It took a moment to decide whether to make this article a boat review or a Chandlery piece—but only a moment. Walker Bay dinghies are unabashedly placed, by both manufacturer and ship’s store, as items to be picked up along with paint and sandpaper. They lean against the outside walls of the store. They rest in the aisles, filled with season specials like PFDs and bottom paint. They’re front and center. You can just nab one at the counter on the way out.
The prices aren’t shocking; in fact for such big physical items, and such necessary ones, they’re cheap. If you’re used to going into West Marine or BoatU.S. and dropping a few hundred dollars on a piece of navigation gear or some good-sized ground tackle, you could just as easily leave with a Walker Bay boat on your car. And many, many people do.
Walker Bay was kind enough to loan Practical Sailor the sailing versions of both an 8-footer and a 10-footer for a couple of weeks this summer. We rowed, towed, and sailed both boats. We trailered them and cartopped them. We pulled them on their stern wheels over hill and dale. (Actually we left Dale outof it.)
The essential fact about these boats is that they’re very, very plastic. This is both their weak point, in that they have none of the warmth of wood, and their strong point, in that they’re effective, no-maintenance, and virtually indestructible.
We learned quickly to suppress our Bristol Fashion Sense, assuming that those with lovely wooden boats—character boats—will generally prefer to be seen in the company of character dinghies like peapods or Whitehalls or even Dyers. Then we went on with our evaluations.
Founded in South Africa in 1997, Walker Bay is now based in Union Gap, Washington, with offices in Vancouver and Paris. The stated aim of the company is to bring its boats to the masses, worldwide. It’s off to a good start, with sales recorded now in 50 countries.
The Walker Bay 8 was first out of the molds in 1998; the 10-footer was introduced this spring. Both dinghies were designed by Paolo Rista, described by the company as a “water-sports professional and artist.”
There’s a lot involved in the design of dinghy hull forms, just as with any boat. There are issues of entry, rocker, freeboard, deadrise, transom width, weight and balance—and there are always scads of small-boat builders eager to debate the details. The debates will always go on because, in a dinghy, when you move something, everything changes.
Mr. Rista deserves credit not only for using a good, versatile form, but, presumably, for specifying the ersatz lapstrake construction that gives the injection-molded hulls some rigidity fore and aft. By this we mean that if you removed the thwarts you could possibly fold the boats from gunwale to gunwale, but not from bow to transom. After the thwarts are secured, the Walker Bay boats are well-supported in all directions, except, perhaps, in the 10-footer between the middle thwart and the bow. More on that later.
On both boats there’s a full-length molded skeg (or keel, if you prefer) from transom to bow. This too, adds stiffness and helps the boats track straight when rowed or towed. It also houses the handy rolling wheel aft.
Solid vs. Inflatable
In a water world increasingly populated by inflatable tenders, there are still plenty of good arguments for solid dinghies, as long as they’re relatively light and manageable, which these are. Solid dinghies don’t have to be blown up or deflated. They can be stowed upside-down on the decks of larger boats and lowered or tossed overboard easily. They usually tow better than inflatables, and they always row better, especially in a headwind. Size for size, they have more carrying capacity, although again, any advantage depends on the distribution of weight and the efficiency of the form when loaded.
Most importantly, some hard dinghies, like these, can be sailed, and there’s nothing more fun than poking around a far-flung harbor at sunset in a sailing dinghy.
Walker Bay would of course like to see their sailing rigs used in more and more junior and community programs.
A new JY Trainer costs about $1,850. A new Optimist costs around $2,325. The Walker Bay 8, with performance sailing rig, costs $920. One-design fleets? They could happen.
Both the 8 and the 10 are made of polypropylene resin, which is injected into a steel mold and pressed at 5,000 tons. With a slick mold and such high pressure, the boats emerge smooth and detailed, including molded spaces on the underside of one set of strakes to retain stainless hex nuts for the thwarts. The basic hull is born in about five minutes. Take that, Noah.
At the chandlery or at home, the solid, foam-filled thwarts are then set in place and bolted through the strakes. That’s about it for construction.
It would have been most efficient to test all performance aspects of both boats at the same time. Of course, that’s not how we were able to do it. Instead, over the course of two weeks we had to move them around quite a bit, on and off trailers and cartops, across yards, and up and down dock ramps. This process, while not at all convenient, allowed us to get to know the boats well. We found them easy to wrestle (usually by one person, the editorial “we”) and very tough when being dragged, dropped, and tossed about. Just as importantly, they were meek neighbors when alongside other boats. They don’t scrape and bang, and they don’t leave traces of themselves on people’s topsides. They’re not much of a worry in any respect.
