Acquiring a suitable dinghy to use as our sailboat tender
To give us a non-swimming option to get off our boat when not docked!
Here’s a link to our post where we share more about our lead-up to making the decision to get a dinghy.
There are 2 main types of boats used as tenders: different styles of rigid boats (e.g. wood, fiberglass, aluminum, Kevlar) and different styles of inflatable’s (e.g. PVC, Hypalon). It’s not so straightforward, though. Here’s a quick overview.
Inflatable Boats Overview
Variety? There’s lots! With so many manufacturers and models, there are many choices among inflatables. There are different fabrics to choose from (the less expensive PVC or the more UV resistant neoprene-coated rubber are most common), and different construction methods, especially for how the seams are held together. They can have smooth bottoms, inflated bottoms, or rigid bottoms made of wood or fiberglass panels, all of which lead to a huge difference in weight, ease of towing, durability, and cost. Cost varies from the cheap end of the scale ($75 or so), which would not appropriate for use as a dinghy, to as much or more than the sailboat itself. Likewise, weight can range from a few pounds to a couple thousand pounds, and various models range in capacity from being able to carry a single person to a full party. It seems that inflatables are far and away the most common choice for tenders among cruisers. Their stability and stowage ease seem to be their compelling selling features.
Rigid Boats Overview
There is also variety in models for rigid or hard dinghies, but perhaps less variety in features. In general, their selling points as compared to inflatables are their durability, that they are multi-functional in terms of power (row, motor, sometimes even sail), and for many, their aesthetics are appealing. They range from home-made plywood fabrication through to to high-tech plastics. There are also interesting creative designs, such as the nesting dinghy, which is essentially 2 half boats connecting at the centre (takes less room on deck).
Other Types of Dinghies
There are also hybrids on the market. There are, for example, rigids with inflatable “collars”, and inflatables with rigid bottoms. These are promoted as combining the best features of hard and inflatables, but of course, can also combine some of the less desirable features of both too. The collar gives the rigid dinghy much improved stability, but leaves the occupants who have ventured out in heavy conditions vulnerable should the collar fail, and the solid bottom inflatable’s have improved performance, and are more durable, but are heavy, harder to stow, and quite pricey. There is even a molded polyethylene hard dinghy shaped like an inflatable! Then there’s intriguing folding boats (Porta-Bote), that are only four inches when flat, and pop open, origami style, to a functional dinghy. This definitely would suit some, but wasn’t a serious consideration for us, mainly due to stability and durability concerns. Sure would be sweet, though, to tuck a tender alongside the stanchions.
There are lots and lots of good resources to help make a decision on the best dinghy for your particular needs. We found that Bob Wood’s article in Good Old Boat magazine (Volume 3, Number 3, May/June 2000) although now dated in terms of today’s options, was still a good starting point. Jen Brett’s article in Cruising World (Apr. 24, 2013) was also really helpful.
Here, after doing a bit of research on inflatables compared to rigids, are the main take-away points for us:
|FEATURE||INFLATABLE DINGHY||RIGID / HARD DINGHY|
– wide range depending on size and other features.
– examples – PVC multilayer fabric (~$1000); good Hypalon ($3000+)
|-wide range of hard dinghies, most less than good quality inflatable|
|CAPACITY||-varies with size
-almost twice as much as a traditional hard dinghy
|-varies with size, usually less than inflatable|
-see also stability, durability & other features
|-inflatable won’t sink unless punctured BUT vulnerable to puncture, leaky seams
-soft – won’t hurt if you fall against it
|-most hards have built-in flotation
-hard surface can injure if fall, get dumped
-one model has optional exposure canopy to convert dinghy to a life boat
-wider = more stable
-consider initial stability (tippiness) & secondary stability (point at which it goes over)
-usually compromise with rowability
|-generally inflatables more stable, this is THE major selling point (on most, can stand up, put much of your weight on the gunwale)
-waves or wind can flip it in rough weather
-hard to right if flipped
|-generally less stable, but lots of variation due to shape (i.e. how much beam, freeboard)
-more sensitive to weight distribution than inflatables
-optional inflatable collar on some models helps significantly
|MOTOR||-necessity since rowing an inflatable is so inefficient
-rigid bottoms best as they plane well
|-optional in a hard dinghy
-wide transom best
|STOWING||-can stow inflatable on davits or deck (if not secured properly, can become an unintended sail as it catches wind)
-when deflated, most can be folded to store on deck or in large locker
-this convenience balanced by need to then reinflate (obviously!) prior to use
|-hard can be stowed on davits, or upside down on deck
-some nesting/sectional models, can be longer than typical dinghy but take less stowing space
-although stowage may require more space than inflatable, the dinghy is immediately ready to go
|OPTIONS||-some inflatables come with sailing rig (fun but low performance)||-several hards have sailing kits (much better performance than inflatable – can be fun and functional)|
|ROWING||-most inflatables are difficult to row as don’t track well, high walls affected by wind, often short oars, blunt bows, plow through water…“depressing” experience
