What sort of tender should you get? And where do you stow it? Dan Bower discusses dinghies and outboards and their myriad uses when long-distance cruising

BST logoA major part of your cruising life will be spent using your tender. In many areas in the tropics marinas are few and far between, so you will be reliant on a good sturdy dinghy for multiple runs ashore.

Of course, there are many options on the market for both the dinghy itself and the outboard, so make sure you have weighed up all the pros and cons of the different designs.

How important is the weight? Will there just be two of you trying to drag it up the beach, or will you have a large crew? Is stowage aboard an issue – is there a suitable place on deck to stow it on passage, or will it need to be packed away in a locker? How important is speed and the ability to plane?

RIB or foldaway?

One of the decisions to make is a hard-bottomed RIB versus a fully inflatable. We personally favour a RIB as when the tubes are deflated it stows perfectly upside-down in front of the mast where we can lash it securely. When the anchor is down, it is a reasonably quick job to reinflate the tubes with an electric pump, attach a halyard and launch it over the side.

For us this is a much quicker solution than the fully inflatable type, which can take a while to heave out of a locker and then sort out the array of floorboards and panels into the correct configuration, or the inflatable floors that go a bit soft when the temperature cools. However, if you are short of space on deck for a RIB, then this is the one for you.

Larger yachts now often have davits on the stern, although quite a bit of care must be taken on long passages as it can be hard to secure the tender satisfactorily, and unwanted chafe can easily occur.

The main downside of a RIB is weight. This is OK in the Caribbean where you can leave it at a dinghy dock, but if you’re in the Pacific it means dragging it up the beach past the surf, or anchoring off and swimming in.

Towing the tender

Another factor is how well it will tow at sea, with or without its engine. The lighter the dinghy, the more prone it will be to flip. We are happy towing our dinghy anywhere while cruising, but we remove the engine for an inter-island or offshore passage.

We lash the dinghy on deck for overnight passages, partly because of the risk of losing it and partly because it’s worth the effort for the speed gains on a longer passage.

When towing we secure the painter with a bowline around a cleat, as the traditional 080 can manage to wiggle loose. We also favour anchor warp as a painter so it absorbs the shocks and bumps. Care needs to be taken when manoeuvring. Make sure the dinghy is close to the boat, as a non-floating line can end up in the prop.

Choosing an outboard

When choosing outboard engines it is a good rule to go for the biggest that will fit on your dinghy. We favour two-stroke engines – although they are no longer available in the UK, they are in the Caribbean, which is usually the first place you need it. The advantage of the two-stroke is power to weight and ease of stowage and maintenance.

Our 10ft RIB can take a 15hp engine, which allows us to plane with three or four people and feel comfortable venturing a little offshore. It is important to consider how many people you are generally going to be ferrying around when deciding on engine size, and whether you have the patience to go everywhere slowly or not!

In the Caribbean it’s windy and the dinghy dock could be half a mile away, or the shop you want three miles across the lagoon. The British staple of an Avon Redcrest and a 2.5hp outboard doesn’t really cut it.

The general problem with inflatables and RIBs is that they are almost impossible to row in any wind. As outboards can go wrong – and probably at the most inconvenient moment – we keep a small toolkit and spare pullcord taped inside the engine housing, an anchor in the bow locker and a VHF to hand. Most anchorages are on the leeward coast and the next land could be far away.

We carry a small toolkit in case of mishaps

We carry a small toolkit in case of mishaps

Dinghy pack contents

  • Spark plug spanner
  • Spare spark plug
  • Screwdriver to access pull cord
  • Spare pull cord
  • Spare kill cord
  • Shear pin (and tools if applicable)
  • VHF radio (charged)
  • Light
  • Anchor and sufficient rode

Lock it or lose it

Once you have made your very expensive purchase, you really do need to put some thought into the best way of securing it. Any rigger will make up a sturdy plastic-coated wire strop that can be used to lock dinghy, outboard and fuel tank to the dinghy dock ashore or to the yacht at night.

Make sure this is a reasonable length as some dinghy docks can get incredibly crowded and a short strop may not reach.

It is important that the strop goes through the handle of the outboard as well as through the fuel tank. The one time we forgot to lock on our tank (having just filled it up) it disappeared. If you’re very unlucky, an opportunist may steal the fuel hose – this is very inconvenient and we haven’t yet found a way to avoid it!

A good stainless marine padlock works well to lock the strop onto the shore or the yacht at night. We have had no success with so-called waterproof padlocks; they still quickly rust up and become unusable, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

We use a long cable and padlock to secure our outboard and fuel tank

We use a long cable and padlock to secure our outboard and fuel tank

We lock our dinghy off the back of the boat at night, but some cruisers favour hoisting the whole thing off a halyard attached to a bridle set up in the dinghy. This makes it a lot harder to steal and can also help delay the onset of fouling, which will eventually occur if you are keeping the dinghy in the water for long periods of time.

