Let’s face it, managing a dinghy can be a pain in the transom. Here’s a common example. On a southbound trip home one year, crossing the Gulf of Maine on my friend’s boat, the sea was flat calm in fine weather. We had a brand-new console RIB, which was quite expensive and too big to stow on deck, so we towed it. Suddenly, one of the kids yelled, “Where’s the dinghy?” Thankfully, after retracing our track on the reciprocal and doing an exacting search pattern for three hours with all eyes glued to the horizon, we recovered it.
Others have not been so fortunate, judging from the number of small boats found drifting offshore over the years. Put a bunch of boaters together and they are bound to share stories of tenders misbehaving—flipping, riding up and slamming the transom, surfing past the boat, shifting while stowed on deck or just plain getting lost at sea. Certainly, trying to bail a swamped small open boat in a seaway will make one a believer in a proper dinghy stowage method. Towing, rather than stowing, increases the chance of something going wrong.
It’s easy to justify towing the dinghy—thinking you can get away with it—but I have learned the hard way. Early in our new marriage, my husband and I were learning to be shipmates. We dove in head-first, sailing considerable distances in a small low-freeboard sailboat without lifelines. On one trip, we wanted to change anchorages, requiring only a couple hours of sailing to shift from one location to the other. Since we were just going a short way around two headlands, we figured it would be okay to tow it. Taking the time to bring it on deck and lash it on the foredeck seemed overly cautious at the time. We got underway. It was fine until it wasn’t fine anymore, when we found ourselves in sportier seas than we’d expected. Horrified and speechless, we watched the dinghy surf past us, landing in one clean plop on the port rail of the foredeck—like the hand of God. Luckily, we had no damage. It was a combination of an errant sea, a perfectly timed roll and a dinghy that shouldn’t have been towed in the first place. Calm seas never made a good seaman—you live and learn.
Towing presents opportunities for mishaps, but if you do decide to tow, choose the right towline, use reliable knots and double-check them. I like to make a bridle out of two towlines, one made fast to each quarter, which also gives you a backup if one of the lines chafes through. Floating line is a good idea to keep the towlines out of your prop or props. Keep your feet out of the bights while paying out the towlines and be mindful of the strength of a surge between both boats, particularly while initially setting the tow. Use clear communications between the the boat operator and the person tending the towlines, and use a light touch on the throttle. Aim to keep the tow inside the vee of your boat’s wake and in front of your stern wave. That will vary from boat to boat and at different speeds. The faster you go, the longer the towlines, generally about two boat lengths. Use trial and error to find the best length to keep the tow from surfing your wake. When you arrive at your destination, shorten up the tow lines in enclosed waters where you need to maneuver.
Stowing your dinghy on deck is a better alternative. There are numerous options that can work well depending on the size of the mothership and the type and size of tender. One can muscle a dinghy on deck or deflate and stow it, which takes time and effort, or install davits or hoists, which require money and proper installation. In the end, managing your dinghy is a personal choice, tailored to your own boat and your own needs.
Powerboats often have dedicated dinghy davits, a crane, deck chocks, a swim platform storage arrangement, or maybe even a garage. Some sailboats are equipped with davits while others require manpower and ingenuity to stow the dinghy on deck. They all have challenges—chafe, shifting, and obstructing the deck.
A small boat may carry an inflatable which can be rolled up and stowed below or in a locker. On shorter passages, it can be kept inflated on the foredeck or in a powerboat’s cockpit. Just ensure the placement doesn’t obscure navigation lights or your own ability to keep a proper lookout, and don’t underestimate the repetitive power of chafe when rolling or beating to windward. Pad things and lash it down well to prevent shifting.
Davits provide a time-honored simplicity but they can’t always handle heavier RIBS and outboards. Pay strict attention to the ratings and condition of your gear and remove the outboard when necessary. After the dinghy is raised out of the water, pull the drain plug to prevent water from accumulating and secure it to prevent working in a seaway.
Swim platform snap-and-lift davits make dinghy launching and retrieving convenient. But because the dinghy is stowed upright on its beam, it may obscure your stern navigation light and the boat’s name, possibly necessitating modifications.
A hydraulic swim platform provides excellent dinghy storage, but be sure to properly match the weight and size of your dinghy to your boat. The swim platform is submerged, and the tender is simply floated away from the cradle. How enviable. It’s enough to make a sailor convert to powerboating!
Larger boats may stow tenders on the bow or cabin top with a deck crane and lifting harness, and some trawlers have a mast and boom that can lift a lightweight inflatable onto the boat deck using a winch-powered block and tackle.
A dinghy is primary equipment when cruising or gunkholing, providing shallow water exploration and a way to get to or from shore and other boats. Unless you plan on sticking to harbors that supply launch service, you’ll have to work out the best way to efficiently manage your tender. Launching, retrieval and stowing it can sometimes be a seamanship challenge—towing one safely even more so. Certainly, as you get older, efficient dinghy stowage becomes a more important priority.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.