BB – The Dinghy Dilemma

Highfield dinghy in clear blue water

Do I even need a dinghy?

If you plan to be at anchor then you’re going to need a good dinghy, also referred to as a tender. Whatever you choose to call it, make sure that it is reliable and inspires lots of confidence. It’s basically your boat’s car made for the open ocean.  It’s something every boater will eventually need. Even if you are the type who’d prefer to swim ashore, I’d suggest getting one. Michael Phelps, you too.

You have to remember your family and friends might like to show up ashore dry to do some touring or grab a beer and get some of that yummy food they smell on land. What about your groceries? A dinghy will be your savior. It is an absolute must. Don’t go boating without one, trust me.

There’s not one dinghy for every situation

In the world of dinghies, there are seemingly endless choices. What’s right for you is just that, right for you. Don’t be surprised if your best friend has a different dinghy opinion than you. It’s ok, it’s totally normal. There is no such thing as the “perfect dinghy” and therefore no wrong or right choices to be made. That is because there is no dinghy that is right for every occasion. It gets right down to what you want most, period.

Super yacht with many dinghies

For instance, your average superyacht might have a half dozen different dinghies. It may seem one for every day of the week or mood but more than likely it is one for every situation. They can, we can’t. They have all types of space that we don’t. We are a sailing catamaran, which is in our eyes is pretty luxurious, but we still can’t exceed the limits of our boat, so it’s just one dinghy for us and no more. Well, maybe two, more later on that.

Dinghies are a bit of a balancing act, every choice you make affects another choice you already made, then causing you to rework the original problem. You’ll have to be extremely mindful of all these factors when it’s time to make a good dinghy choice. This is good news. Perhaps if you are at this point where you are reading this post, you are not just the curious type. You might be about ready to make the jump and trade in your day job and go sailing. This we hope and we’re here to help.

Know your limits

Our boat dinghy limits are that of the carrying capacity of the davits and space between the hulls. The davits are the two aluminum supports which hang off the aft, which is the same as saying the back of the boat. Our manufacturer set the maximum weight rating of the davits at 750 pounds and it must be able to fit between the insides of the port and starboard hulls. Bottom line is it must be less than 13 feet in length and less than 750 pounds, that’s it. The rest is up to us.

Dinghy in the water next to davits

Remember you are going to be out on the ocean with it. There are real consequences for the decisions you are about to make. Waves get bigger than you can imagine which could damage your dinghy and or davits if they were to take a direct hit. The manufacturer knows this and will have washed their hands of any liability that may arise from poor decisions. So it’s best not to go more than recommended.

It seems the smaller you go the better off you are but not too small. Too small and you could become a victim of waves or wind or another flipping boat’s wake for that matter and get swamped, not fun! Swamped is what you get when your dinghy fills with water all at once and resembles more of a bathtub than a boat. We have seen people in questionable situations and just hope they make it.

So please try not to go too big, too small, be underpowered, or overpowered for that matter and never ever exceed the dinghy’s recommendations.

Dang that’s heavy

Dinghy anchored on the beach

Weight is so, so important if you want to do the thing that’s referred to as beaching.  That’s what you do when you want to go to a beach. You drive the dinghy as close to land as possible then everyone hops out and drags it on land. Knowing how many passengers you’ll typically have will be very important here. Our dinghy lock, stock, and barrel weighs about 650 pounds. Beaching it almost always involves a bystander or two for both in and out.

Highfield anchored in the shore
Bungee anchor rope – out of waves & pull in to get in (Amazon link below)

Keep in mind that every single pound you add to your boat will slow it down some. Keeping your dinghy light will help to ensure your boat’s maximum cruising range. Plus all this weight will be aft. You should try to keep your boat balanced.

Dinghy wheels don’t work in beach sand. We got them for the beach but they sink into the sand and act more like a brake than a wheel. On a loading ramp or harder surface, they would definitely be beneficial, at least we hope.

A helpful tip: when you land on a beach, always take your dinghy anchor as far up the beach as possible and bury it in the sand or tie it to something at least. You never know when a large wave or wake comes in and takes your dinghy out to sea without you, or turn it sideways. It is so much harder to move when it is sideways. We learned the hard way. Tides change too, shit happens. Hope this helps you out someday.

zoom zoom

How much power do you need or want? Your dinghy’s manufacturer will give you max and min specifications. Pay hard attention to their recommendations. Think about the distances you want to travel and the time you want to commit to traveling. Did you also want to be able to tow a person on an inflatable?

Yamaha 25HP outboard

We went with 4 stroke Yamaha 25HP. I would have preferred to get the 2 stroke but it wasn’t available in the region we were purchasing. We went with a Yamaha because parts are available almost everywhere in the world, so if we get it serviced, it will not be a problem. It weighs in at a whopping 143 pounds, quite heavy but does about 30mph, smooth and fast on the water.

We also opted for the power tilt.  With a little red button, we can tilt the motor when you want to beach it or simply when you want to change trim for a smoother ride and reduce wake and drag while underway. Remember if you get the manual tilt, you’ll have to be able to lift all the engine weight yourself and the boat has to be stopped to do it.

Steering: Careful on the upgrades

Matt & Emily in our dinghy in front of sea arch

You get two steering choices, a rudder handle, standard, or a steering wheel, an upgrade. We went with a steering wheel. We have been very happy with this choice but it did too come with a caveat. When we added the option we didn’t know we wouldn’t be able to use the right oar. The bar that attaches to the steering wheel blocks this ability. We did notify the manufacturer but there has been no resolution. It is quite a bit of a safety concern for us now. We could literally find ourselves up a creek without a paddle. :O

Where ya headed?

