The Elusive Perfect Dinghy

The imaginary perfect dinghy is beautiful, strong, light, able to carry large payloads yet easily driven and maneuverable, small and stowable, affordable – this list of seemingly opposing requirements makes choosing a dinghy is as complex as choosing a mate! But, like choosing a mate, we are happy when we find what is “perfect for us”, or a “reasonable trade-off”, not perfect.

Nutshell Pram is a nice little Dinghy that can be rowed or sailedOn Phoenix we are serially monogamous when it comes to dinghies. We get one, convinced it’s “The One”, sing its praises, and then gradually become disillusioned. Slowly we have found a balance that works for us and have two dinghies that meet our purposes. For now!

Our Dinghy Requirements

Some of our requirements may be particular to us, but you should at least consider these questions.

How Many?

For going offshore for extended periods we have two dinghies. Not everyone will want to dedicate space to this, but if one person goes ashore for day-long chores the second person doesn’t want to feel trapped. We also use our second dinghy for harbor entertainment, where others might make room for a SUP or kayak.

Size and Storage Space

If you have two dinghies you can probably store one on deck, but unless the other is a folding boat you will probably need to find room for the second below. And on deck means between the mast and the boom gallows and between the cabin-top and the boom – on our 41′ sloop that space is realistically limited to an 8′ boat. Nesting dinghies store in less horizontal space – but can take a lot of vertical space. Davits seem like a great answer – but I would never go offshore – or even rough coastal waters – with the boat on davits. Understand your storage limitations before choosing a boat.

Maneuverability / Propulsion

If you only want to carry one outboard at least one dinghy needs to be easily rowed. If you can imagine that outboard ever refusing to run, it is helpful if any dinghy is maneuverable under human power in a minor emergency.

Capacity and Floatation

And although lovely slim dinghies are gorgeous, at least one dinghy needs to be the “pickup truck” for provisioning – meaning it carries two people and 10 bags of groceries even in a chop – lots of freeboard and floatation required under load. It’s no fun bringing home a boat full of water, soggy groceries, and soggy crew. Payloads of 400 to 500 pounds, including crew, motor and possessions is not unreasonably demanding. Ours needs to carry a medium-sized dog as well as everything else.

Weight

Unless you have a crew of bodybuilders a dinghy has to be relatively light. The two of us need to be able to lift the dinghy over the lifelines and into the water – without filling the dinghy with water on the way! A gate in your lifelines – if wide enough – helps avoid the lifting. A spare halyard expands the weight we can lift, but even with that help a dinghy that weighs more than about 125 to 150 pounds with attached gear would be too much for us. Lighter is better, but costs more, too.

Maintainability

This is a personal area. If you have a gorgeous clear-finished wood dinghy you’re going to have to spend time on it, but it’s probably worth it to you. If you have an inflatable you’re going to have to protect it from the sun. Fiberglass dinghies are a little less work but will need painting eventually. Evaluate the balance between the work you want to do and the dinghy you value and find a happy medium.

Cost

Dinghies can be expensive. But think about what you’ve spent on cars. Your dinghy is your car and your pickup truck – it’s an important piece of cruising equipment and might be worth putting some resources into. And there are used ones out there – it might take a while to find what you want, but they’re out there and you can save at least half on the new cost.

Dinghy as Life Boat

Portland Pudgy as an Active LifeboatWhat about your life raft? For years we dedicated a fair chunk of space behind the mast for a life raft which never got used (thank goodness). And if you re-commission those every few years as recommended that’s $1000 or more every couple of years just to keep it inspected. Have you read Adrift ? His life raft did not seem designed for surviving in the sea, although he made it work with a great deal of exhausting work. The cost of keeping a life raft commissioned and the unsuitability of a typical life raft for its intended purpose, plus the “passive” nature of a life raft – it floats with the currents but cannot be driven or effectively steered – made us think that maybe one of our dinghies should be able to serve as a lifeboat. That drove us to look for a Portland Pudgy. We found one used and are adding a cover and supplies to make it a lifeboat, plus a windsurfer mast and a balanced lug rig to make it an active lifeboat. On a passage we will store the survival equipment inside the hull of the PP, then offload these supplies into a second ditch bag when anchored and wishing to use the PP as a dinghy. This has the added advantage that we will have to inspect our survival supplies after each ocean passage.