We sailed the 8-footer in a light harbor breeze of about 6 knots and found it surprisingly nimble and fun. It tacked and jibed easily and quickly, without being tender, and it was fairly comfortable to sit on either the center thwart or in the boat bottom.
A few days later we sailed the 10-footer in a stronger offshore breeze of about 12 knots with puffs up to 14. The breeze later faded to about 6 knots.
In the heavier air the 10 was not ideally balanced with one person in what would be considered a reasonable steering position; the boat sailed slightly down by the stern, and dragged water. This would probably have been helped by the addition of a five-year old child or a loaded cooler forward. Unfortunately we had neither of those things handy, and it wasn’t possible to balance the boat correctly without leaning well forward on the middle thwart. Sitting on the thwart while sailing doesn’t work, because the sheet is led down from the boom through a block in a clamshell-like device that clamps to the aft edge of the seat.
Moving through light chop in the heavier air, the boat’s bottom oilcanned some forward of the middle thwart. This is one area where too much may be expected of thin polypropylene stretched over an unsupported area. It’s not really a structural problem because the stuff is so resilient—you could probably leap into the boat with hobnail boots without hurting it, but oilcanning is not good for speed.
Despite the stern-down attitude and consequent sluggish steering, the 10 went well—4.8 knots on a reach.
The sailing characteristics we experienced in the 10-footer slightly undercut some very thoughtful design and manufacture work on the part of Walker Bay: The sail kit and fittings are first-rate: a well-cut sail of 3-oz. Dacron with a big window, a tensionable shaping batten near the head of the sail, nicely shaped daggerboard and rudder, and an excellent rudder-mounting system. The clam clamp for the sheet block is also smart, but we’d prefer to have the sheet simply come down from the boom the way it does on the 8-footer.It’s perfectly possible to have it that way—just unmount that clamp.
Both boats rowed very well. Walker Bay sent along an outstanding pair of 7-1/2′ wooden oars with rubber collars that set neatly in round plastic oarlocks. The oarlocks are placed fore and aft in the gunwale sockets, and as they’re turned outboard they lock in.
This is good, except that you have to remember to unship your oars early when coming alongside someone.
We rowed the boats with differently sized people and batches of gear in various places, and found that we could put our backs into it without fear of breaking or deforming any of the plastic parts. Most gratifyingly, the boats were balanced well enough that increased labor yielded increased speed. Nothing is more frustrating than finishing a stroke in a badly balanced dink and finding that all you’ve done is turn the bow into a plow. These are not pulling boats by any stretch of the imagination, but they do well enough.
Finally, we towed both boats at varying speeds behind a motorboat on long and short tethers, making arbitrary turns. Here again, both the 8 and the 10 were well-behaved, tracking straight on their skegs and planing high on the water without skittering or swerving. We weren’t able to tow them in rough water, and can’t speak for what they might be like in a seaway. (Some hard dinghies will follow a mother ship obediently through hell and high water, and some quickly become swamped drogues.) If we had to guess, we’d say they’d do well.
Once the boats were planing, we hand-tested the tethers for tension. In flat water behind the towboat, the 8-footer tugged back at about 15 lbs. The 10-footer pulled at roughly 20.
These Walker Bay boats are already a juggernaut, thanks to a firm initial concept, good design, excellent plastic engineering and manufacturing, and the goodwill of retailers. Far be it from Practical Sailor to stand in the way: We like these boats just fine. They do the several things they’re supposed to do very well, and more besides, all at a price that has to be one of the best values in sailing.
The 10-footer clearly has greater cargo-carrying capacity, and will be able to stay out in rougher water longer. It’s a good choice for those who need to do more serious transport than harbor touring.
Our favorite, though, is the 8, not because we enjoyed sailing it more than the 10, but because it’s so easy to manage: You can sling it on your back like a turtle shell and walk far with it. You can whip it up on the roof-rack. You can throw it around, leave it alone—it doesn’t mind a thing.
Also With This Article
Click here to view Walker Bay 8 and Walker Bay 10 specs.
Contact- Walker Bay Boats, 607 West Ahtanum Rd., Union Gap, WA 98903. 888/449-2553, www.walkerbay.com.