For the serious cruising boat, a good dinghy is more than a matter of convenience-it is an essential. During our first two years of cruising, we relied on an older Achilles inflatable, a hand-me-down gift from a friend who had upgraded to a newer model.
We have no idea how old the Achilles was when we got it. After we cleaned it up and re-glued and refinished the floorboards and transom, it looked like new. For two solid years of constant use, from Florida to New England and through the Caribbean, it carried us back and forth from boat to shore, enduring days of nosing up to rough Third World docks or bumping against our topsides. Its one hull patch resulted from a losing encounter with a tough Florida oyster.
This dinghy has two major flaws, however. Its black rubbing strake leaves marks on Calypso’s topsides, and the dinghy gives a very wet ride in rough water.
After spending a winter enviously watching the fast and dry ride of rigid bottom inflatables-RIBs-we decided the time had come for a more substantial tender.
In the Caribbean, the two most common dinghy brands are AB and Caribe. Although both companies make full lines of conventional inflatables as well as RIBs, the rigid-bottom inflatable is by far the most popular dinghy for cruising boats because of its dry and stable ride.
Both AB and Caribe are manufactured in Venezuela, so shipping costs throughout the Caribbean basin are reasonable. In this area, both brands are sold directly by the factory to dealers, reducing the costs of distribution.
There are two significant drawbacks to all RIBs: They are heavy compared to conventional inflatables, and they take up a substantial amount of deck space. Our Achilles weighs about 75 lbs. The AB 2.90 VS RIB, slightly shorter than the Achilles, weighs twice that much. The Achilles folds up into a package about 14″ in diameter and about 5′ long. With its tubes deflated, the AB still takes up a chunk of deck space 7′ long, 3-1/2″ wide, and almost a foot high.
Nevertheless, the advantages of a RIB are so great-primarily a drier, faster, more stable ride in all conditions, but particularly in rough water-that we decided to make a space on our already-crowded deck for a new dinghy.
Since both AB and Caribe are manufactured in Caracas, Venezuela, a large percentage of cruising boats stopping in Venezuelan ports go dinghy shopping. We did the same thing, and here’s what we came up with.
There are many similarities between the AB and the Caribe lines of RIBs. Both use Hypalon fabric. In the tropics, Hypalon is the only way to go. PVC simply does not hold up as well, according to dinghy repair stations we have talked with throughout the Caribbean.
Both AB and Caribe have molded fiberglass hulls with a separate molded flat interior floor. Both have small sumps in the floor aft, with self-bailers. Both have molded-in retainers for a fuel tank. Both have optional molded bow compartments.
Both have removable fiberglass seats. In profile, both lines of boats are very similar, with sharply turned-up bows to give better spray protection.
The two lines of boats are similar in weight. The 9′ 6″ AB 2.90 VS weighs 152 lbs. The 9′ Caribe C 9x weighs 141 lbs.
In the Caribbean, the cost of the two lines of boats is very similar, although the actual prices here are meaningless to the North American consumer. The AB 2.90 VS has a South American list price of $1,800. The US list price is about $2,700. Discounts of about 10% to 15% off the South American list price are common in the parts of the Caribbean closest to the Venezuelan manufacturers.
While at first glance the AB and Caribe RIBs are very similar, there are in fact significant differences between them. The hull of the Caribe has more deadrise-that is, its hull has a deeper V-shape. The Caribe’s bottom also has two pairs of molded-in longitudinal ridges, called lifting strakes, while the AB 2.90 has a single pair of strakes.
Caribe’s hull tubes are a full 17″ in diameter; AB’s are 15.75″. The larger tube diameter gives the Caribe a somewhat drier ride in rough conditions, although it noticeably reduces interior space.
The deep-V hull shape gives the Caribe excellent rough-water handling properties. Unfortunately, this shape also seems to increase the amount of horsepower required to get a Caribe up on a plane. When Practical Sailor tested RIBs for the April 1, 1998 issue, we found that an 8-hp. outboard could not get the Caribe C10x on a plane with two aboard, while the slightly smaller AB 2.90 planed easily with 8-hp.
In our case, we already owned an 8-hp. Yamaha-plenty of power for our old Achilles. The largest Caribe this will power effectively is the C9x, and 8-hp. is marginal for that dinghy.
In contrast, we tested an AB 2.90VS with our little Yamaha, and found that with two of us aboard, the AB was on plane in a matter of seconds.
Another difference between the Caribe and AB is the amount of interior volume for a given length. Unfortunately, AB and Caribe sizes are not directly analogous. The 9′ 6″ AB 2.90 VS is longer than the Caribe C9X and shorter than the C10x. In interior volume, however, the AB 2.90 VS is very close in size to the larger Caribe, and significantly larger than the smaller Caribe. This is due to AB’s slightly wider hull beam and slightly smaller tube diameter. The AB hull is also noticeably wider at the bow.
The oarlocks of the Caribe are placed so far outboard on the hull tubes that their metal inserts can chafe against a boat’s topsides. AB’s oarlocks are mounted higher on the hull tubes, and are less likely to scratch your boat.
