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Sailing Totem: Keeping your Dinghy safe—Myths and Facts

When cruising, your dinghy is your car—and so much more! Here are some tips and ideas to keep your dinghy from going on walkabout.

March 10, 2021
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sailboat on the water during sunset
In most of the places we’ve cruised, the dinghy trails behind overnight. Behan Gifford

This story originally appeared on Sailing Totem.

Park your car at the supermarket, lock it and head in to shop. It’s reflexive for most of us. How does that translate to boat life?

There are common precautions for dinghy security, too. But just like locking your car on land, whether those are taken depends on your location and habits. I’ve lived in places where I could be in picking up ingredients for dinner with our car windows down and keys in the ignition. In others, secure parking wasn’t enough to mollify concerns of returning to the car and finding a smashed window.

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It’s not dissimilar as a cruiser. In some anchorages it’s fine to leave the dinghy trailing behind Totem secured only by its painter. In others, we’d lift it up high with davits and click multiple locks into place. Regions vary: in the Caribbean, we were vigilant about lifting and locking. In Mexico, we rarely lift and lock – only in “known problem” locales.

person on a paddleboard near a sailboat
In the Caribbean, our dinghy was almost always locked with a cable to the boat. Behan Gifford

It’s helpful to understand why dinghies can be a target for theft. In some places, it’s opportunistic joyriding. More commonly, the objective is the outboard, to be turned into cash. A dinghy is hard to hide. From a stolen dinghy, the outboard is taken and the dinghy ditched—often recovered from a beach or mangroves.

The mantra for dinghy security in areas where dinghies are a target for theft is “lift it, lock it, or lose it.” This breaks down into a few key steps to take to maintain dinghy security. None of them are insurmountable by a truly determined thief. The goal is to be the more challenging target, and have your dinghy left alone in favor of easier picking.

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A dinghy hoisted out of the water
On Que Tal, their prior boat, Carolyn and Dave Shearlock (of The Boat Galley) didn’t have davits, but employed a whisker pole assist for lifting to side-tie at night. Carolyn Shearlock

Lifting the Dinghy

Hoisting a dinghy out of the water is probably the biggest deterrent to theft. Davits make this easy. If you don’t have davits, lift it with a spinnaker halyard and secure amidships against the hull flush with deck level.

We used this method for our first year or so of cruising, because the davit arms are short for the transom angle. This requires the dinghy to get pushed aft while hoisted. The halyard technique worked, but check for line chafe. Our polyester double-braid cover chafed where it reentered the mast below the spinnaker halyard block. So we traded chafe for slight hassle, and went back to using the davits.

people in a dinghy next to a dock
Sometimes it’s hard to know about security at a foreign dock. Behan Gifford

Locking a Dinghy at the Boat

Whether the tender is in the water or on davits, securing it to the boat with wire cable and lock provides further deterrent. Note that even stainless-steel wire will rust and rot out over time, when the plastic cover allows water to intrude. Instead of wire cable, some cruisers use anchor chain, because it’s tough and rattles when moved. A length of 5/16″ galvanized chain such as G4 would serve well, though it’s rough on hands and dinghy tubes.

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Panther’s bar lock
Product image of Panther’s bar lock from Amazon retailer listing. Behan Gifford

Locking at the Dock

A dinghy dock can be the easiest place for a dinghy to go on walkabout. If you’re in a place where dinghies are stolen from docks, don’t be the easy target! Cable and a padlock are your friends again. It’s a good idea to lock your fuel tank in as well by running the cable through the handle. This can be a little tricky as some dock cleats are big, some small; and sometimes the cable needs enough length to reach the cleat across the dock.

At the dinghy dock La Marin, Martinique, we secured our dinghy with one lock between bow eye and cable and another lock with cable through a cleat. When we arrived back at the dinghy somebody added their own lock to the cable/cleat so that we couldn’t remove it. Fortunately, we could unlock the other end. Jamie went back to Totem to fetch a hacksaw. He cut the other lock and left it in pieces next to the cleat.

Product image from Sailors Solutions
Product image from Sailors Solutions. Behan Gifford

Locking the Outboard

Since this is the common goal, maybe it’s a place to start for security. Honestly? We’ve usually just had a padlock between the paddles that screw mount on the transom. This is about the lowest-barrier-prevention. Those paddles can be bashed or cut off relatively easily. We’ve also tried to avoid areas prone to theft, and hoisted at night when necessary. But maybe we’ve gotten lucky to have not “lost” an outboard.

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An improvement on this are barrel or bar-type locks: a tube or boxes that slide over both handles and lock them in place. These make the transom nuts impossible to turn, and the lock is difficult to drill out.

