The Cruising Dinghy

We had some good and some bad times with dinghies. If you're doing anything other than sitting in the dock at a marina, on a cruising sailboat it's an essential piece of gear--one to which we gave little thought when we were wannabe cruisers. In the hope that some of this might be useful for others, here's our experience. We also developed some routine safety and security procedures for us and our dinghy (to see these, click on the link because these are on a different website page.) As with any other boat, seamanship skills are essential.

Table of Contents for this Article
1. Dinghy types 2. Cleaning the dinghy bottom 3. Towing the dinghy
4. Stowing the dinghy 5. The Outboard motor  


1. Cruising Dinghy Types

          When we bought Callipygia she had an 8' inflatable Avon dinghy, and a 4hp 2-stroke Yamaha motor. The dinghy had serious signs of wear, so we put it up for sale through Bacon Associates in Annapolis and decided to buy a replacement. We did a bit of research, and went to see a demonstration of a PortaBote, a folding dinghy. We decided to buy one, and also the sailing kit because one of our dreams with a dinghy is to have fun sailing it.

          We became disenchanted with the PortaBote fairly quickly--it was very bulky to store, and a pain in the neck to assemble and disassemble. It was also not very stable in the water and couldn't handle more than 2 people comfortably if it was anything other than a flat calm. After a year, the transom had delaminated, the hull had ripped at the grommets, and we were sick of getting soaked if there was the least bit of sea. Despite a lot of practice, the time needed for assembling and disassembling was a lot more than we felt reasonable, and the below deck storage needed for the various parts was too much. This was definitely not a suitable dinghy for serious cruising. So we got rid of it (sadder but wiser) and bought a 10' inflatable (West Marine/Avon), which we were very happy with in every regard, except that we didn't have room to store it upside down on the deck. Ideally we'd have liked something we could store on deck and launch quickly (without having to inflate), and that we could sail. We had friends who made a two-part fibreglass dinghy (that we've sailed) which seems close to the ideal. On the other hand, inflatables do have major advantages for stability, load carrying, and comfort.

          Note that we've since heard, from the manufacturers of PortaBotes, that improvements have been made to the design and construction of this folding boat, so our comments above may no longer be applicable.


2. Cleaning the Dinghy Bottom

          Cleaning the dinghy's bottom is always a chore. We do it everyone of the rare times we're in a marina--it's easy to haul it up on the dock, and turn it upside down--on the tarpaulin, if the surface is concrete or anything but wood. Otherwise, if it's bad we take it to the nearest beach, remove all contents, and turn it upside down on the sand. When it's not too bad and we're ready to stow the dinghy, we hoist it amidships from the two dinghy bow attachments using the main halyard, and turn the bottom towards the boat to be cleaned. To clean, we spray the growth on the bottom with a mix of 1:1 Chlorox, let it sit for about 10 minutes, then scrape the gunk off with a plastic scraper. This gets all the incipient barnacles and plant growth off. Then wash it thoroughly with water, fresh from a hose at the dock, or buckets of seawater otherwise. If it's cleaned on the sand, we have to take care to get all sand out of the inside afterwards, because the grains can chafe and make holes in the fabric.

          In the Caribbean, the bottom needs to be cleaned every 3-4 four weeks if the dinghy sits constantly in the water. Some places the growth comes faster than others--look around the shoreline to see what kind of growth is happening. Some boats hoist their dinghy out of the water a foot or two on davits a halyard at night to inhibit the growth somewhat.


3. Towing the Cruising Dinghy

          We heard quite a few horror stories from other boats about towing their dinghies. Boats who've lost their outboard motor, or worse their dinghy as well. If you tow in rough seas, and something goes amiss with the dinghy (motor, gas can, seat, oar etc. comes loose, the dinghy fills with water or flips over), it is extremely dangerous to do anything about it. Unless you're willing to risk a MOB, the only option sometimes is to cut it loose. Therefore, we decided that we would never tow the dinghy with the motor or anything else in it. We took everything, including the seat and the oars out. We had a single davit on Callipygia's stern from which we hung a block and tackle to hoist the motor up to its storage spot on the cockpit rail, so it wasn't much work to remove everything. We figured it was worth the effort, given the replacement costs.

          For towing, we used a double polypropylene tow rope attached to the dinghy with a bridle. [We made this floating tow rope after wrapping the dinghy line round Callipygia's propellor for the second time...] The bridle went onto the two tow hooks on the front sides of the dinghy with carabiniers, and the two lines were then tied together and brought through a chock on one side of the stern and tied off on a deck cleat. If one line broke, we theorized, then the other remained for insurance. Also, the dinghy rode better to a bridle than a single line. We pulled it up close when we were maneuvering at low speeds to anchor, etc, and let it out about 2 dinghy lengths when we were up to speed. This kept the dinghy in the boat's slick, which minimized its drag (as of course did removing its contents). We think we lost not more than maybe ½ a knot from towing the dinghy.

          How did we decide if it was safe to tow? We assesed the sea conditions we were likely to encounter, and the length of the passage. Generally, we towed for short coastal hops. If we were making an interisland passage, and the conditions were light, we might tow if the trip was reasonably short and all in daylight, although often we took the trouble to stow the dinghy instead. We never towed on an overnight passage.


4. Stowing the Cruising Dinghy

          We didn't quite have room anywhere on deck to stow our dinghy when inflated. Neither did we have dinghy davits at the stern, because (a) that's where the Monitor windvane was, and (b) it would have been too much windage and weight in the wrong place, and (c) we knew two Tayana's who had dinghy davits which eventually cracked. When offshore, our dinghy was stowed, rolled up in its cover, placed under the boom and tied down at all four corners. We became pretty adept at inflating and deflating it, and launching and hoisting it, and didn't find it too much of a nuisance, especially as we become more comfortable towing it and so had to stow it a bit less frequently.

          Often the worst part of stowing the dinghy, is cleaning the bottom first. We had a triangular bridle that clipped onto two padeyes in the dinghy transom, and a ring on its floor near the bow. The three lines come together on a ring that we attach to the main halyard for hoisting and dropping. We had a bow and stern painter permanently attached to the dinghy (with clips on them at the right spots for securing to the side of Callipygia where there were padeyes at the gate). While hoisting on the halyard, we kept both painters attached to the mother boat for control.


5. The Outboard Motor

          Soon after we acquired Callipygia, we found that the existing outboard motor needed to be replaced. We bought a 4-stroke, 4-hp Yamaha, that turned out to be nothing but trouble. While we had it, we spent longer than we care to count rowing.... Apparently, that's the way very small 4-stroke enginges are. For environmental reasons, 2-stroke outboards are no longer available in the USA.

          The last straw came when we were in St. Thomas, USVI, and we found our outboard's fuel pump was leaking. Fortunately, another boat lent us it's spare outboard (a little 2-stroke 3-hp) for a week, at which point we bought a 2hp, 2-stroke to use while the local Yamaha dealer waited for a new fuel pump. After our motor was repaired, we planned to carry the 2hp as a "spare." After 3 weeks, and still waiting, the dealer took back the 2hp, and gave us credit for our 4hp, and we bought a new 2-stroke, 8-hp Yamaha that we were very happy with for the remainder of our cruising career. We had installed a davit on Callipygia's stern to which we attached a block and tackle to lift the motor out of the dinghy and stored it on a hefty wooden bracket on the stern rail when we were underway.


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Bill Dillon (KG4QFM)
Pat Watt (KG4QFQ)
This page was last modified on August 9, 2009

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