Photo: Brent Howard

The Tender Choice—finding the right dinghy for you

There are almost as many options in dinghy designs as there are in cruising boats, so finding the right one means prioritizing your wants and needs

If you walk past a dinghy dock you’ll notice a wide assortment of vessels. The inflatable is by far the most common option. They tend to be boater-friendly because they’re extremely stable and easy to land on a beach or bring into the dock. One downside—well-described by the nickname “deflatable”—is they can be punctured, and the seams can separate and leak over time. Hard dinghies are the obvious alternative. Rigid dinghies can take more abuse, and tend to be more rugged and longer lasting. Their disadvantage is they tend to be hard to stow and can be heavy in the larger sizes.
But choosing between a hard or inflatable dinghy is really just the beginning. Like the family car, tenders are available in a whole range of sizes and styles, and they come with options galore.

Narrowing it Down  Before you can start shopping you’ll need to answer some questions:


• What kind of capacity do you need? How many people do you plan to carry and what kind of gear will they have?
• How fast do you want to go? Are you planning to plane, fully loaded over a long distance? Or is rowing from your boat to the beach about all you have in mind?
• Where are you going? Will conditions be sheltered? Exposed? Will your landings be at a well-maintained dock or something less boat-friendly?
• How often will you use your dinghy and in what sort of situations?
• What kind of propulsion will you use?
• Will you need to lift the dinghy on deck or carry it up a beach?
• Where will it be stored? Do you have davits? A place on deck? A large locker for a roll up inflatable? Measure the space—twice—before shopping.
• How much do you want to spend?


Selecting the Right Size  Dinghies and Goldilocks have something in common—it can be really easy to choose something that is too big, or too small and really tough to find the one that is just right. The problem with too small is obvious—you’ll need to make more trips to carry your passengers and your stuff. But another common error made by boaters is choosing an oversized dinghy, which in turn needs a big engine.
Big dinghies with lots of horsepower are great—when you’re using them. Ours can hold us, our scuba gear and a spare friend. Fortunately though, we have a place to store our 11-foot hard dinghy and an easy system for hauling the heavy 9.9 horsepower outboard up when it’s time to stow it away. If we didn’t have big davits and a cavernous locker we might be tempted to tow the dinghy in conditions when dinghies shouldn’t be towed. Or we might resort to what several of our cruising friends have done—leave the big outboard stowed and buy a second, smaller outboard that is easier to get on and off for daily use.


A Question of Power  Motor size is directly related to dinghy size and passenger load—one rough rule of thumb is to allow four to five horsepower per adult to plane a dinghy, depending on weight. For a small dinghy that doesn’t carry a lot of weight, a small motor of 2.5 to five horsepower is enough to drive them. For the medium sized dinghies that are carrying more people and supplies, typically something in the 10 to 18 horsepower range is needed to get them moving and up on plane.

Material World   If you’re leaning toward an inflatable you should know about the fabric options for the tubes before making a selection:

• Unsupported PVC is still occasionally used on the least expensive inflatables. The quality and durability of unsupported PVC is generally determined by the thickness of the material. Thicker material will be more durable and last longer—but for the most part leave the unsupported PVC for the pool toys.


• Supported Polyester Fabric with PVC coating is the most common material for inflatable boats because it’s relatively economical, durable and long lasting. The drawback—especially for cruisers who might head south at some point, is PVC can be susceptible to UV radiation, salt water and chemicals—causing it to become sticky.

• Hypalon is very resistant to sunlight and chemicals, but is far more expensive. The material is also a bit more difficult to repair—requiring a two-part glue.

Accessories  Once you’ve selected your dinghy it’s time to add a few accessories that your dinghy shouldn’t be without.


• A small anchor—if the motor fails and the tide is running the little oars on an inflatable won’t get you very far. An anchor with 30 metres of rope can save the day.

• Portable running lights—you may not plan to be out at night, but if you are, you’ll need these.

• Lifejackets—we keep a dedicated set of lifejackets in the dinghy. That way we’re not bringing salty jackets into the boat, and we never forget them.


• Bailer—we tether a recycled milk jug to the dinghy. A sponge is handy too.

• Wheels—dragging a dinghy over sand or gravel can be hard work. Permanently attached stern wheels that can be easily flipped over or that slide down below the keel are a great addition to bigger dinghies.

• Dinghy cover—particularly for an inflatable made from PVC, a cover can increase its longevity.

• Safety gear—we keep a dry bag with a handheld VHF and First Aid kit handy in the big boat to take along to the shore or for longer dinghy excursions.