Another, better mousetrap is a Dutch-made Stazo lock that fits over just one of the handles. It’s exceptionally robust: 3 or 4mm of solid stainless. And while it’s not as imposing in some ways as the bigger bar-type lock, it’s very robust and needs to fit over just one of the clamp handles. Friends of ours have used this for over a decade, and give it high marks for standing up to the marine environment.

All locks can corrode so the keyway or combination dials don’t turn. An occasional rinse in white vinegar to break down corrosion, then fresh water rinse, and a few shots of anticorrosion compound should keep it working well.

Security on the Beach

This falls into the more variable category, and involves some creativity. In some places, an enterprising person on the beach can be hired to keep an eye on the dinghy for you. We’ve hired helpful humans who ranged in age from maybe 8 to 108 and all had perfect accountability. At times one wonders if the small fee isn’t a trumped up “protection” from the guard. In a few places we dragged the dinghy far enough up the beach to lock it to a coconut tree. All islanders know the value of a living coconut tree far exceeds the outboard and wouldn’t consider cutting it down! Mostly, we ask around to learn if there’s much risk. If there is, you stay with the dinghy, or run a shuttle. And you can always go with the Open Door policy, like the car left open with keys in the ignition. I’m sure we should add a legal disclaimer here about using your own judgement! Just remember: the outboard is the target, and contents of the dinghy shouldn’t be easy to remove. Make it hard to remove the outboard, don’t leave temptations wallowing in the bottom of your dink, and your chances of finding it as you left it go up immensely.

I Heard That…

There’s a reputation that if you make your outboard look “undesirable” by defacing the cowling so it looks older, it reduces your risk of theft. I assure you, thieves do not give a ____ what your outboard looks like. Overwhelmingly it doesn’t matter if you’ve aged it, plastered it with stickers, or given it a colorful paint job. I can think of two anecdotal cases where a vibrantly painted outboard helped. In neither situation did it prevent the theft, but it aided in the recovery. On the other hand, an outboard cowling is fun canvas for creative expression.

Now if you can make that 15hp look like a 9.9, maybe. Lower horsepower outboards don’t seem to sprout legs like the 15+ horsepower engines.

What about costly electric Torqeedo motors? Good news, the only person who cares about that is another cruiser. That’s not usually the thief, although it’s not a reason to go electric either.

Another (rumor? myth?) repeated phrase is not to name your dinghy as “tender to” with your boat’s name since— in theory—thieves on shore will see your dinghy at the dock as an all-clear on the mother ship. I can’t think of a single time we’ve heard that occurring and it smacks of the kind of fundamental distrust in local communities that leads us dismiss out of hand. Then again, we’re not the folks who label our dinghy as “T/T” anyway.

Don’t Be Dumb

While we are heavily biased towards faith in the goodness our fellow humans, there’s a basic rule we call “don’t be dumb” that applies. When a locality has a reputation for petty theft, practice good security. Don’t be the easy target.

A boat we shared some Indian Ocean anchorages with managed to have their dinghy stolen TWICE in a period of a few weeks because they violated the “don’t be dumb” law. The area had a reputation for theft; they had a proclivity for leaving the dinghy trailing behind the boat overnight. Failing to lift/lock (or at least lift) cost them two outboards (one, a loaner from another cruiser to replace what they’d lost!) in quick order… the dinghy, of course, always located the following day.

Suggested Gear

Padlocks: ABUS locks have an excellent reputation for durability in the marine environment. The weather resistant 55/50 is about half the price on McMaster-Carr compared to Amazon.

Cables: 10mm steel cable like this is good for all-purpose use. Think about distance from the dinghy’s attachment point to boat or davits or dock and back again to estimate length.

Chain: a length of G4 like this sold on Defender is preferred by many to cables for added security (and the built-in noisemaking alarm of a chain rattling).

Outboard lock: after researching this, we want one of those Stazo looks for Totem! Sailors Solutions has the best price; they sell the optional integrated cable as well, all for about a third of what you’ll pay in the Caribbean.

Outboard barrel-style locks: Panther marine’s stainless bar lock—the heavy-duty model—gets high marks online and informally from cruisers for durability.

GPS tracker: If you’re especially concerned, look into asset tracking GPS devices. They use an integrated SIM card and a monthly service fee – but it may be most comforting. A small TRAK-4 device relies on US cellular networks is the best value for domestic boating. The Sailing Family cruising internationally on Archer uses Spot Trace’s satellite connection to ping location on theirs anytime/anywhere.

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