Sea Savvy - Opt for tough in a tender

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You’ll log a lot of work and play time in that dinghy, so choose one that’s up to the task

You’ll log a lot of work and play time in that dinghy, so choose one that’s up to the task

I used to call them “45-minute dinghies.” Sitting at anchor in the Bahamas, I’d hear what sounded like a really big mosquito flying out of the mangroves. And I’d hear it, and hear it.

At first it never seemed to get any closer, just hanging out there buzzing around. So I’d scan the horizon and see, not too far away, a guy sitting in a little rubber ducky with a 2-hp outboard. After a while, judging by his barely perceptible progress, I’d figure out that he really wasn’t sitting there. He was heading across the harbor. After another while, usually a long while, he’d pass by with the “mosquito” on the stern whining louder than before. The fellow driving would be perched on one tube, bent over his knees, looking off to the other side, across the opposite tube, resigned to his long trip to the village. The sound of the small outboard would gradually diminish until finally it was gone — usually about 45 minutes after I’d first heard it.

There are more tenders out and about than there are single socks in a laundromat, from plush bimbo barges with center consoles, simulated leather seats and huge engines to down-and-dirty workboats. Judging from the pictures in the magazines, it seems that the first category is primo. Pretty girls and pretty guys in lavish tenders rule the waves. I fit into that scene much like a hermit crab would fit into the ambience of Cleopatra’s barge. I’ve never had the necessary qualifications to have this type of tender, so I’ve lived at the other end of the spectrum over the years.

My first tender was a Sportyak in the 1960s. It also served as our cruising bathtub. I next had several tiny, tippy sailing/45-minute dinghies. I also had an 11-foot Boston Whaler and several inflatables. We’ve been using tenders in many different circumstances, from gunkholing around Chesapeake Bay to full-time liveaboard cruising averaging several thousand miles a year. The areas covered include the East Coast, the Bahamas, and some time in the Caribbean. We wanted a dinghy the way we wanted it, not the way some suit in a fancy office thought we were supposed to want it. Finally, we decided to do our own.

The first design criterion was that it would have to be so ugly no one would want to steal it. We succeeded admirably in this regard. It has never been stolen, and as far as I can tell no one has even tried. Another design criterion was entertainment. It does this well, too, especially when we ride around fancy marinas with fine yachts. The laughter from the flybridges and plush cockpits is gratifying to hear — if they just wouldn’t point at us while they’re laughing.

We also wanted it to last, which meant a hull material that wouldn’t deteriorate over a relatively short time, even when used gently. We were tired of patching inflatables. It also meant a material that could take very rough treatment, such as launching or retrieving in a rolling sea; beaching in coral and rocky sand; enduring spears, sharp-finned fish and conch thrown in by divers; and bashing into chop and falling off breaking waves. The material also had to be light, because we wanted to carry it on davits. We chose aluminum. That was around 19 years ago, and we’re still using our tender today — and loving it.

It measures approximately 12 feet, with a 5-foot, 2-inch beam and 1.5 feet of freeboard. It’s unpainted, and compartments under the seats enclose foam flotation. It weighs around 220 pounds without the engine. A 15-hp outboard quickly gets it on a plane, unless there’s a particularly heavy load, so we use a 25. It’s tough, practical, stable and very seaworthy, in our opinion.

We didn’t want the dinghy to be so long it would hang out too far on the sides of the transom, and we wanted considerable beam fore and aft, for reasons I’ll go into later. A modified pram bow carries the dinghy’s beam well forward, without adding the length of a “pointed” bow. This flat bow sometimes bangs into the sea, but that’s a reasonable tradeoff that can be handled with seamanship.

This tender had some flaws at first, primarily with inadequate support for flat hull areas, coupled with our rough usage. But it was no problem to correct these. With the right equipment and skills, aluminum is easy to cut, work and weld. And contrary to popular thought, we’ve found it to be very “patchable” with products like Star brite’s Epoxy Aluminum Putty Stick (www.starbrite.com ). In fact, we’ve found such repairs to last longer than the patches on our inflatables.

Before we knew of this product, we developed a stress-related crack in a plate near the bow because the original construction hadn’t provided the necessary supports. There were no aluminum welders in the remote area of the Bahamas where we were hanging. But we repaired the tear with fiberglass and epoxy resin, and it lasted for months until we got back to the States, even though the breach was where the hull impacted the water at speed.

