Dinghies and tenders might be small, but good seamanship is just as vital in these diminutive craft as it is in much larger boats, as Rachael Sprot explains

two women rowing a dinghy with a dog in a lifejacket
Dinghies are simple, but there are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Some of the best adventures aren’t had in big boats, but in little ones. By motoring or rowing a dinghy, you gain access to the upper reaches of rivers, isolated coasts and drying harbours.

If you’re stuck in a rut of the same marinas but don’t have the time to go further afield, a decent dinghy can open up new areas within the same cruising ground. Don’t go further, go smaller.

I joined Kellie Grice and Jess Harrison in Largs for a weekend of cruising around Bute and the Cumbraes. It provided lots of opportunities for anchoring and dinghying ashore.

two women wearing lifejackets sitting in a dinghy with their dog

Kellie and Jess aboard her dinghy with dog, Rowan. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Kellie owns an 11-ton Hilyard, Seraphina, which she has lovingly restored. She lives on board with her dog, Rowan.

All sailors who have used dinghies, however, will have come across some of the challenges of using a small inflatable to get to and from a cruising yacht.

Whether it’s inflating, launching, boarding, landing or rowing a dinghy, there are plenty of opportunities to get a wet backside.

The contortions required to clamber from yacht to tender are enough to put us off trusting our lives to what is little more than a child’s beach toy.

With this in mind, I set about identifying the main pitfalls and the tricks you can employ to avoid them.

Inflating and launching

One of the biggest deterrents to using a dinghy is wrestling a dead whale through the forehatch and giving yourself cramp pumping the thing up with a toy balloon pump.

A man lifting a dinghy onto the deck of a yacht

Use a halyard to lift small dinghies vertically over the guard wires. Credit: Rachael Sprot

If you want to use your tender, you need to make it easy for yourself, both in where you stow it and how you inflate it.

Stow on deck

While you may feel more comfortable stowing a dinghy in a locker or below deck for offshore passages or rough weather, find a way to store it, deflated, on deck, unless you have extremely accessible cockpit lockers.

A stowage bag with flaps will protect it from UV and give some securing points to lash it on deck to the coachroof, mast foot or toe rails

Stow inflated

Stowing an inflated dinghy upside down on the foredeck works well for short passages and takes the pumping stage out of your daily dinghying.

Even small foredecks can accommodate the 2m or so required for an inflatable. Make sure that it’s well lashed down to deck cleats and strong points and watch out for jib sheets which can get stuck underneath.

A man helping to lower a dinghy onto the deck of a boat

Position keel to mast, then lower upside down on the foredeck. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Pumps

Invest in a good pump: vertical stirrup pumps (used for SUPs) are more user-friendly than foot pumps. 12V pumps which attach to the house batteries aren’t ideal: most battery banks are hard to access and the cables are too short to reach the foredeck.

For the price of a few nights in a marina you can buy a small inverter and 240V inflation pump to make the process easier.

Launching

Small dinghies can be launched using a bridle on the bow, as long as it isn’t too windy. Make sure that the painter is attached to all the strong points either side of the bow, and not the grab handle.

Attach the halyard and winch it up vertically. One person needs to manage the winch whilst a second person guides it over the guard wires.

Larger tenders need launching horizontally with a four-point lift using bow and stern strops inside the boat.

A dinghy bring lifted from the sea

A vertical lift out will naturally swing the tender towards the mast. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Recovery

When retrieving small dinghies from the water, a vertical lift with a halyard is easiest – pulling it up by hand risks injuring your back, damaging the bottom of the dinghy, and would put undue load on stanchions.

Make sure you’ve removed the dinghy outboard, seat and any other loose items before winching.

Lifting in this way will naturally swing the tender towards the mast. Simply orient the bow forwards and ease the halyard down.

Tips for inflating and launching

  • Sail wheels on the guard wires help ease the tender over guard wires
  • Use a cover to protect a folded dinghy from UV. An old sail bag is fine, although a proper cover, which opens with flaps, is easier to use
  • Pack the dinghy away for rough passages
  • Stow inflated dinghies upside down to avoid collecting water and allowing you to open the forehatch if needed

Davits

Davits make deployment and retrieval quick and easy, but the system needs to be well-designed and they don’t suit all yachts.

Adding weight far from the centre of gravity can affect trim, especially yachts with narrow sterns and less buoyancy aft, and weight above the waterline can reduce stability.

A person in a dinghy at the back of a yacht

Remove the outboard before lifting for extra security and less weight. Credit: Rachael Sprot

If the dinghy is too wide for the stern of the yacht, and the davits are low, it may drag in the water when heeled.

The wide transoms of modern yachts will cope well though. Substantial backing pads will be needed to spread the load under the deck.

A dinghy being raised by davits at the back of a yacht

A dinghy will project either side of a narrow stern. Credit: Rachael Sprot

In a breaking sea from astern the dinghy is vulnerable to pooping so you’ll need to stow the dinghy below for rough passages.

They also add windage and an extra metre or so to the length, don’t forget about them when manoeuvring!

Two people lifting a dinghy out of the water

Stow slightly stern down with bung open to drain water. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Tips

  • Leave the bung out to drain water
  • Remove the outboard unless the transom lifting points can take it
  • Lash the dinghy to the davits to avoid chafe and banging

Rowing a dinghy

Engine failure

Dinghy skills begin with rowing. Rowing a dinghy alone is straightforward, but fully laden it’s more difficult.

With two in the boat the passenger could sit in the bows, but this will trim the bow down, making it harder to steer and increasing the chances of taking on water.

Two women rowing a dinghy in a harbour

If the engine fails, a crewmember in the bow makes rowing hard and the boat less seaworthy. Credit: Rachael Sprot

It’s better for the passenger to sit on the stern but the outboard takes up most of the space.

Kellie’s solution was to shuffle the engine sideways on the transom so that Jess could sit there rather than on a side tube, whilst still allowing her to stretch her legs out. A third person could have sat in the bow.

Two women rowing a dinghy in a harbour with a dog onboard

Rowing a dinghy: Loosen the outboard clamps, slide it to one side, and the crew can perch on the transom. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Or the rower could kneel in the aft section and row forwards, but with less power.

Strong winds

If head winds prevent you from reaching your destination, row to the closest safe landing.

Drop the crew off and float the empty dinghy along the shallows.

Two women sitting in a dinghy being powered by an outboard motor

Whether rowing or motoring, it’s a good idea to get yourself upwind of your target before striking out. Credit: Rachael Sprot

Heading back out, walk the dinghy until it’s dead upwind of your yacht before setting off.

Tips for rowing a dinghy

  • Always carry the oars, even if you’re just scrubbing the hull
  • Tilt the outboard up when rowing to reduce drag
  • A V-shaped profile and inflatable floor improve handling under oars and motor

Continues below…

Two women in a dinghy with a dog with a dinghy outboard

How to use a dinghy outboard

All sailors who use dinghies come across challenges such as the contortions required to get a dinghy outboard onto the…

Testing inflatable sailing dinghies at Lymington