In the last part of the series, Skip examines the issue of tenders. In remote places a dinghy is your lifeline and its type, size and equipment are critical

A dinghy, tender, inflatable – call it what you will – is your lifeline to the shore. Its type, size and equipment become critical when sailing in remote areas, especially those with high winds. Equally, procedures in using it are key.

When in a popular anchorage in warm climates, you can paddle in to the beach safely on a crate of beer. In places like Antarctica, South Georgia and the Arctic, getting things wrong could mean an unpleasant stranding ashore or worse.

The argument about whether to have a solid dinghy or an inflatable is more or less moot; the inflatable wins the argument on most points. However, it is still very true, especially if short- or single-handed, that the ability to row into a headwind is important and, in that case, a narrow classic dinghy is a good option, but the stowage of the dinghy on deck might be an issue in big seas or a knockdown.

For cruisers with a crew, there are many more advantages with an inflatable: notably they are difficult to swamp and capsize, they can be stowed below (provided they don’t have a hard bottom) and are light enough to be pulled ashore easily and out of harm’s way.

This is particularly relevant in the case of ice fronts, where calving glaciers can throw up immense breaking waves on the shoreline. When leaving a dinghy unattended in these situations you need to make the effort to carry the dinghy a long way up the beach and gain some height.

I learned this on our first trip through the Beagle Channel – the dinghy came to rest upside-down on a 2m boulder well above the shoreline while we all ran for high ground.

Hard-bottom inflatables are a rather undesirable halfway solution. Yes, they have a more efficient hull, but they cannot be packed up and stowed for passages, they are heavy to carry up onto the shore and offer absolutely no advantages in brash ice.

Soft-bottoms best

Cruise ships on high-latitude ‘expedition cruising’ exclusively use soft-bottom inflatables, military style, for up to 16 people. Contrary to perception, pieces of brash ice merely bounce off the bow and sides of an inflatable when threading your way slowly through. It is rare to puncture a good-quality boat with ice, but of course it is possible.

Always secure a bowline to the boat when launching the tender off the foredeck in high winds

Always secure a bowline to the boat when launching the tender off the foredeck in high winds

Size matters. I mean, the smaller the better. There is no point in having a 5m inflatable on a 55-60-footer. It will be difficult to stow on deck and impossibly huge for packing up below. Davits are a solution for inshore work, but there is a temptation to be lazy and leave the boat inflated when going on passage – watch out! It is better to make two trips ashore for the complement of crew and have a boat that is easy to handle on board and on shore rather than a monster that can take a full load.

The same goes for outboard horsepower. It’s great to be able to plane the dinghy with two or three people, but if you have, say, six in a 4m inflatable, it just won’t happen – not, that is, if you have an outboard sized so it is not wildly dangerous at other times. You do need one powerful enough to drive the boat ahead efficiently with a full load against a strong headwind and chop.

As an example, we have two 3.8m Bombard C3s on Pelagic with 15hp Yamahas. On Pelagic Australis we have Bombard C4s that are 4m with 25hp Yamahas. They are a compromise between reasonable power and safety.

Two of everything

Note that I was speaking in the plural in the above paragraph. That’s right, like almost everything essential for remote cruising you need redundancy and this certainly applies to dinghies and outboards. If one fails – a leopard seal punctured both rear cones of one of our dinghies two years ago – or for any other reason is rendered inoperable, you need to be up and running pretty quickly with another. We have identical sets of gear, but it is acceptable to have a second dinghy and smaller (read cheaper) outboard to get by.

We always carry a flashlight, with the batteries removed

We always carry a flashlight, with the batteries removed

A dinghy with no equipment is a badly prepared dinghy. Here is what we carry, all of it in a yellow waterproof emergency canister attached to the transom:

  • Red rockets and orange smoke flares
  • VHF handheld radio in a waterproof case
  • Knife
  • Dinghy repair kit (glue and material)
  • Flashlight (with batteries taken out)
  • Spare spark plugs and plug puller
  • Small tool kit

In a soft bag attached to a strong point in the bow:

  • Small anchor (grapnel) and line
  • Bellows pump and hose
  • Spare set of paddles (the short plastic type)

Note that everything loose in the dinghy, which includes the main paddles, the fuel tank, those two emergency bags and the outboard itself, must have secure safety lines, ideally with stainless steel clips attached to the boat. Then if the dinghy does flip in surf or for any other reason, you won’t lose the kit.

I learned that lesson the hard way (on that same trip in the Beagle Channel) when our 4m inflatable, tied with a single bowline to the rail and left alongside overnight, was thrown upside-down by a vertical wind coming down off a cliff face and landed in the cockpit, bending the steering wheel, while the items listed above spilled out and floated away in a pitch black night.

Which brings me to the subject of bailing out. In any surf landing you will also need a bucket or two, as to relaunch usually means a soaking. We have also installed Whale hand bilge pumps on the transoms of our boats, which are very useful and practical for emptying out rainwater or water from leaks before setting out.

It is much easier than bailing every time or running out the water while planing, which might be impossible if you’re heavily loaded. The intake hose reaches the aft section of the bilge via a hole cut in the metal floor.

Emergency shore barrel

Preparations are not over. We have made it a standing protocol that if we are making a landing in a remote area we land a 60lt wide-mouth sealable barrel filled with emergency supplies in case a shore party cannot get back to the vessel for some reason.

This could be as a result of dinghy failure, a change in weather making it impossible get off the beach or maybe the boat is late in picking you up, the crew having gone off on a jolly of their own.

The emergency shore barrel – just in case

The emergency shore barrel – just in case

More often than not we drop people ashore and the dinghy returns to the boat. When stepping ashore in these places, think self-sufficiency for at least a day or two. The contents will vary according to the environment, but the prime considerations are shelter, hot food and communication.

This barrel always returns to the boat with the last load.

 In our barrel we carry:

  • Group shelter (not a tent, but a rectangular loose shelter to throw over people and get them out of the wind)
  • Gas stove, pot, mugs and spoons
  • Food, eg soups, tea, coffee, biscuits, pasta, whisky (might as well enjoy it!)
  • VHF radio or satphone
  • Flares
  • Flashlight (with batteries taken out)
  • TPA (thermal protective aids)
  • Small first aid kit

12-part series in association with Pantaenius