What kind of dinghy should I get?

Our dinghy was the first boat we had together, or at least we had all the  parts of the dinghy as our first boat.

When we graduated from college and drove across the country to Texas from Virginia, we had hours to discuss our plans. We’d already decided we were going cruising, and the moving truck we’d rented had all of our college furniture inside it. That we had found some of that furniture on the curb where someone else was throwing it out didn’t matter one bit – we were just going to deal with it for another couple of years. Why buy new?

Part of the conversation was about the dinghy.

When you’re cruising, your dinghy is kind of like your car. Scratch the “kind of” – it IS your car, unless you’re planning on marina hopping all over. You anchor the boat somewhere, then get in the dink to get you to shore, or to a neighbor’s boat for sundowners, or to find the cool river to explore. It’s what takes you and snorkel gear to nearby reefs, and helps you maneuver in tight spots. We’ve used it to scout anchorage entrances, armed with a boat pole to check depths. (Side note – some people use awesome handheld depth sounders. This sounds like an excellent birthday or Christmas present.)

  This might be on my wish list.

This might be on my wish list.

But the question about what kind of dinghy is about as fraught with “IT DEPENDS” as the big boat question. And, like much of the cruising lifestyle, there is not one right answer.

We moved to Houston and in with Jeremy’s parents until we could find our own apartment. Jeremy’s job had wanted him to start even before graduation, which wasn’t happening, so our available time to housing-hunt was non-existent. We arrived on a Saturday, unloaded the van into the garage on Sunday, and Jeremy was off to the office on Monday. It took weeks of driving around (this was before the Internet) and calling to finally find the perfect spot, which had a spare room.

The dinghy room.

Jeremy had his heart set on building a dinghy. He’d ordered plans from WoodenBoat Magazine for a 7.5’ long dinghy and talked about the craftsmanship he’d employ. He loves working with his hands and building things, and this felt like a way to really focus the boat-owning experience if it took a long time to find the boat we wanted. 

Heck with finding the boat, which was ours within 9 months. It took a long time to finish the dinghy. So long, in fact, that he put the finishing touches on it (permanently installing the bench) in Naples, Florida, about 3 months after we’d shoved off the dock from Kemah. Putting the last planks in was a matter of rushing to complete it before our apartment lease ended; it needed to be stable enough to move to another storage spot.

Dinghy #1: A wooden dinghy. These are fabulous and tough, beautiful to look at gorgeous to row. You can fit a sailing rig to it, and even a small outboard motor. They’re traditional, relatively stable, and simple. If you’re going to use it for snorkeling a lot, you will want to figure out a ladder system so you can actually get yourself out of the water, but this is a challenge even on an inflatable. 

  See both dinghies?

See both dinghies?

When we got to Grenada, we were a little tired of the wet, slow ride our gorgeous dinghy afforded us with its appropriately-sized 2 horse engine. We’d pulled out the sailing rig exactly twice. We hate rowing. These are good things to learn about us and how we work. Time to investigate the idea of an inflatable.

  Inflatable awesomeness.

Inflatable awesomeness.

Inflatables come in a number of flavors, most of which have to do with the floor you choose. You could choose just a flexible floor (think a pool toy raft kind of floor), but I don’t recommend this option for active cruising. You’ll be carrying trash to shore, water and groceries and laundry  to the boat, and schlepping people around. Choose a floor. You’ll be happier.

There are rollup floors, with slats of different materials. There are inflatable floors, or air floors. There are solid floors, called Rigid Inflatable Boats, or RIBs – which basically pair a solid floor and keel with buoyant tubes. You’re looking at a compromise of price, weight, convenience, and size.

We’d heard that Trinidad had great prices on engines, and that the place to buy a dinghy was Venezuela. Since we were loosely planning to go to both of those countries, operation buy-a-dink was set into high motion.

You’d think, with a 28’ boat, that we’d be looking at small, light, and stowable for our inflatable. A small Zodiac, maybe, or an Avon roll-up. 

No. We chose the biggest dinghy, with the biggest engine, we could conceive of. I don’t know if back then there were dinghies with consoles, but in any case that felt insane even to us. We decided on a RIB, either 9 or 10 feet long, that we’d buy in Venezuela, where Caribe and AB both had dealers or manufacturers – the details are a bit fuzzy. And for either of those dinks, a 15 horse motor is absolutely the right size.

Why a RIB? Jeremy had horror stories about Avons that didn’t hold air, and a Zodiac that was a nightmare to pump up every time they wanted to use it. We wanted a dinghy that was ready to go always, no pumping required. And the wet rides in Soca, the wooden boat, made us long for a planning hull. A RIB it was.

We bought the motor in Trinidad a good 6 weeks before we headed across to Venezuela, building a custom bracket for it to sit when we were on passage. 

  There's our 15 HP motor, on its bracket. How I love this engine.

There's our 15 HP motor, on its bracket. How I love this engine.

The engine for the boat? A 10 horse, single-cylinder, hand-crank Sabb. The dinghy, weighing just about 100 pounds, would have more power than our 14,000 pound boat. Ah the irony.

And when we got to Venezuela, sniffing out chandleries in Isla Margarita where other cruisers had told us they’d bought their dinks, it didn’t take long or much justification to go with an AB (we liked the interior volume and the bow locker) that maxed out our size range. We’d have kids eventually, we reasoned. Go big or go home. What’s an extra foot? The cost difference was negligible, the weight difference also tiny. Toby, the beagle, would love the space.

We looked very funny for the next year or so as we towed around 2 dinghies. Coming up the ICW to the Chesapeake Bay, a trip that’s marked with more motoring than sailing, we got in the habit of hauling the dinghies out on either side, looking for all the world like a weird trimaran. We got used to the cracks about the dinghy being larger than the boat.

  We were a 2-dink family

We were a 2-dink family

There were issues. Stowing the big dinghy, which we call Chutney, is a pain. It fits on the foredeck barely, rendering the windlass and the staysail unusable, so last minute lashing happens after the anchor is up, and coming into an anchorage means dealing with the dink until we can get it all done. And not having the staysail, for a boat designed to sail her best with the use of one, is just not sustainable.

So now, 25 years after we first bought the boat, 22 years after we brought our first dinghy on board, we are back in the conversation about what dinghy to have. Our plans include crossing oceans. We need to access the windlass. The staysail is an important part of our sailing world. As much as we LOVE Chutney, the bigger-than-life RIB we bought in Venezuela, a country that currently sits on our personal “off limits” list? It’s too big. 

So we’re measuring. Thinking. Asking lots of questions at boat shows. 

Here's the thing with dinghies, and it's like a lot of other boat conversations. 1) There's not one perfect answer for anyone. We started out wanting a wooden one, to show off skills and have it fit with the look of the boat. We shifted to wanting as large a dink, with as big a motor, as we could figure out how to use. And now we're onto the idea that the dinghy needs to stow well in a certain area (under the boom), be light enough to deal with effectively, and doesn't need to be huge.

As our lives have changed, so have our requirements for a dinghy. Don't think you're stuck forever with whatever you decide to get now. Flexibility is important for so many things in this wonderful boating world of ours.

Meanwhile, we’ve got 2 dinghies for sale. A wooden gorgeous one, and a 10.5’ RIB. Anyone want one?

  Cruising Venezuela, with 2 dinghies

Cruising Venezuela, with 2 dinghies