The Ideal Dinghy

On the Brittany coast where tides can be 20 feet or more, French sailors equip their dinghies with wheels to cross the rocky shoreline.

First published in several Maryland newspapers, 11/18/88

The ideal dinghy

by Tom Dove
You have completed a day’s cruise and are anchored in a beautiful cove a mile from an attractive small town. There was no marina space, but who cares? This spot is prettier, anyway.

The kids meet their contemporaries from another boat and discover that a shopping mall is nearby. You note that you are out of milk and coffee for breakfast. Your spouse has a craving for mushroom pizza for dinner.

A good dinghy can be the vehicle to everybody’s satisfaction. In other situations, it may even save your boat or your life by making it possible to set a storm anchor, get a line ashore or retrieve a swimmer.

The ideal dinghy would be seaworthy and easily rowed, sailed or powered by a small outboard motor. It would be big enough to carry the entire crew plus groceries. It would be tough enough to withstand dragging over sand and rocks and to resist constant sunlight and salt water exposure. It would collapse into a small, lightweight package that could be stowed easily in a cockpit locker, but could be set up and launched by one person in five minutes.

The ideal dinghy will never be built, but some pretty good compromises are already available. Most of us use inflatable dinghies. They are easy to stow and set up and they carry big loads, but they are hard to row and sail and ultraviolet light will rot them eventually. Only the expensive models can resist much chafing from hauling over beaches. Inflatables are stable and serve as wonderful big toys for the children while you are at anchor. They bob over rough water like little scaup ducks.

The Chesapeake cruiser can generally make do with an inexpensive inflatable, replacing it every three or four years. Available from discount boat suppliers for less than $200, these cheapies row and power badly and do not sail at all, but most anchorages on the Bay are protected and calm and shore is not far away.

The open anchorages of New England call for a sturdier dinghy. In Nantucket or Block Island, for example, you must anchor in a large, exposed harbor that can get quite rough and then row a mile to town. On Long Island Sound, few coves are as smooth as a typical Chesapeake tributary.

We are pleased with our Achilles inflatable. It rows acceptably for short distances and powers well with a tiny two-horsepower Mariner outboard. Avon and Zodiac boats are generally well-regarded by their owners, and the new Yukon inflatables seem well-made. Any of these vessels will cost $400 or more.

If you want a boat that handles well under oars or sail, you need a rigid-hulled dinghy. Some beautiful examples were shown at the boat shows this year.

The two problems with rigid dinghies are stowage and carrying capacity. Designers have invented some novel solutions. There are two-piece boats that nest together with the bow half fitting into the stern half and there are folding boats that collapse laterally into a space about the size of a surfboard. In either case, you need enough deck space on your cruiser to hold the dinghy and still have room to move about.

If your boat is large enough, you may be able to carry a full-sized rigid dinghy aboard, using davits on the deck or on your boat’s stern platform. If you carry it on davits, be sure to leave its drain holes open so it does not fill with rainwater. I once saw a deck ripped open by the weight of a water-filled dinghy on davits. 

Many sailors on the Bay simply tow their dinghies astern as they travel. This reduces their speed noticeably and can cause serious problems in bad weather when wind catches the little boat and flips it over or when rain fills it with water and turns it into  a sea anchor. If you must tow your dinghy, use either a very short or a very long towline. In calm water, it can be towed at low speeds with its bow nearly touching the transom, while larger waves call for a towline long enough to put the dinghy far back in the wake of the mother vessel.

The dinghy is much like the family car. Buying it is expensive and finding a parking space for it is a nuisance, but it has no substitute.
– The End —