Soft dinghy? Hard choice!
By Bob Wood
Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 3, Number 3, May/June 2000.
Check the pros and cons before you decide which tender is right for you
The age-old question of what dinghy is best will never find a
universal answer. Each boating situation has too many variables to
recommend a “one-dinghy-fits-all,” but it is possible to list the
advantages and disadvantages of each type.
With a history predating the larger boats and ships they serve,
hard-hulled tenders or dinghies have much to offer the recreational
They are durable. Made of fiberglass or wood, a well cared-for dinghy
will last as long as the boat she serves. Combating the tar or
creosote souvenirs collected from wharves is not a problem for them;
paint removers or solvents that could attack soft dinghies can be
used with impunity. Their ruggedness extends to another common
occurrence: being tied to a barnacle- or mussel-encrusted wharf
piling results in mere scratches, whereas an inflatable would be
Similarly, a hard dinghy can be dragged onto a rocky beach, or
scraped over a reef, without the catastrophic failure many
inflatables would suffer. Tiny salt crystals wage an unseen war
against an inflatable’s seams, weakening and abrading them with each
movement of the boat, while their fabric ultimately degrades from the
ultraviolet rays of sunlight. Neither of these affects a hard
dinghy’s structural integrity in the least.
They are versatile. Their skegs, small keels, and sometimes
centerboards, provide directional stability, dramatically reducing
wandering, leeway, and sideways skittering. This important advantage
is the basis for their multi-functionality, making them a joy to
operate with any form of power: paddling, rowing, motoring, or
sailing. Rowing through a chop from your anchorage to the public dock may take three times as long in a smooth-bottomed inflatable … and it may be impossible if a good breeze is lifting the nose.
They are relatively inexpensive. Traditional fiberglass dinghies
start at prices well below those of good-quality inflatables. With an
indefinite lifetime, as opposed to the very finite five-to-10-year
lifetime of inflatables, traditionals are usually the better value.
However, handmade wooden dinghies can easily cost as much as an
They’re beautiful. There is really no comparison between the looks of
a classic lapstrake sailing skiff and an inflatable. A skiff’s
timeless lines and graceful sheer bespeak generations of nautical
tradition, while most inflatables are strictly utilitarian. The hard
dinghy is often an aesthetic extension of the boat she tends; an
impossible feat for an inflatable unless the mother yacht is a
Versatility, durability, economy, and beauty. Can there possibly be
any other attributes for this type of dinghy? Very definitely. In
addition to everything else, they are (or can easily be made)
unsinkable. Hard dinghies should have flotation built into their
seats, bows, and/or gunwales. A hard-shelled dinghy will be safer
aboard the mother ship during a blow if it is inverted and made fast
securely. Its V-shaped or rounded hull will help press it down, while
its rigidity prevents it from flexing and lifting to catch the wind .
. . an inflatable idiosyncrasy.
One last advantage, small for some but large for me: my pets seem to
prefer a solid dinghy. They balk at giving up the security of a
larger boat for the squishy uncertainty of an inflatable. A minor
point, but coaxing a sizable dog to shore for his morning ablution is
not an option; it’s a necessity, and cooperation is appreciated in
Despite the advantages of traditional dinghies, there are significant
reasons for having an inflatable as your boat’s tender. If there
weren’t, you wouldn’t see a majority of yachts with them.
Inflatables are the hands-down choice when it comes to variety.
Especially suited to mass-production methods, with all the attendant
savings and compromises, inflatables are commonly made from polyvinyl
chloride (PVC), neoprene rubber, and coated nylon. They can cost
anywhere from $75 to as much as a sizeable yacht. They can carry one
person on a still pond, or 20 people through fierce rapids, and they
can weigh anything from five pounds to one ton.
They can have smooth bottoms, inflated bottoms, or rigid bottoms made
of wood or fiberglass panels. There are more manufacturers, models,
and retail outlets than you will ever find for traditional dinghies.
If you’re a comparison shopper, you’ll be in heaven sorting through
the endless choices among inflatables.
Inflatables have outstanding stability. Stand up in a traditional
dinghy (if you can) and put half your weight on the gunwale. Or, try
climbing aboard after swimming. You’ll either be perilously close to
swamping, or treading water as the dinghy turns turtle. Try the same
thing in a modest eight-foot inflatable, and you can stand there all
day. Stand there fishing, stand there handing bags of groceries
aboard, or stand there off-loading small children. Inflatables are
unbeatable when it comes to being safe and docile, as opposed to the
tippy traditional types.