Our journey began in the mediterranean. We figured that we’d be able to find plenty of dock space to tie up to in the med and we wouldn’t be beaching it that much. How wrong we were. We didn’t really know for sure what we were doing. Remember we hatched this whole boating plan over a beer or two on a patio one summer evening. We really didn’t know exactly how our decisions were about to affect us but, the purpose of this post, it wouldn’t have mattered. There is no right answer. We won’t always be in the mediterranean.

Big and bold

Now if you’ve not taken any advice here and decided anyways to go on the heavier side for the luxury of speed and space even after being warned and all is fine. We didn’t know any of this stuff I am writing here when we made our decision, lol. If you end up being like us, you’ll love your dinghy anyway because of said speed and luxury.

For better or for worse

Highfield dinghy being unwrapped

In the end, we went with a Highfield 380 pretty well-optioned out. We looked at other manufacturers, and in the end, it simply came down to it being lightweight and having an aluminum bottom. It’s 12.6 feet, rated for 7 people and can carry 1526 LBS. Weighing in about 430 pounds as equipped excluding the motor, battery, Raycor fuel filter, and ground tackle, which brings us up to 675 pounds in total. For the most part, we are pretty happy with our choices and feel fairly good in hindsight.

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Parking this bitch

If there is no beach to beach it, you’ll be needing to find a cement wall or pontoon to land on. It can be a hassle. Most pontoons, what I’ve grown up calling docks and for some reason now are called pontoons, are privately owned by businesses. Landing on one you’ll almost never really know if it’s ok. If you ask they might say no, so don’t ask, just do, I’ve learned. Mostly look for other dinghies around and land there. It will probably be just fine, lol.

Dinghy at restaurant cement wall

With such a nice dinghy, we have to consider theft. Now we have to lock it as everyone looks on, either laughing at us or sighing at us. We still lock it though. Dinghy theft and outboard theft are real things. Be sure to check with your insurance to see how your coverage works. No lock, no coverage is how our policy reads.

Every dinghy needs a name

We named our dinghy, Penelope, after Homer’s wife. Penelope inspires confidence. We’ve been able to do a lot of great things with her. We’ve cruised miles and miles of coastal waters with many friends aboard and seen some truly amazing sights along the way.

Volcano erupting at Stromboli

We’ve motored through what we consider to be terrifying waves and made good heading into strong winds and currents. Fished a bit. We’ve even been able to beach her with some help and some without help. We’ve anchored out past the waves and swam the rest of the way in. We went inside some neat sea caves or grottos, I’ve now been told they’re called. We even daringly motored around the island of Stromboli in Italy and watched a live volcano spew lava one courageous night. Good for us it didn’t explode till right after we left.

There were a few times however where we had to abort the mission and return to our boat when we couldn’t safely land due to a steep or rocky shore or no place to tie it. Thankfully we always keep plenty of provisions aboard. We didn’t go hungry.

Reevaluating our fleet

We are thinking of adding to our fleet.  After almost 2 years of being underway, we are realizing we would like a 2nd dinghy, one that we can handle just the two of us or even just one for that matter. It would also be great not to worry about theft.  We’ll be keeping our eyes out for a two-person inflatable with a 2.5  or 5 hp engine that’s under 100 lbs. Something we can deflate and stow until we can’t make land with Penelope. This time it will be all about weight and size and not about speed and comfort.

Pro tips from novice dips

dinghy at night in Dubrovnik

Most important, safety first not only when building your dinghy but every time you head out in it. It is an ocean you’ll be in and you’ll have to reckon with the decisions you made. Conditions are always changing. Getting back to your boat may not be as simple as they were when you headed out.

PVC fabric does not hold up and might not even last 10 years. It’s doesn’t hold up in hot sunny areas the places you are going to want to cruise in. Instead, go with Hypalon. It’s more shock/impact resistant and built to last you longer than 10 years. Consider chaps when in use and a dinghy cover when not in use.

Always take your life jackets, flashlight, and handheld VHF radio when you head out. You never know when you find trouble or trouble finds you. You’d never want to be adrift without these, trust me.

Recording of your boat’s GPS position can prove helpful because finding your way back in the dark is difficult. Things look so differently at night.

Lastly get a very bright light aft on the dinghy so others can clearly see you at night. Boaters are not necessarily in the habit of looking out for dinghies so never assume they see you, even with a dinghy light. One white light is not all that recognizable, especially its direction. Make clear sharp turns to help others around you.

It’s all good

With everything I’ve mentioned here, please remember this decision is supposed to be fun. You’ll never get it totally right, so don’t even try. Enjoy the process. Imagine all the cool places you’ll go and see.

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  1. Robert Allen says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and recognize the complexities that you cite. If I was buying one I’d feel better informed and consider the points you raised as new to me, for a better informed purchase decision.

    1. Kirk Thomson says:

      Great information! I hope you guys will be back under way soon.

    2. Matt says:

      Thanks Kirk!!! We’re just waiting things out for a little while longer here in the states. Thinking about getting back to to the boat this fall if all goes well and all. 🙂

    3. Matt says:

      Thanks for the feedback, glad you found it to be informative and all. I wish I had found a article like this before we bought it. Not sure if it would had swayed me or not but there was almost no useful information that I could find anywhere. Knowing your cruising grounds is step one… Glad you took the time to be informed:)

  2. Skydivintruckerjim says:

    Great read…yeah sweet dingy 4sure…from the other side of the spectrum your second one is exactly what you need!!!

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