There are other boats out there with positive buoyancy (floats even if full of water), but the Portland Pudgy is a well-known one. For more information, see the Portland Pudgy Lifeboat article.

Other Preferences

I like to have a sailing dinghy for scooting around harbors (you just can’t take the small boat sailor out of a girl) so I want one that you can add a sailing rig to. You may prefer to have a kayak or SUP separate from your dinghy. Then there are the boat-builders – if you do lovely wood work maybe your dinghy needs to express that aesthetic.  Another requirement for me is “Wet access” – if you take a boat to shore, or dive from it, or simply swim from it – being able to get back in from water level is essential. Our 7′-6″ Nutshell Pram just tipped and filled with water when I tried to get into it past the breakers, upsetting my dog no end.

Oh the Dinghies We’ve Seen

We have had a series of dinghies – nothing has performed all roles, but all had good points. I’ll go through what we’ve tried and what we liked and didn’t like.

Inflatables require an outboard as they are not particularly maneuverable under human power. The Rigid bottoms help with maneuverability. They stow in a reasonable amount of space and do not take overlong to “assemble” once in port. Most have good carrying capacity. Hypalon/CSM is better than PVC for withstanding tropical sun, but all require some kind of cover in the tropical sun and can be hot to sit on. They can last up to 10 years, less than other dinghies. I don’t care for ours and will probably sell it. Most people are more sensible and will have at least one inflatable.

Our plywood nesting Nutshell Pram was attractive (see photo at top), but very difficult to get into from the water. It is difficult to find one that has been modified to be nesting, but it did make it easier to get into the water, in two pieces, then assemble from the water. It wasn’t able to carry both of us, our dog and much else with any dignity. I loved sailing it despite it’s tiny size.

We have owned a string of older, inexpensive fiberglass dinghies, but they had a variety of issues. Often they had too little freeboard. Some were surprisingly hard to steer or row. Most were fairly light. Many had to be fortified in the transom to carry an outboard. Know what you’re buying or spend enough that the owner will let you try it out first! There are some wonderful ones out there.

The Porta-Bote Folding DinghySome years ago, while anchored in Hanalei Bay,  a fellow headed our way in the world’s ugliest dinghy. We were polite and didn’t disparage it. After chatting for a while he offered to take us over and show us his Brown 37′. Stepping down into his dinghy I was trying to be careful (I’m not a small woman) to step on the seats so as not to upset the boat. He saw what I was doing, grinned, and said – just step on the stern quarter! I did and the damn thing barely sunk an inch! He then regaled us with the virtues of a Porta-Bote.

  • easy to get into from water level, even with full diving gear
  • can carry 450 pounds but weighs less than 70 pounds
  • folds up to store in a 24″ by 4″ by 8′ bundle, plus a bag of seats and hardware
  • puts together in 10 or 15 minutes, even on the foredeck
  • can be easily driven by sail or oars, or be driven in a plane by a small outboard.

We bought one at the boat show and have been very happy with it, despite its looks! It stores in the forepeak or on deck underneath the normal dinghy.

Portland Pudgy Dinghy Then there’s the Portland Pudgy that we discussed above. It’s ugly too, but in a cute way! It can carry 550 pounds while weighing 128 pounds. It doubles as a lifeboat if properly outfitted. It has an optional sailing rig, can be easily rowed, or powered by a outboard. So far it’s pretty close to the perfect dinghy for us. They’re quite expensive new, but not compared to buying a life raft and a dinghy. And you can find them used, as we did, but move fast if you see one.

Conclusions

The US car market has over 200 models of cars because there are so many different needs and desires. Dinghies are the cars for boat owners and likewise different folks will want different features. Know yourself, choose accordingly, and settle for what you have until you know something else would work better. And learn from us that perfection is not the goal – but a good balance between utility and affection will make you happy with your selection. Love the one you’re with!

I would enjoy hearing about your positive and negative experiences with dinghies. Share what’s worked for you by commenting.

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