Inflatables have a large carrying capacity. Pound for pound, or per
foot of length, inflatables can carry almost twice as much as
traditional dinghies. This is a critical feature on smaller yachts.
Inflatables are soft. If you do find yourself flipped into the water,
a hard dinghy can seriously injure you in the capsizing. The
inflatable will dunk you but not knock you out. The same softness
will not mar your big boat’s topsides while you are anchored, nor
will it keep you awake by banging against the hull. Your deck or
cabintop will be gouge-free if you carry an inflatable aboard during
Inflatables tow well. A traditional dinghy is a constant concern
under tow. The bridle arrangement, the length of the tow line, and
the dinghy’s position on the stern wave are all critical. An
inflatable placidly slides along in the wake, while the hard dinghy
tends to hunt back and forth, slowing a smaller yacht. At worst, an
inflatable will flip over when being towed in a crosswind. A hard
dinghy can turn from a dinghy to a submarine if pooped, flipped, or
filled with spray and rainwater. If you’re lucky in those instances,
you’ll merely have some anxious shoulder-wrenching moments pulling a
few hundred pounds of deadweight aboard after killing the engine and
dropping sail. If you’re unlucky, the slamming force of a diving
dinghy can rip out your towing cleat, leaving it and dinghy to
disappear in the stormy night.
Inflatables stow like no traditional dinghy can. Any tender, hard or
soft, when lashed on deck or towed, is vulnerable to damage from
weather, other boats, sunlight, and bird droppings. A pure
inflatable, however, can be deflated and placed in a quarterberth or
cockpit locker. For offshore work, this is the preferred method, as
boarding seas can sweep a deck clean despite the best tie-down
efforts. This portability also means your inflatable can go home with
you after the boating season to be washed, repaired, and stored, thus
extending its useful life.
Inflatables are versatile in their own way. They serve double duty as
tender and life raft. Even full of water, they provide survival
buoyancy. With an emergency abandon-ship bag, they can literally save
the day. Inflatables also make luxurious freshwater bathtubs during
summer rainstorms. Most inflatables are relatively lightweight, which
means they can often be carried up a beach, rather than dragged
ashore or tied to a dock.
There are also boats that attempt to offer the best of both worlds.
These are the rigid-hulled inflatable boats, or RIBs. They have a
conventional fiberglass hull with superb directional capability, plus
inflatable air chambers along the sides that provide buoyancy and
stability. Larger RIBs can have steering consoles, Bimini tops, and
even radar arches. They can handle large outboards and safely attain
speeds in excess of 30 or 40 knots. These boats carry large payloads
and, with a cover to protect occupants from the elements, may just be
the ultimate tender or lifeboat.
Yet, there are tradeoffs that prevent RIBs from dooming traditionals
and inflatables to extinction. RIBs are more expensive than the other
types. Significantly more expensive. They are heavy and require
davits or some other lifting device. Because of their weight and
size, most are suitable only for larger yachts. I’m aware of no RIB
that can sail. With a rigid hull they give up the deflating and
stowing advantages of inflatables. Nor, because of their large air
chambers, will they ever have the pleasing aesthetics of the
traditional tender. Still, would I have one if a magic genie offered?
Your dinghy can be a constant source of pride and satisfaction,
enhancing your time on the water. It deserves considerable thought
and research in the planning stages. In addition to reading the
glossy ads and promotions, talk to owners of each dinghy type and, if
possible, borrow it for a row or sail. Ask them about durability,
maintenance, and any problems they’ve had. Finding the right one for
you is part of the wonderful journey.
Bob has owned an odd assortment of sailboats and sailed them in
waters from the Florida Keys to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and
from New York’s Finger Lakes to Colorado’s and Idaho’s impoundments
* Traditional tenders
Bauteck Marine Bauer sailing dinghies
Chesapeake Light Craft dinghy kits;
Dyer Boats/The Anchorage;
Edy & Duff Fatty
Glen-L dinghy kits
Porta-Bote folding boats;
Trinka Dinghies-Johannsen Boat Works
Walker Bay Dinghies;
* Inflatable tenders
Apex Inflatables and RIBs
Avon, Bombard, Sevylor, and Zodiac
Marine Inflatables and RIBs
Caribe Inflatables and RIBs
Quicksilver Inflatables (Mercury Marine)
Sea Eagle Inflatables
Seaworthy Inflatables (BOAT/U.S.)
The following specialize in inflatable boats, offering multiple product lines and valuable expertise:
Inflatable Boat Center
Inflatable Boat Specialists