Every now and then it becomes necessary to take the engine off, capsize the dinghy and scrub its bottom to clear weed and barnacles.

UV protection

In the tropics ultraviolet has a huge influence on the yacht’s equipment and this applies equally to the dinghy.

A good sturdy sunbrella cover to protect the tubes will prolong its life significantly, and we find a cover over the outboard not only protects it from scrapes on dinghy docks, but also hides the fact that it might be brand new to potential thieves.

We have a cover for our engine

We have a cover for our engine

Some cruisers favour painting the engine cover in bright colours as a deterrent as well.

Other uses for your tender

♦ Setting kedge anchors In addition to the dinghy’s obvious function of ferrying people between the shore and the yacht, there have been times when it has had other uses. Some anchorages may have an uncomfortable swell rolling in and it may be useful to set a stern anchor to keep the bows into the swell.

Another reason may just be that you are in a particularly crowded anchorage where you don’t have the luxury of much swinging room. The dinghy can then come into play to set your kedge anchor.

Simply lower the anchor into the dinghy, have a bucket for the chain and then pay out the rope from the yacht as the dinghy driver takes the anchor out to a suitable position.

Setting a kedge anchor

Setting a kedge anchor

♦ Mooring buoys We have often used the dinghy in situations where we have been moored to a buoy instead of anchoring. If the buoy has no pick-up lines you may have had to lasso it initially. If, like us, you have a high bow, the dinghy (which doesn’t necessarily need its engine on) can be used to attach mooring lines properly.

♦ Marina berth assistance On Skyelark the combination of severe propwalk in astern, a skeg-hung rudder and a long fin keel all conspire to make certain mooring situations hugely difficult, sometimes impossible. We have not been afraid in the past to explain to harbour masters that we know for a fact that the berth they want us to go in is not going to be possible. Knowing what your boat will and will not do is half the battle!

If you have this problem, then this is where your faithful dinghy can once again come into play. We have used our dinghy on several occasions to get us in or out of tight spots, where we use it as a movable, very powerful bow thruster. Occasionally we have also used the dinghy to push the bow all the way round so that the yacht can be driven out forward instead of hoping it will go in a straight line in reverse, which ours will rarely do, particularly with a strong wind blowing.

Communication, of course, between dinghy and helmsman is a key factor here. Make sure the plan is fully understood by all before beginning the operation.

♦ Main engine failure Don’t forget a decent dinghy and outboard can be a substitute for your main engine should it fail at an inconvenient moment. The system of lashing the dinghy firmly alongside and using its outboard to provide power has been employed many times to good effect – another good reason to buy a decent-sized outboard and have plenty of petrol to hand.

It’s another good reason for thinking through how quickly you could launch your dinghy and have it ready. If you have the luxury of borrowing a friend’s dinghy, one each side makes the boat very manoeuvrable.

♦ Touching the bottom Not that this EVER happens, but getting stuck in the putty can be difficult to get out of when there is minimal tide. The St Martin lagoon is now thankfully buoyed, but in the past it has been a case of ‘feeling’ the channel.

Here the dinghy can be used either as a bow thruster to spin the yacht around and go off forwards where the prop is more powerful, or to heel the boat by means of a halyard.

Even better, it can be used to sound the channel ahead with a handheld depth gauge and not get stuck at all . . .

♦ Rescue cover For those who are keen to combine other watersports with their sailing, the dinghy forms useful rescue cover. It’s good for kitesurfers and windsurfers to be able to have a back-up plan for when it all goes wrong, and also to shadow swimming parties to the shore. This way you can put the dinghy between the swimmer and the approaching jetski or manoeuvring yacht.

Give thought to how you can get into the dinghy from the water. The sealion ‘flop’ works for the more energetic, but a boarding ladder is easier for most.

Do’s and don’ts

Always attach a kill cord

Always attach a kill cord

Do always wear a kill cord

Do protect the tender’s tubes and engine with a UV-resistant cover

Do lock dinghy, engine and fuel tank to the boat at night, or at the dinghy dock ashore

Do use a small anchor to keep the dinghy off docks where there is a swell running

Do o make sure the crew have waterproof bags for personal items that shouldn’t get wet

x Don’t overload the dinghy with too many people; do two runs ashore instead

x Don’t set off without the oars aboard!

x Don’t set off at night without a torch – the driver wearing a headtorch works well.

Dan and Em Bower

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Dan and Em Bower, both in their thirties, are lifelong sailors. Six years ago they bought Skyelark of London, a Skye 51 by American designer Rob Ladd, built in Taiwan in 1986, and have been sailing and chartering her ever since, making some 12 transatlantic crossings and covering around 60,000 miles.

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