What works for you

Most of us initially consider getting a dinghy for messing about and having fun — pulling wakeboarders and trips to the beach and to other anchored boats for cocktails. But a good dinghy can add to your boating pleasure in many more ways. A good starting point for most people is to get the biggest, fastest, toughest, safest tender you can afford. Choose one that can be safely and conveniently carried aboard, launched and retrieved. Storing, launching and retrieving a dinghy is an important subject in itself, which, along with safety equipment and other issues, is beyond the scope of this article.

Our dinghy meets our requirements well, but you may have different requirements. Before you buy a dinghy, try to envision how you will use it. Here are some of our uses, which may help you decide the type of dinghy you want and how to get maximum benefit from it.

Transportation: We need a tender that will take us places. This means traveling on open water, sometimes for many miles, negotiating inlets with powerful currents, and getting caught in weather with strong winds. This isn’t the stuff of pretty-people photo shoots. Speed is important — not merely to reach our destinations and return rapidly, but also to return before dark or before storms or to broaden our range. Relative comfort and dryness also is important. It’s no fun to go shopping, to a restaurant or visit a friend’s boat and arrive soaked.

Carrying cargo: A perfect anchorage often takes a lot of time to find and enter, and setting the anchor can take hours. Once settled in, we like to stay for a while. We can stay in these pockets of paradise much longer if our tender can carry large items from nearby villages to our mother ship, such as groceries, jerry jugs of fuel and heavy parts.

Finding the way: To get into those perfect anchorages, we often anchor outside and use the tender to find the best passage in. This, of course, requires a depth finder in the tender and a sealed 12-volt battery to power it. This exploration is even better now with a chart plotter. We use a Standard Horizon CP300i (www.standardhorizon.com) with an internal antenna and C-MAP MAX cartography (www.c-map.com ). We can easily transport this unit from Chez Nous to the tender if needed. We’ve also used the dinghy many times to find deeper water when traveling up and down the shoal-ridden Intracoastal Waterway.

Tugboat: There are those times, to which none of us like to admit, when we find ourselves stuck in mud or sand. A tough dinghy with a strong engine and well-mounted towing points astern often can get the mother ship off the bottom. And our pram bow is well suited for pushing, unlike a sharply pointed bow. An inflatable with squared-off pontoons at the bow normally works well for this purpose, particularly if fender material is used there. We drape wet towels over the bow as fenders and to help keep the bow from slipping aside. Also, there are times when it’s good to be able to tow the mother ship with the tender.

Using a dinghy in these ways can be dangerous, and you must know what you’re doing. In some cases, however, it may be better than the alternative. For example, if you’re far away from the nearest towing service and bad weather is imminent and the tide is dropping, doing nothing may greatly worsen your plight.

Fishing: We love to dive for food in the Bahamas. We free dive, using a Hawaiian sling and 6-foot spring stainless steel spear. It’s fun and great exercise. We never take more than we eat or more than is allowed by local law. While we normally have a tub in our dinghy into which we throw the catch, a big, upset grouper or spiny lobster can thrash itself out. And we sometimes miss the tub while slinging the catch in from the water, or drop a conch that can have very sharp, pointy edges. Bottom fishing or trolling from the dinghy also is a great way to spend an afternoon, but when you land a spiny fish you have the same potential for punctures. Aluminum fits the bill for all of these problems. And when the dive is over, we need to get back into the tender with a minimum of effort. This influenced our choice as far as the height of the sides. We had to strike a balance between lower freeboard for climbing in from the water and higher sides for carrying heavy cargo.

Shark survival: If you do enough snorkeling or diving, you’re probably going to encounter sharks. Many times we’ve had to get out of the water quickly. This is particularly true when shooting fish. A little blood or panic excites the sharks. When two or three people are in the water and a fin is closing in, you don’t want to take turns getting back into the tender. But with many dinghies, particularly some of the smaller ones, that’s exactly what you have to do. If two or more people try to climb over the side at the same time, the tender is likely to flip. You can try to coordinate, having two divers climbing in on opposite sides at the same time, but this is very hard to do.

I’ve fished from dinghies where the only way back in, even for one person at a time, was over the stern. There was always the question of whether you’d rather get gutted by the shark or the outboard. Given all of this, we wanted our tender to be beamy and stable enough that at least two people could climb over the same side at the same time. Its beam, freeboard and rather flat bottom aft accomplished this.

