Features October 2009 Issue

The Lightweight, Carbon-Fiber Wing Dinghy is a Classy, Rowable Sailing Dinghy

Diana Russell’s superlight dinghy matches up against Bruce Bingham’s Trinka.

It is a shame that just as the materials for an ideal rigid dinghy have become readily available, outboards and rubber inflatables have all but swept conventional dinghies from the waterfront.

For those who still appreciate the feel of a good pair of 7-foot, feathering spruce oars and the ring of bronze oarlocks, a new tender from Wing Systems offers hope. The lines for the tender date back to Nat Herreshoff’s Frost Fish,a timber-built dinghy with a reputation for performance both under sail and when being rowed. Her moderate beam, gently curving buttocks lines, plumb bow and wide but graceful transom deliver stability, load-carrying capacity and an ability to be rowed into a stiff breeze—all very valuable attributes in a tender.

Wing Dinghy
Photo courtesy of Wing Systems

Lightly loaded, the Wing Dinghy presents very little wetted surface. It can carry over 1,200 pounds and still have 5 inches of freeboard.

Diana Russell is the president and chief designer of Wing Systems, a small sea-going think tank that has come up with solutions for sailing craft that range from efficient sailboard hull shapes to patents on fuel-saving sails for super tankers. Diana got her start as part of the Sparkman and Stephens research and development group that pioneered the development of sailboat velocity prediction programs. Her keen interest in dinghies, canoes and kayaks, and her firm commitment to "messing around in small boats" has led to some very worthwhile innovations. For cruising sailors, her 9-foot Wing Dinghy is a good example of how modern boatbuilding materials and technology can make a classic design better than ever.

To evaluate the Wing Dinghy, we compared it to the popular Trinka 10, a rugged Bruce Bingham design that has served many cruising sailors over the years. The evaluation points were sailing ability, rowing ability, durability, ease of hoisting, and towability. The Wing Dinghy proved to be a better sailer and was much easier to hoist, while the Trinka scored highest in the durability department. Both dinghies were evenly matched in the rowing and towing evaluations.

At the top of the list of attributes is the Wing Dinghy’s light weight hull (55 pounds). 

Wing Dinghy
Photo courtesy of Ralph Naranjo

Wing Systems designs include canoes, kayaks, and the 55-pound 9-foot-long Wing Dinghy.

In comparison, the popular Trinka 10 weighs in at 140 pounds. By carefully controlling resin volume and using high-modulus materials to build the Wing Dinghy, the result is a stiff and durable hull that’s easy to launch and retrieve.

Wing Systems and the tender’s builder, the Savage River Works, a builder of racing and recreational canoes, have eschewed heavy teak trim and hand lay-up for advanced composites technology. The dinghy is built with either a conventional fiberglass FRP skin or a lighter and more expensive carbon outer and Kevlar inner hull skin. A controlled resin transfer process and vacuum-bagging ensure consistent bond and eliminate excess resin. What doesn’t contribute to the structure of the vessel needs is eliminated.

The boat benefits from Diana’s time spent sailing small craft, and it’s these little details from an experienced sailor that contribute to the dinghy’s success. Take for example how the all important bow pennant is secured to a bonded stem tube using no hardware at all. Other builders rely upon massive U-bolts that they add to the stem, not recognizing the damage that such a protrusion will do to the topsides of the mother vessel and other boats approached with a little too much enthusiasm. Similar nuances such as oarlock placement, thwart positioning, and gunwale protection are delivered with the same attitude toward form and function. Missing is the teak trim and gingerbread that may seem attractive to onlookers, but adds little to the structure and lots to the weight of the boat.

The Wing Dinghy is a dinghy in the way that a Leica is camera. Like the Leica, the price tag is commensurate with the quality of the product. It’s true that for the same investment, one can find a RIB and an outboard that will plane across the bay, but for those who enjoy the solitude and silence of natural surroundings, and welcome a morning row and an afternoon sail, the Wing Dinghy is both a practical solution to getting to shore and an elegant way to get there.

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