Tenders: Hard vs. Inflatable
The rigid tender is tops when it comes to reliability and ruggedness
We tried to narrow the field to 8- to 9-foot boats, a size that's big enough for a couple but still small enough to fit on the deck of most cruising boats. Although this wasn't a formal test, I or one of our writers-some of whom know the boats intimately-was able to row and take a close look at all of the listed boats except the Gig Harbor Nisqually, a late entry into the field, and the NN 10, which wasn't available in time. However, we did get input from owners of the Nisqually, and we were able to test Barry Niccolls' latest creation, an 18-foot schooner that splits into two identical dinghies and shares many common features with the NN 10. Sailing rigs are optional for these dinghies, but we weren't able to sail every one. Any mention of a boat's sailing ability or towing characteristics is based on comments from one or more owners.
Trinka 8: Johannsen Boat Works, in Vero Beach, Florida, has earned high regard for its 8- and 10-foot Trinkas designed by Bruce Bingham. A great all-around performer under oar, power, or sail, the 8-footer is marked by a high freeboard and plumb bow. Cruising World writers Beth A. Leonard and Evans Starzinger, who carried a Trinka (and no outboard) with them during their first circumnavigation, extol the boat's ruggedness. "The Trinka is a joy to row, bulletproof in construction, and pretty to boot," said Evans.
Virtues: Johannsen's selection of smart options makes this dinghy highly customizable.
Vices: Quality construction, joinery, and hardware make the Trinka one of the more expensive boats in this group.
Walker Bay 8: A bargain buy and virtually indestructible, the Walker Bay 8 (also available in a 9-foot-6-inch version, the Walker Bay 10) answers the call for an affordable hard tender that can truly take a beating. Constructed of high-impact plastic in an injection-molding process, the Walker Bay manages a salty look with a lapstrake design that adds stiffness. For a couple of weeks last summer, I literally knocked around the cliffs, seawalls, and oyster bars of Narragansett Bay in a friend's Walker Bay 8 with only scratches to show for it. The Walker Bay needs virtually no maintenance except for the occasional scrub. A Classic version comes with teak floor grating, stainless-steel oarlocks, and a heavy-duty nylon rubrail.
Virtues: A feathery 71 pounds, the Walker Bay is truly a snap for one person to manhandle.
Vices: The standard plastic oarlock socket wears oblong with use; upgrade to metal.
Walker Bay RID 9: For those people who like the Walker Bay's value and durability but wish they had the load-carrying capacity and stability of an inflatable, the Walker Bay RID (rigid inflatable dinghy) is the answer. Incredibly stable, the Walker Bay RID 9 is the Walker Bay 8 with an inflatable PVC tube fitted along the gunwale. A larger, 10-foot-2-inch RID (the Walker Bay 10 fitted with tubes) is also available. Putting a rubber collar on a hard dinghy isn't a new idea, but by using a tube that varies in diameter and shape, the Walker Bay RID is the first such boat I've seen that still looks good. And it works: I could stand on the gunwale without getting my feet wet.
Virtues: Load the RID to the brim with no worries. Although the tubes add 18 pounds, the boat's still much lighter than others its size.
Vices: The tubes will add drag in wind and chop, slowing the boat when loaded or sailing.
Whitehall Minto: Whitehall Reproductions, in Vancouver, British Columbia, specializes in replicas of the original Whitehall boats, a working gig design most prevalent in 19th-century Boston and New York harbors. The 9-foot fiberglass Minto rows exceptionally well. We made good headway with three adults on board, even in a mild chop. A fine bow gives way to flat hull sections, so the boat remains stable during boarding. Although freeboard amidship is less than others in this group, it still provides a dry ride in chop.
Virtues: As much a museum piece as it is a workboat, the beautiful Minto excels in quality teak joinery and bronze hardware.
Vices: The rope rubrail is tougher to keep clean than the other types.
American Sail Trihull: With 42 years behind it, South Carolina-based American Sail has a good sense of what works. Slap a 2-horsepower engine on this tri-hull, and it's just what you need when it comes to hauling people and provisions. Just shy of 4 feet wide at the bow, the tri-hull affords maximum stability and payload capacity in a boat of this size. And with double-hull construction, foam flotation in the bow, stern, and gunwales, a nonskid interior, and rugged vinyl rubrail all standard, the boat stands up well to beaching and banging.
Virtues: For the avid diver, this is probably the only 8-footer you can comfortably flop into with your fins on. Its low profile (15 inches high) fits well under most booms.
Vices: Sailing isn't an option, although American offers another 8-foot tender in a sailing version.
Bauer 8: All three Bauer models (at 8, 10, and 12 feet, respectively) maximize hull volume with plenty of beam, generous freeboard, and flotation foam in an interior liner. The sweeping sheer and high bow are obvious when you line up the Bauer 8 beside other dinghies its size. A U-shaped bench seat aft allows the helmsman to steer from a more natural position when sailing or motoring and leaves plenty of room underneath for storage. The centerline thwart ensures perfect fore-and-aft trim and has a watertight compartment for keeping small items safe and dry.
