Choosing a dinghy is one of sailing's great compromises. Different sailors call upon a dink to perform diverse tasks. A racer with his boat on a mooring needs a tender capable of carrying all the crew and gear a short distance to the buoy, where the dinghy then waits for the end of the race. A liveaboard couple may use their dinghy to haul supplies long distances, to set storm anchors, for fishing, diving, and exploring.
Size and power are the major considerations. Too small a dinghy makes hauling unexpected guests or heavy loads a dangerous undertaking. Slow speeds make trekking to a distant anchorage miserable if the weather turns foul. On the other hand, too large a dinghy and engine are difficult for a small crew to handle and stow in a seamanlike fashion. It is our observation that many novice liveaboard cruisers begin with very small, low-powered dinks and gradually work themselves up the dinghy size and power chain to large planing tenders.
Choosing the proper dink has many facets. Besides speed and carrying capacity, other considerations are:
Weight and the crew's physical condition
Susceptibility to damage
Repairability and maintenance
Methods of powering
Fortunately, there is a dinghy on the market to suit any need. Here are some thoughts:
Solid dinks of wood, fiberglass, aluminum, or plastic are rugged and very long-lived. If the purchase price is amortized over their lifetimes, they are very inexpensive, and they retain resale value nearly anywhere. Rigid dinghys can take the abuse of commercial docks, beaches, and knocks against coral. If damaged they are easy to repair in most parts of the world with basic materials and tools. A little filler and fresh coat of paint can make an old dog look like new. Little boats have more power options. They can be sculled, rowed, paddled, sailed, or powered by an outboard motor.
Inflatables Inflatables have much greater stability and carrying capacity. They are hard to tip over when loaded and can carry up to 30 times their own weight in crew and gear. Inflatables are fast. Properly powered, even small inflatables are capable of speeds over 25 knots.
Roll-up boats are light and easy to store. Two people can usually haul one aboard without mechanical help. Folded up, an inflatable can be stuffed in the V-berth, which is a blessing in preventing theft or preparing for an oncoming storm.Rigid Inflatables
As expected, a hybrid with a solid hull bottom and inflatable hull sides has some of the best and worst features of each type. RIBs have the speed, buoyancy, and stability of the inflatable, but also share their limited rowing and sailing ability. RIBs provide the stable ride and handling of a solid dinghy, but present the same weight and stowage problems as the hard tender. RIBs require maintenance kits and skills to repair both materials.
The dinghy equation should be tailored to not only the use for which it is intended, but the crew and the mothership as well. Here are some thoughts on what works:
Boats on moorings that never leave their homeport need a good solid barge for a dinghy. A large flat-bottomed aluminum hull is fine where the harbor is usually calm. Be sure to put numerous fenders around its rubrail.
For solo voyagers or couples on a long-term cruise with a limited budget, a cockleshell hard dink is probably best. Used ones are cheap, no outboard is required, and maintenance and repairs are inexpensive. Best of all, at the end of the cruise, the purchase price can be recaptured by selling the dink.
For couples, families, or larger groups on mid-sized boats up to 40 feet, an inflatable is probably the best choice. This is especially true if the cruise isn't intended to last a lifetime or if there are physical handicaps such as a bad back. Halyards or special deck cranes make handling lightweight boats and motors quite easy.
A mothership between 40 and 60 feet will probably be fitted with davits or a motorized transom lift to handle a larger tender. Given that the budget enabled this lucky sailor to own a large boat, the cost of a RIB shouldn't be a problem. The extra carrying capacity and speed will be appreciated in many anchorages.
Sailing vessels over 60 feet may opt to go back to a rigid tender, completing an interesting circle. Here, single-arm hydraulic davits can hoist a half-ton speedboat aboard and set it in a cradle without effort.