When you’re a boater living on the hook (at anchor to you landlubbers) as opposed to living in a marina, you need a way to get around. As far as anyone knows there’s only one documented instance of a person walking on water, and you can’t swim from shore with a load of groceries. Therefor a dinghy is absolutely essential. It is your car/or pickup truck.
In choosing a dinghy for your needs there are several questions that need to be addressed.
What size should it be? This depends on how many people you are going to transport and how much gear you will be hauling from shore to the boat and back.
How fast do you want to go? There are three ways to go. You can row it, sail it or put an outboard on the back.
Where are you going to keep it? Are you going to keep it on deck? The cabin top? In a locker? On davits or are you going to tow it? Towing, though, has problems. If you’re going to make offshore passages it needs to come aboard. When you tow, spray inevitably gets inside the dinghy which adds weight and towing will measurably slow you down. A gallon of sea water weighs in at 8.556 lbs and each gallon that sprays into the dinghy means you’re dragging along more weight. And if you don’t keep an eye on the dingy and the tow rope you’re liable to lose it.
Basically you have two choices when choosing a dinghy. It will either be hard or an inflatable. Each, of course, has its pros and cons.
Hard dinghies are usually heavier than inflatables and are able to withstand more abuse and they aren’t prone to being punctured. They are generally easier to row, tow or sail than an inflatable. There are also many more choices (models, styles) available than a blow up boat. On the downside hard dinghy usually has a smaller carrying capacity than a similarly-sized inflatable. Hard dinghies are generally less stable than an inflatable and harder to climb into if you’re in the water. Stowage is also more problematic with a hard dinghy since they need to be hauled aboard and lashed down or suspended on davits off the transom. The problem of stowing of a hard dinghy can be eased somewhat by building or buying a “nesting” dinghy.
Inflatable dinghies are usually made of some kind of reinforced fabric, Hypalon is the most durable and therefore expensive, while others may be made with varying qualities of PVC. Inflatables are essentially tubes with varying flooring options; either soft or rigid. They generally have a larger hauling capacity than a hard dinghy and are more stable and easier to get into from the water. With the exception of the semi-rigid inflatables they are generally lighter than a hard dinghy and therefore easier to store aboard, often in a locker or the lazarette. Having your dinghy aboard the boat reduces the chance of theft but you certainly wouldn’t want to deflate one on a daily basis to stow it in a locker.
You can run an inflatable into a dock or the side of your boat without doing damage to much more than your dignity if people are around to see you do it. That is, unless there’s a nail sticking out of the wood on the dock where you hit. Then you’ve discovered the biggest shortcoming of the inflatable. They can, and do, get punctured and they depend on air to keep them afloat. The better built boats (read more expensive, here) are built with multiple chambers so that puncturing one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to sink. Whatever choice of fabric that is used in the construction of an inflatable it is subject to degradation from the sun’s UV rays meaning more care is needed than with a hard dinghy.
While most inflatables perform better under power than a hard dinghy, they don’t usually tow as easily and rowing one, while not impossible, is somewhat akin to taking your car the grocery store by leaving the motor off, having the driver’s side door open and pushing it along with your left foot as if it was a scooter.
Variations of Inflatable Dinghies
Soft Bottom: These are the basic inflatable and the least expensive. They are often likely to have only a single tube and if you hole it you’re sunk. But they’re light and easy to bring aboard. The bottom is usually a simple single layer of fabric. It’s very difficult to stand up in one of these boats. In general they will only accept the smallest of outboard motors and probably won’t plane.
Slat Floor Soft Bottom: A step up, but in my opinion a baby step. These dinghies have wood, plastic or metal slats built into the soft bottom and are rolled up with the dinghy after it’s been deflated. It is a bit more stable than a regular soft bottom dinghy but still difficult to stand up in one of them.
Removable Rigid Floorboard: These inflatables, as the name implies, has separate floorboards usually wood or aluminum. These floorboards are inserted over the fabric floor and held in place by the tubes when they are inflated. These are much better performers than either of the two previously mentioned tenders, but they require more time to make ready for use because you have to assemble the floor. When I was running Jolie Aire over in Europe we purchased a high–quality one of these and it performed well with a 25 hp outboard. It got up on a plane in an instant and was an enjoyable boat overall.
Rigid Bottom Inflatables: Generally referred to as RIBs or Hard Bottoms. This type of boat has an inflatable tube collar around a fiberglass deep-vee hull. These are the best performers of the inflatable boats. They are more stable than the other inflatables but are also harder to stow than the three previous inflatables and in this respect have the same stowage drawbacks of a hard dinghy. They come in a dizzying array of sizes from eight feet to this 38.5′ long inflatable with a cabin:
This is also an “RIB”
When I bought my Nancy Dawson she came with a 10′ RIB and a Suzuki eight horsepower outboard which served double duty as the power for the mother ship as well. I loved that dinghy and had a lot of fun with it. It towed well and I towed it for well over a thousand miles altogether. But it was a bear to stow on my little sailboat. You can read about what I had to do through in my post about sailing to Isla Mujeres.
You can go to the many web sites by boat designers and be overwhelmed by the choices available to you. Some are beautiful and some are really, really ugly. They can be found made of wood, aluminum and fiberglass and a variety of sizes. The hard dinghy generally is easy to row, many can be sailed and most will accept some kind of outboard. From my own experience I think that the least desirable of these dinghies is a pram less than 10 feet long. That being said I leave it up to the reader to decide.
I have been intrigued for years by what is known as a “nesting” dingy. There are several versions of this kind of boat. It comes in two sections one of which “nests” inside the other and thereby taking up a smaller footprint onboard.
This is called a “Seaweed” and is presented here to show what is meant by “nesting.” It was home built by someone with good wood working skills and is in no way an endorsement of this design over any other. The article that is accessed through the link below will show you the entire building process and is well worth the read if you’re interested in how much work went into this boat. The author, Ray Henry, says it took him 171 actual working hours to create this beautifullyboat and cost approximately $900 for materials, rigging and harware but I don’t know when this was built.