Virtues: A little boat with big-boat features, the standard Bauer has minimal wood to worry about, although a teak-trim package is available for those who want it.
Vices: The hull's buxom shape and an inner liner make it slightly heavy for its size.
Boatex 8: Ontario-based Boatex makes four different moderately priced tenders (rowing or sailing) between 7 and 12 feet. The 8-foot-3-inch rowing/sailing tender we looked at had an optional navy-blue sheer strake, which highlighted the Boatex's graceful sheer and the classic tumblehome. With a 54-inch beam, the boat is very stable for its size, and the fine full-length keel gives it excellent tracking ability. With virtually no exposed wood, the standard version manages to produce classic looks without adding to upkeep. Get the optional rubrail.
Virtues: The towing eye is a failsafe metal grommet installed laterally through the stem, leaving no hole into the hull or fasteners to fail. Vices: The hanging-thwart design leaves some hard edges and a few tough-to-clean nooks and crannies.
Dyer Midget: The 8-foot-1-inch hard-chine Dyer Midget is an offspring of the famous 9-foot Dyer Dhow. Today, The Anchorage in Warren, Rhode Island, builds the five evolutions of the Dhow up to 12 feet. For use on boats with low boom clearance, Dyer offers a "Lo-sheer" version of the Midget that's just 18 inches high. Teak trim, patented bronze castings, a bit of leather trim, and Sitka spruce spars (in the sailing version) give the Midget's pragmatic hull a traditional accent. Alvah Simon, who relied on a Midget during his 13-year circumnavigation, had these high compliments: "It's featherlight, very strong and durable, and stable enough for diving; it has enough of a forefoot and keel for it to tow well."
Virtues: Any design that's stood the test of 70-plus years has got to be good.
Vices: The large, flat floor panels will flex, but for many, this is a fair trade-off for lightness.
Fatty Knees: The Lyle Hess-designed Fatty Knees comes from Edey and Duff, a Massachusetts builder of distinctive boats with character, including Sam Crocker's Stonehorse sloop. Available in 7-, 8- and 9-foot versions, the Fatty Knees looks a bit pudgy in plan view, but its modest sheer, prow bow, judicious use of teak and bronze, and lapstrake hull add a classic dimension to a very functional hull form. In the right hands, she'll handle chop with aplomb when loaded full of people or provisions. As for durability, cruising icons Larry and Lin Pardey have put two decades into their 8-foot Fatty Knees and have lavish praise for the tough little boat.
Virtues: Two rowing stations ensure proper rowing trim with one to three people aboard. The offset (to port) motor mount allows enough room to steer from the aft seat.
Vices: The T-shaped centerline thwart may take some getting used to.
Gig Harbor: Located in Gig Harbor, Washington, Gig Harbor Boatworks has for 30 years been adapting proven workboat designs. In its eight-boat line, at least three models, the 7-foot-11-inch Nisqually, the 9-foot-6-inch Captains Gig, and the 10-foot Navigator Dinghy, could be suitable tenders. The Nisqually is a scaled-down version of a utility boat commonly rented out for recreational purposes during the 1890s. The optional Kevlar-reinforced version of the Nisqually, cored with Klegecell foam, is exceptionally light and strong; the heavier, solid-fiberglass version is still quite light thanks to its single-skin lapstrake construction. The low-maintenance Nisqually, a capable rower, sailer, and powerboat, is a true multipurpose dinghy.
Virtues: Lightness and low maintenance are hallmarks of the Nisqually. Vices: Gig Harbors are built one at a time, so don't expect overnight delivery.
HunterLiberty: In building the 10-foot-2-inch Liberty, which Hunter Marine introduced last year, large extruded sheets of a rugged plastic are superheated until pliable, then vacuum-pressed onto the molds, one for the hull, another for the hull liner. Flotation foam backed by fiberglass mat is added on the inside of the hull and liner before the two parts are joined. The stiff, virtually unsinkable hull looks and feels like fiberglass but has five times the impact resistance and none of the gelcoat-maintenance worries. With lean, Whitehallish styling and a fine bow, the Liberty is an excellent rower and is light enough for a couple to handle easily.
Virtues: The revolutionary production process permits an attractively low price.
Vices: The ultra-slick hull will need some nonskid pads for better footing.
NN 10: Searching for a hard dinghy to fit on his Coronado 27, entrepreneur and avid cruiser Barry Niccolls came up with a fairly narrow 10-footer that could be separated into two halves, with the 40-pound bow section nesting inside the 60-pound, 5-foot-8-inch-long aft section. Either half has enough foam flotation in sealed thwart chambers to float on its own. Normally, you attach the two halves in the water from a kneeling position in the aft hull. Stainless-steel latches and a special fastening system make joining the two bulkheads quick and easy. Rubrails made of PVC hose and the polyethylene seats reflect the boat's utilitarian priorities.
Virtues: You get a bigger dinghy without sacrificing the deck space or having to heft 110 pounds or more at a time.
Vices: The production rate is limited, so you can expect to wait three months or more.