There are some characteristics of the Caribe that seem better than the AB. Caribe uses more gluing seam overlap in their tube construction. Caribe’s fiberglass hull moldings seem fairer than those of AB; our AB has a noticeably rippled bottom.
In addition, we have seen a number of AB’s with torn-off bow lifting handles-almost certainly the result of attempting to tow the boat by this handle, rather than the towing eye in the fiberglass hull. We have yet to see the lifting handle of a Caribe torn off.
Making a Choice
We faced two significant constraints in choosing a new dinghy. Our small outboard meant that we could only get the tiny Caribe C8 or the slightly larger C 9x up on a plane with two aboard. A RIB that will not plane is essentially useless as a cruising tender, when you may have to make trips of a mile or more to shore and return with a big load of groceries.
The other constraint was deck space. There is only about 10′ between our mast and the inner forestay–the only place we can realistically carry a rigid dinghy. Either of the small Caribes would fit in this space, as would the 8′ 6″ AB 2.60 VS. A dinghy less than 9′ in length, however, is quite small even for two people, much less two people and a bunch of extra stuff.
The ideal dinghy for us was the AB 2.90 VS. It would plane with our 8-hp. Yamaha, and was significantly larger than either of the Caribes we could use. But would the AB fit on deck?
The answer was: Not without some modification. The distance between our mast and inner forestay is further reduced by the forward Dorade box and its tubular stainless steel guard. Even deflated, we could not get the AB to lie upside down on centerline in this space because the front of the dinghy hit the back of the Dorade guard.
The solution was to sacrifice the Dorade guard. This is no great loss, as we almost always remove the forward cowl vent when sailing. With the cowl vent removed, the guard is unnecessary. With the guard removed, the dinghy fits neatly behind the inner forestay.
We had the AB factory custom-fabricate Hypalon name strips-T/T Calypso-and install them on either side of the hull. This cost only about $50 extra, and, we hope, will make the dinghy less appealing to potential thieves (contributor Bill Seifert says never to put your boat’s name on the tender, because thieves ashore will steal your dinghy and take it out to your boat to loot, knowing you’re not aboard!).
With the optional name strips, our dinghy cost us $1,580 from Helios at La Cruz Nautic in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela. Other dealers in the same town offered similar prices on both AB and Caribe dinghies.
RIBs tow substantially better than traditional inflatables, but for offshore passage-making, the only solution is to carry the dinghy on deck. Originally, we intended to carry the dinghy upright in custom chocks, atop our small forward deckhouse.
When we placed the dinghy in this position, however, we were startled at how high the dinghy sat. Its raised bow was a full 42″ above the deck. In strong winds or big seas, the dinghy would be in serious danger of being swept overboard, doing untold damage on the way. On the way south last fall, a large RIB carried upright in chocks was ripped off the foredeck of a 150′ ketch. That dinghy was mounted more than 10′ above the water.
Instead, we carry the dinghy lashed upside down in the same location. While it will fit in this space while inflated, we deflate the dinghy to reduce windage. This works surprisingly well. On our first offshore trip with the dinghy on deck, we did not lash it as securely as we should have. Rough seas shifted the dinghy slightly. We are now installing two pairs of Wichard folding pad eyes on either side of the forward deckhouse, and will lash the dinghy down more securely with webbing straps. In addition, we use a pair of external transom U-bolts-standard on the AB-to lash down the stern. At the bow, a short lashing secures the dinghy’s towing U-bolt to a shackle on the inner forestay fitting.
So far, we are very pleased with our AB 2.90 VS. It is roomy enough to carry two of us and a big load of groceries or all our scuba gear. The bow compartment holds an anchor and rode, pump, running lights and miscellaneous small bits.
The ride is excellent, the handling solid, without the skittishness often associated with running conventional inflatables at high speed. We run flat out-and stay dry-in conditions that would have left is soaking wet and moving at displacement speeds in our old inflatable.
The dinghy is heavy to lift on deck and maneuver into its storage position, but Maryann can crank it up using one of our big two-speed halyard winches while I fend the dinghy off the varnish and lifelines.
Its light gray rubbing strake does not mark our topsides.
The boat planes easily with the two of us and a load of gear, but we are both quite light: together, we weigh only about 275 lbs. Now that we have a crane for lifting the outboard, we wish we had either a 9.9-hp. or 15-hp. outboard-probably a 15, since they weigh the same thing as the 9.9.
Both AB and Caribe RIBs are starting to break into the US market in a big way, and you are likely to hear much more from them
And what about our faithful old Achilles dinghy? We kept it. It has its own custom storage bag and tie-downs, and takes up little space. We use it as a work dinghy for nasty jobs like varnishing our railcap. After all, who wants drips of varnish on a shiny new dinghy?
Contacts- AB, Poba International #1-200319330 NW, PO box 02-5255, Miami, FL 33102-5255; 800/229-2446; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.abinflatables.com. Caribe Inflatables USA, 14372 SW 139th Court #7, Miami, FL 33186; 305/253-4822; email@example.com; www.wwtelco.com/~caribe.