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Choosing a Dinghy

Full of excitement, I pounded Larry on the shoulder as I pointed to the far shore and exclaimed, there it is. Thatís the one! The small gaff-rigged catboat was gliding effortlessly across the smooth waters of Somes Sound, ME, and I couldnít take my eyes off her. She was the dinghy I had been looking for.

Somehow I had gotten it into my head that we needed to have a sailing dinghy for scooting around in the anchorages. I grew up in dingies and probably sail them better with my eyes closed than open. Recently I started missing that pure sailing feeling you just canít get from anything other than a small boat. The problem was I didnít want just any old dinghy. It had to be as beautiful to look at as it was to sail. Happy that Iíd just spotted the one, I figured all that was left now was to identify its design and find one to buy.

After minimal sleuthing, we discovered it was a Beetle Cat. Great I thought. Iíd heard of Beetle Cats before and figured it wouldnít be so hard to find one. We checked the Internet and immediately found the Beetle Cat home page. My happiness was short-lived though, as Larry read off the specs of the boat to me.

"Twelve foot, four inches long," he said, eyebrows raised.

" Itís only a little on the long side," I replied.

" It has a canvas deck, Sue," he continued.

"So itís lightweight," I chimed in hopefully.

"It weighs 450 pounds!" he responded, closing the subject to further discussion.

I pouted, but knew I was soundly beaten.

My search for the ultimate sailing dinghy hasnít ended, but I have had to narrow my expectations a little. The dinghy I really want is not one that would be conducive to the cruising life, as practical considerations such as storage and durability., must be heeded.

There are about as many choices in dinghy designs as there are in cruising boats. You will need to make some decisions about what characteristics are important to you.

The most common cruising dinghy is by far the inflatable. These are very user-friendly since they are extremely stable and extraordinarily forgiving in landing procedures. The rigid-bottomed ones are a little more expensive, but offer better overall performance since they can get up on a plane more easily, and handle waves more proficiently. Their downside is that they are heavier and less versatile for storing when deflated. The soft-bottomed inflatables, with plywood floorboards as hull stiffeners, are still available today. New-generation models featuring an inflatable floor and keel, however, provide stiffening and enhanced directional stability with a reduction in weight and are easier to set up. One thing all inflatables have in common is that when that engine wonít start, they are a bitch to row!

The hard dinghy also has a strong following. Generally they are less stable, but much more durable for many years of wear. No need to worry about a punctured tube. They also perform far better under oar power than their inflatable counterparts, and many can be converted into a sailing dinghy. Many cruisers prefer the hard dinghy, and row all the time for the exercise. If you choose a hard dinghy to cruise with, do yourself a big favor and make sure the gunwales are covered with a soft rubrail to protect your own boat and others as you come alongside.

A common mistake made by cruisers starting out is in getting a dinghy and engine that are too big. We were guilty of this ourselves. Not so much with our dinghy, which is a 10 foot, hard-bottomed inflatable (could have done with an eight or nine-footer), but definitely with the engine. We bought a 15-horsepower outboard and thought it would just be the cat-daddy for cruising around with. And we were right. Once the engine is on the dinghy, and youíre not leaving that port for awhile, and donít need to take the engine off again right awayóthe 15 hp is nice. But for every-day, on-and-off-the-dinghy usage, itís a real pain because of its considerable weight of just over 80 pounds (and yes, we do have one of those motor lifters). We have since bought a two hp as well, which we use 95 percent of the time. If we had to do it over, we would probably choose an engine in between those two somewhere.

After youíve chosen your dinghy and powered it up, you need to think about how youíre going to store it. Your choices are fairly simple. You either lift it up on deck and lash it down, suspend it from davits at the transom, or always tow it behind the boat.

We love to use davits for dinghy storage. It's a simple, easy way to lift your dinghy and keeps the foredeck clear. The key to successful davit use is to ensure a davit design that lifts your dinghy high off the water, and secures the dinghy very tightly against the davits and the stern rail. We see many dinghies swinging loosely in their davits, and to make things worse, with a heavy engine left on. This is asking for trouble.

For offshore passages where a large following sea is possible, we put the dinghy on deck to avoid any possible breaking waves filling the dinghy. Some people use this as their reason for not installing davits, but in our minds, the convenience of the use of davits during the 95 percent of the time when you're not making passages far outweighs any other considerations. For boats that have wind vane steering systems, davits are not useable as the transom space is already taken up.

For the cruiser who chooses to store the dinghy on deck, a simple bridle can be made for the dinghy and it can be lifted on deck using one of the halyards. Many cruisers, when at anchor for several days or weeks, will suspend their dinghy out of the water alongside their hull to deter theft and avoid bottom fouling problems.

A few months ago, Larry and I were at a nautical auction and were excited to see a little old sailing dinghy that, although not the perfect vision I had, would have served it's purpose well. We figured we'd be able to get it for a steal, as who these days wants to bother with a little old sailboat? We devised our strategy in which we'd let the auctioneer ask for bids. There would be silence, and he'd ask again, then just at the last minute, we'd throw out a minimal bid, saving the day. We were already discussing how we were going to get it back to the boat.

Unfortunately, this is not how it went. A bidding frenzy erupted as eight people fought desperately to outbid each other. This 25-year-old, nine foot sailing dinghy finally sold for over $1,000 as Larry and I stood by speechless. Alas, my search for the ultimate sailing dinghy continues. Anybody out there know of a 10-foot Beetle Cat lookalike that weighs less than 100 pounds and doesn't have canvas decks?

Sue & Larry is offline  
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