Dinghies are the Rodney Dangerfields of cruising. They get no respect, or at least not as much as they deserve. The little boat that will see nearly as many sea miles as the mother ship is too often an afterthought.
Inflatables, and rigid inflatable boats (hybrid “RIBs” with inflatable tubes and rigid bottoms) have been the norm for years. I recognize the virtues of the RIB design, but when it comes to full time cruising, my allegiance remains with the hard dinghy camp. A hard dinghy is virtually indestructible compared to an inflatable or RIB. It’s economical, and it’s always ready to deploy.
There are almost just as many reasons why hard dinghies are the wrong solution. They are harder to stow, hard on topside paint, relatively unstable, and require more patience when getting from here to there. Rowing dinghies are less popular among most cruising sailors for a reason.
If you’re an avid diver or surfer, like to explore, or prefer anchoring away from the crowd, having a RIB or inflatable with a turn of speed will be essential. Having that extra umph also comes in handy when setting kedges, playing tugboat, or rushing to help a neighboring boat whose anchor has begun to drag. They are also a big help when trying to overcome strong currents. This last point struck home in Palau as we rowed and used our 2 hp Mercury to creep through a narrow cut to reach the local port. Needless to say, we were the thirstiest patrons at the bar during the springs and neaps.
Ultimately, our dinghy preferences reflect our philosophies toward cruising. The romantic drawn to the idea of self-sufficiency (the person who rides a bike to work), will be inclined toward a rugged hard dinghy that rows easily and requires virtually no maintenance. The pragmatic RIB aficionado will recognize that having fast transportation is worth the hassles associated with an internal combustion engine.
Years have past since our last head-to-head dinghy tests (see PS November 2009, October 2008, and July 2008). Both focused on inflatables. Since then, there have been a few interesting inflatable designs like Takacat and other iterations of the twin-hull design, but we have seen some interesting developments in hard dinghies.
Several years ago, West Coast designer Russell Brown came out with a kit for the PT11, a dinghy comprising two parts that nest inside each other. And the carbon-fiber Wing Dinghy, which we compared to the popular Trinka in October 2009, is so light that one person can easily load and stow it.
Since the wide introduction of the mass produced Walker Bay 8—a relatively sedate rower with a durable thermo-molded PVC hull—the more traditional fiberglass dinghies have been pushed to the fringes of the market. The familiar names-Bauer, Fatty Knees, Trinka, Dyer, Gig Harbor-are still around, but the prices ($6,000 for a sailing Dyer) make an upwind slog in $600 Walker Bay 8 seem more tolerable. Kit boats like Brown’s PT11 or those from Chesapeake Light Craft offer a cheaper path to a hard dinghy. It requires an investment in time, but the experience gained building your own dinghy can be more valuable than the boat itself.
As we begin another round of dinghy testing, we’d be interested in hearing from readers. How long have you had it? What problems have you had? And where the heck do you stow the thing? You can contact me at email@example.com.