Our friends were eight months into their encore cruise.
"Itís not how it used to be," the patriarch was saying.
The "used to be" in this case was 20 years earlier.
As he spoke I gazed at the blue light of television screens flickering from the portlights of the boats anchored around us.
"Boats are bigger," I offered. "Cruisers are bringing more of their shore life along with them. Floating suburbs."
"Itís not that," he said. "Itís the dinghies. When we cruised before, lots of sailors rowed to shore. If you are out in the cockpit when someone comes rowing by, you canít help but exchange greetings. Even when they come putting by, you have the opportunity to speak. Thatís exactly how we first met almost all of our cruising friends. But now itís all RIBs with big motors. Zoom, theyíre gone. Zoom, theyíre back. If youíre quick, you can toss off an encouraging wave. Thatís about it."
A perceptive observation, it seemed to me, and it started me thinking about the age-old dinghy decision. For an increasingly large segment of the cruising population, the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) seems to be the dinghy of choice. It does have some compelling strong points. To start with, a RIB, particularly a sizable one, has a tremendous amount of carrying capacity, and carrying things is the primary function of a yacht tender. Rock-solid stability makes the boat easy to step into or out of. This same stability also makes the RIB an ideal diving platform. And the inflated tubes act like integral fenders, making the boat easy on the mother shipís topsides.
So far the same can be said for a regular inflatable, but where the rigid inflatable really shines is in the realm of performance underway. The hydrodynamically designed rigid bottom allows the boat to quickly and easily come up onto plane, even fully loaded, and once on plane, the boat has speed and handling capabilities similar to a V-bottom runabout. The long legs of a good RIB can expand your cruising ground by allowing you to venture far from the mother ship. And the boatís rigid bottom allows the boat to be beached without abrading the tubes.
RIBs also have some glaring shortcomings. The traditional appeal of the inflatable tender was that it could be deflated and packed away, but this capacity is sacrificed to the rigid bottom. A RIB necessitates deck space for carrying it aboard. If this is on the foredeck, the stowed tender will be dangerously in the way unless the parent ship is quite large. Cabin-top stowage is better, but the considerable weight of the RIB high on the boat has a negative impact on stiffness (giving added meaning to the "tender" label).
There is little point to having a performance-oriented dinghy without a performance motor, which adds yet more weight. Removing or installing a 150-pound outboard on the water is not something you will want to do every day, so unless your sailboat is big enough to allow you to lift RIB and motor together and chock them upright on deck (or in davits), you are going to be towing the dinghy a lot. All inflatables tow heavily, and RIBs are no exception. This is when your thoroughbred becomes a dray horse.
RIBs, like all inflatable boats, have a limited life span, particularly in the tropics. They are susceptible to abrasion and puncture, requiring that you keep a watchful eye about where you tie them up. And they carry the ever-present risk that your five-grand boat/motor combination will be gone when you return because powerful outboards are a favorite of thieves the world over.
Given that a rigid inflatable requires the deck stowage of a hard dinghy, is it necessarily a better choice as a tender? As a diving platform, the answer is yes, but beyond that the advantages are not so clear-cut. Consider this: Hard tenders are more durable. They are unaffected by the sun. They can be dragged up the beach beyond the tide line without concern. They can lie alongside the meanest dock or seawall with only cosmetic risk. And they are rarely stolen.
A traditional round-bottom dinghy does not require a big outboard because it does not plane. Small outboards are easily removed and clamped to the rail. Empty, a hard dinghy typically tows so lightly that it has virtually no effect on the sailing performance of the mother ship. It is true that you will get to shore more quickly in a planing dinghy, but you can expect to have arrived at the anchorage sooner if you were not towing a heavy inflatable.
Add a sailing rig to your hard dinghy, and it epitomizes the "clean wake" ideal. Small-boat sailing hones your sailing skills, and a sailing tender can provide hours of fun for adults and kids alike.
And then there is the ability to row. Inflatables cannot be rowed in anything but calm conditions. In a good-rowing hard dinghy, you can lever yourself forward into the teeth of a building wind to put out an additional anchor. Or you can slide quietly across a glassy surface to observe wildlife undisturbed by your presence. A rowing dinghy can be the ideal vehicle for establishing a pleasurable exercise regime. Where security is a concern, you can leave your outboard locked safely in a locker and row ashore, leaving the dinghy virtually anywhere with no greater risk than the theft of the oars. And perhaps most important, you can row through each new anchorage where you are sure to meet other cruisers, some of whom will become friends for life.
RIBs seem to me to be a lot like SUVs on the road, theyíre not really the best choice for the way lot of people use them. A fast RIB gets you out to the reef or in to shore in a hurry, but sometimes the best that cruising has to offer is closer at hand. So whatís my recommendation? Donít blindly follow the crowd. When it comes to selecting a tender, make your own choice.
The Fundamentals of Dinghy Choice by Tom Wood
Choosing a Dinghy by Sue & Larry
Dangerous Dinghies by Tom Wood
Buying Guide: Inflatable Boats