Tenders: Hard vs. Inflatable
The rigid tender is tops when it comes to reliability and ruggedness
At a time when it seems everyone is packing RIBs or roll-up inflatables on board, why are cruising icons Lin and Larry Pardey, arctic adventurer Alvah Simon, Cruising World technical editor Ralph Naranjo, sailing writers Dave and Jaja Martin-all circumnavigators-and many others with miles and years beneath the keel so quick to praise the virtues of the seemingly archaic rigid dinghy? Because they take a beating and they work, no matter what.
In the October 2003 Cruising World, we tested rigid inflatable boats (RIBs). In the November 2003 issue, we examined roll-up inflatables. In the final installment of our boat-tender review, we look at 14 different hard dinghies, boats that will find special favor among cruisers who put simplicity and durability above all else.
During our 11 years of cruising with a homemade fiberglass dinghy, my wife, Theresa, and I rarely wished we'd had a fast inflatable or RIB. Talk to other hard-dinghy owners, and they'll give many reasons for their preferences. A hard dinghy keeps you fit, has personality, can be rigged with a sail, is economical to buy and maintain, and, perhaps most important, can always be quickly deployed to set a second anchor or to kedge off a shoal.
If you're convinced that a hard dinghy fits your lifestyle, here are key points to consider when choosing a model:
Size: Performance improves as waterline increases; the only real penalties for going big are added weight or lost deck space. Get the longest dinghy that you can safely fit on board and that you can drag up a beach by yourself.
Fit: Ideally, the tender should fit low on the deck overturned under the main boom or, on larger boats or center-cockpit boats, on the fantail. Davit stowage is fine for coastal hops but risky crossing oceans. Also check how thwarts and centerboard trunks fit over such deck features as hatches you may want to open for ventilation when the dink is overturned. Stability: Generally, beamier boats with flatter bottom sections have more initial stability up to about 15 degrees of heel, but rounded hulls will be stiffer when heeled more than that. For those who want inflatable-like stability in a hard dinghy, consider flotation collars like Dinghy Dogs (401-295-8382, www.dinghydogs.com).
Weight: For two- and three-person dinghies, aim for about 130 pounds or less, still light enough for one person to drag above the high-tide line. Many models are much lighter than this, all the better for your back. Manufacturers' listed weights tend to be optimistic. See the boat, or a sister ship, and heft it yourself.
Rowing efficiency: For good performance, lightness is less important than an efficient underbody and trim when loaded. A fine bow, long waterline, canoe underbody, and minimal wetted surface are your biggest assets-but these all come with trade-offs. The slicker, stiffer hull bottoms of fiberglass boats offer less drag than the softer hulls of plastic or polypropylene boats. Except where noted, all of the boats below performed fine with one or two people aboard.
Thwart type: Centerline seats and two rowing stations allow the rower to easily shift position according to the load. A traditional thwart across the middle allows you to better stow the usual cargo. On boats with middle thwarts, you can usually add a forward set of oarlock sockets and, if needed, a removable centerline seat between the forward and center thwart to achieve proper trim with two people aboard.
Towing: Typically, either a fine full-length keel or a vestigial keel (skeg), or both, help to keep boats tracking straight. The trick is to minimize drag. If the boat tilts far aft off of its lines when towed, it's probably inducing some extra drag. An Andersen self-bailer (available through West Marine and other marine retailers) or a similar device is worth having if you plan to tow the boat often.
Oars: Oars should be at least 6 1/2 feet long; many people prefer 7 feet or longer. In any case, make sure the oars fit inside the dinghy. Wood is the best choice (lightweight spruce is excellent) for cruising sailors. Chafe protection in the form of buttons and leathers is essential.
Oar locks: Most owners (including me) prefer round oarlocks held captive on the oars by retainers or the buttons (the leather strips that surround the inboard side of the leathers). Others prefer the traditional horn type. Take your pick, but carry a spare.
Buoyancy: Traditionally, builders achieve the essential positive buoyancy by putting airtight flotation chambers in the bow and stern seats. Other boats use foam between an inner liner and hull. The latter adds strength and allows for more stowage space but can increase weight. Sailing performance: This is a nice, but not essential, feature. You simply can't expect screaming reaches from an 8-footer designed for the more important job of ferrying people and provisions. Nevertheless, a sailing rig expands your horizons and can be a real blast for the kids on board, particularly when other sailing dinghies are in the anchorage.
Other options: The list of options on many tenders is fairly long and can add substantially to the price of the boat. Many of them, like teak trim and floorboards, look nice, but unnecessarily add weight and maintenance. Key options to consider are the rubrail (particularly important), lifting eyes or harnesses (sometimes custom-fitted for davits), and a self-bailer or drain plug (essential for davit-stowed dinghies).