There’s another issue with sharks that many overlook. On several occasions, we’ve encountered agitated sharks that seemed to want to attack the dinghy. I think they might have done that had we not been able to vacate the area quickly and remove any perceived threat to them. These encounters occurred when we were exploring shallow mangrove creeks, and may have been related to breeding, though I can only guess. Regardless, I can’t begin to describe how happy we were to be in a tough, stable, aluminum dinghy rather than a rubber ducky or plywood pretty boat.

Anchoring: On many occasions we’ve used our dinghy to assist in unusual anchoring situations — for example, finding a good spot of sand in an otherwise rocky or grassy bottom. We’ve also used the tender to check out the location of other boats’ anchors to be sure we won’t interfere with them or their gear as tides and winds change. And many times we’ve gotten in the dinghy with a look bucket to hover over our set anchor and make sure it’s dug in well. (I prefer to do this with snorkeling gear so I can dive down and check it, but sometimes conditions such as current or water temperature don’t allow this.) On rare occasions we’ve used the dinghy to carry out a second anchor and position it when it wouldn’t be safe to do so with the mother ship. (We normally use only one anchor.) This type of usage requires that the dinghy be very maneuverable, as well as stable.

While we’re talking about anchoring, remember that you must be able to anchor your dinghy, too. This often isn’t considered until it’s too late. We’ve seen a number of instances in which people reached a beach and walked ashore to explore, leaving their dinghy safely pulled up on the sand — or so they thought. When they returned, the tide had come in, and the dinghy was drifting toward the horizon.

The dinghy should be able to carry good anchoring gear as part of its equipment. When you anchor off a beach you don’t want to deploy more scope than necessary because you’ll want to retrieve your dinghy without a swim if the wind shifts offshore. Also, you don’t want it to blow onto the beach when the wind or surf is onshore and the tide drops. Therefore, use at least 6 feet of relatively heavy chain between the anchor and the rope rode. This allows you to use a shorter rode, as long as you’re nearby and watching the dinghy.

Get a good anchor. I’ve seen many cute dinghy anchors that are small, smooth and rounded to avoid damaging the boat but hold poorly. Fortress Anchors (www.fortressanchors.com ) offers the Commando system for boats to 16 feet, which includes a Guardian G-5 anchor, 6 feet of high-tensile galvanized chain, a shackle, and 150 feet of 1/4-inch nylon rope in a storage bag. This allows you to store the anchor disassembled, and it has thumbscrews for quick assembly in the event you forgot those pliers. (We keep ours assembled and ready to go.)

Waking megayachts: It’s common these days to find megayachts in remote anchorages in the Bahamas and other areas. These yachts sometimes have charter parties aboard, which is fine and certainly jazzes up the neighborhood. But occasionally an inconsiderate charter group, ignoring the admonishments of captain and crew, will spew forth en masse on PWC and zoom around the harbor and anchored boats, turning paradise into a maelstrom. My dinghy can handle this situation. If I run it at just the wrong speed, digging its broad stern into the water at maximum depth, and make circles around the anchored megayacht with its inconsiderate landlubber guests, I can do unto them as they’ve been doing unto the rest of us all day. (But I would never do such a thing.)

Having fun: There’s nothing like a boat ride on a pretty day, except maybe a fast boat ride on a pretty day. After plugging along in my motorsailer, it’s just plain fun to take off in the tender and enjoy the ride. If I didn’t have to use my tender for all the tough jobs mentioned above, I’ve got to admit I’d love one of those slick rigs that specialize in fun for pretty people — if only I had the qualities to attract the requisite passengers.

Hull material

For years, people have debated the merits of hard vs. soft tenders. Now inflatables have progressed from the old rubber ducky standby to the modern fiberglass “boatlet,” supported by inflated pontoons. Commonly known as RIBs, these boats have the desirable characteristics of an inflatable, such as stability, dryness and some compression for storage, but they also have that tougher bottom for beaching and maintaining a rigid, well-designed hull shape for sea handling. However, there is less room inside than in hard boats of comparable outside dimensions, and despite increasingly tough fabric materials, they can be punctured more readily than hard hulls. Also, the fabric eventually will fail from old age, while a good, hard tender may keep going virtually forever.

