. The added bonus is that maybe my kids could practice sailing it in harbors. My plan is to hopefully do 3 weeks coastal cruising this summer in southern New England, USA. But, my fiberglass dinghy is pretty heavy, my wife doesn’t know how to sail (yet), and I was convinced that it would be more hassle than it’s worth. I’ve been told that planning on towing a dinghy is not a good plan and hoisting and storing it on the foredeck seems unrealistic. So, a small inflatable seems like the plan. However, I already have the fiberglass dinghy so I could use the little bit of dinghy money I have on davits instead. The thought of having a hanging dinghy though sounds distressing. Either way, happy to hear all of the opinions and options out there found in this thread. I have never heard of a Porta-bote. Good to learn from you all.

    1. Hi Todd
      Buy or build a Danny Greene Chamelon nesting dingy. Sails and rows nicely. Idea for a small boat like yours. Or buy an inflatable bottom roll-up and small motor,
      Forget about hanging a dingy in davits on a boat of your size!

      Fair winds

      1. Hello RDE,
        Thank you for the idea. For now, it seems like a small roll-up inflatable is the go-to choice. All of these other ideas are cool though. Down the line I can think of the Chameleon nesting dinghy. Looks interesting. However, I need to spend the free time I have on the Morgan this year before taking on a building project.

        I greatly appreciate the reply,

  8. Hi Todd
    There are still a few craftsmen who enjoy building with wood. If you find one, a custom Chameleon will cost about the same as a roll-up and motor. For example, a call to the Wooden Boat School in Port Townsend would turn up several candidates if you live in the PNW. Just buy a plan set from Danny Green so he gets his proper commission.

    Fair winds,

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