Two interesting compromises should be mentioned. The “roll up” tender allows you to essentially roll up a hard floor within the inflatable without the disassembly and reassembly nightmare of inflatables with separate bottoms. Others have a floor you inflate, which provides more hull rigidity and better sea handling than some of the earlier inflatables. These may be your choice because of the size of your boat, but they also can serve as a spare.

We see far more inflatables and RIBs than hard tenders on cruising boats. On larger boats, RIBs seem to be the most popular. The word on the docks is that with a blow-up boat, you’ve got to count on replacing it or its inflatable components in around 10 years. The industry probably would disagree. For example, Avon (www.avoninflatables.co.uk) offers a 10-year warranty on its material. We’ve seen Avons and other brands in service for 20 years, but with lots of TLC and many patches. However, we’ve also seen conspicuous failures in various brands (often the less-expensive ones), including seam disintegration, separation of the pontoons from the fiberglass hull, and premature fabric deterioration.

As with any serious purchase, look closely at brand history, the components and the warranty, as well as features. For example, consider the number of inflated chambers. Depending on size and type, they usually range from three to six. Are the tow rings well-placed? Some inflatables have these rings placed so far abaft the bow that the tow rope chafes the fabric. Are there sharp fiberglass edges that might cut the fabric during flexing? Are there tough, large rubrails around the sides? Do you really want that popular steering console? It adds comfort and storage space, but it also consumes overall interior space. And take a ride before you buy, unless you know the hull is proven.

Specialty dinghies

Many people are in love with beautiful traditional rowing and sailing dinghies (including me). When you get to your anchorage they can give you hours of pure pleasure. It usually takes awhile to launch and set up a sailing dinghy, then take down the rig and get it back aboard, but to many the effort is worth it.

The same dinghy you use for sailing often can be used for rowing. One of the potential downsides of cruising is the lack of exercise, and rowing can offer more exercise than sailing. We had a 10-foot Trinka for years and loved it for its classic lines, fun sailing and graceful rowing (www.trinka.com ). We had to sell it because we didn’t have enough room to store it on board with all our other equipment, and we miss it greatly.

However, traditional rowing and sailing dinghies seldom excel at the important jobs we’ve discussed here. They lack speed under power (some don’t even have a place to mount an outboard); can’t carry large, space-consuming, heavy loads; and can’t handle large seas and inlets with those loads (perhaps not at all). This is hardly reason to deny yourself the pleasures of these boats. But you may have to resolve yourself to carrying it as an extra dinghy — a fun dinghy — in addition to your everyday work dinghy. And that work dinghy must be the one that’s most easily stored and launched.

The Chez Nous fleet

On our first trip south, we awoke one morning to find our new inflatable and 15-hp outboard had been stolen. Someone had swum out from shore or from another boat and cut the three lines securing it alongside our boat. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. We had to spend an unexpected fortune at a nearby resort marina to make police and insurance reports. We had to rent a car for several days to get replacements, and we had to delay our departure for the Bahamas for a couple of weeks because we missed a weather window.

We were lucky. If this had happened out in the islands, our problems would have been much worse. Since then, we’ve always carried a spare dinghy — an Avon inflatable that we keep on deck, rolled up in a Sunbrella bag. It has a 15-hp Mercury, stored and ready to go. There are other choices for spare dinghies — for example, the Porta-Bote. It’s made of 1/4-inch polypropylene and comes in various sizes, some folding into a “board” 4 inches thick (www.porta-bote.com ).

For sailing around harbors, we have a sailboard. It doesn’t take up much room, can be thrown over the side and set up while at anchor, and to us is the purest and by far most fun way to sail. For rowing, we carry two kayaks. They’re the “sit on top” type that we can just throw over the side. They don’t fill with water when launching or from waves or if flipped. We also can use them for surfing at the beach. And we have a Switlik offshore life raft (www.switlik.com ), but we try not to use it.

Wish list

Think about how you’d like to use your dinghy. Create a wish list and begin researching. Don’t expect to find everything in one boat. Even with the boats in my fleet, I still have a wish list. It’s the way of the sea (and life) that there’s always more than what you have. You’ve probably detected my envy as you’ve waded through my tender descriptions. Now that I’ve shared with you how I use my ugly dinghy, why don’t those of you who are lucky enough to have bimbo barges tell me how you do it. There may still be time for me … if my wife will let me.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com .