– those with skeg or a v-bottomed hull a little better
|-better rowing ability than inflatable’s
-varies with model of hard (narrow, long, little free board best)
|-generally inflatables tow well, ride on top of waves
-risk of wind catching and flipping (can be serious issue if motor remains on dinghy)
|-most hard dinghies have skeg, helps track
-lots of variation in towing finickyness
|DURABILITY: Lifespan||-5-10 years if inflatable is well cared for, depending on fabric, use, conditions||-eternal?|
|DURABILITY: Sun, salt & other stuff
|-varies, depends on regular maintenance
-all inflatables are subject to sun wreaking damage (Hypalon more resistant to UV)
-caution in cleaning substances
-salt harmful, abrasive on seams
|-hard is FAR more durable
-level of maintenance varies, obviously wood requires more (subject to rot)
-can use solvent to clean (e.g. creosote from wharves)
|DURABILITY: Punctures, tears||-many vulnerable areas inan inflatable, such as towing rings, oar locks, hard transom, fold lines,
-many common hazards encountered in regular use (fish hooks, glass shards in shoe soles, sharp edges on docks, screws, barnacles)
-higher end boats have separate air compartments
-older, lower quality have issues with adhesive used in seams
|-hard is highly resistant to mistreatment
-rarely seriously damaged in normal use
|OTHER||-soft sides of an inflatable – wont keep us awake at night as it bumps against sailboat
-often wetter ride for occupants than hard dinghy
|-if not secured properly, hard can be noisy if bumps against hull
-usually, occupants are kept drier
Clearly, there’s no “best” dinghy out there. There is lots to consider – what kind of use we anticipate and in what conditions, where we’ll keep it, amount of towing, how we’ll power it, our physical abilities and our sailboat’s capacity, personal preference, budget, and on it goes. As with any vehicle, it needs to suit the unique characteristics of the users and the unique conditions in which it will be used. Here’s the main criteria that were important for our personal needs & wants in making our decision on the best dinghy for us:
- Safety! No further comment needed here. Our dinghy could be our lifeboat, literally, so this is our top criteria.
- Durability – We don’t want to be saddled with high maintenance or have to treat our dinghy with kid gloves, or be looing at replacement every few years.
- Price – This tends to be proportional to quality/durability … we want good value for our dollar.
- Size / Weight – We were undecided whether we would install davits or stow on deck, but regardless, our deck space is limited and if on davits, we didn’t want it to exceed our 8 foot 9 inch beam. We also wanted to be able to haul it on a beach or up on deck solo if necessary.
- Power options – We wanted to avoid reliance on a motor if possible
- Aesthetics – This is our last & least criteria, but we hoped to have a dinghy that did not detract from our Alberg 30’s beauty.
Decision #1. Hard vs Inflatable
This was easy. Although inflatables have lots going for them (and are the choice of most cruisers), with our criteria, hard was the only option, especially in terms of being able to get around under our own (or the wind’s) power, durability and the look we wanted. When considering safety, it was six of one, half dozen of the other: Inflatables’ stability was appealing, but their vulnerability was a concern. We made note of this and ensured it was at the top of our criteria for the next decision, which was…
Decision # 2. Which Hard Dinghy?
The most common commercially available hard dinghies, seem to be those made by:
- Trinka (fiberglass, available in 8-12 foot lengths, starts at approximately $US 2700),
- Fatty Knees( 7-9 foot fiberglass lapstrake, starts at ~$US 3200),
- Dyer (fiberglass, 8-12+ foot, not sure of the cost, long history, often used as a sailing dinghy) ,
- Bauer (fiberglass, 8-12 foot, starting at ~$US 1600) , and
- Walker Bay (high impact marine composite, 8-10 foot, ~$750 US).
- A little lesser known is the Portland Pudgy.
Of course, for the ambitious artisan do-it-yourselfer, there are also plans available to construct your own beautiful classic like the Chesapeake Pram. Here’s some inspiration if you are so inclined: Wooden Boat Plans.
The aptly named Portland Pudgy won us over. Hands down! Here’s why:
Buoyancy – The Portland Pudgy is unsinkable! We did not find any other dinghy that can make this claim. It’s the only dinghy we came across with a water tight double hull and a floor filled with closed cell foam. Even the material it’s made of (high density, compounded polyethylene) is inherently buoyant. We’ve seen photos of the Pudgy loaded beyond maximum, and it still had nearly a foot of freeboard. In a US Coast Guard test it was reported that it took an nearly a ton to submerge the dinghy, and it still did not sink. In another test, with the hatches open and the interior and cockpit flooded, it still remained afloat (although submerged to the gunwales). The testers were able to use the pump (one of the many options available) to bail out the interior chambersand the dinghy apparently rose up to float above the waterline at which point it could be fully bailed.
Stability – This is where most inflatable surpass hard dinghies, but not the Pudgy. It’s reported to be almost impossible to capsize. Apparently, if it ever did flip, it’s very easy to right with the handholds in the keel as good grab points to bring it uprights. The thick side walls allow it to come up empty of water. This isn’t just a comfort issue – being able to get dry again can protect against hypothermia. can be life-saving. It’s also very easy to climb back in by using the hand-holds in the middle seat.
Life Boat. In a dire situation, any dinghy may become a life boat but most cruisers wisely opt to have a designated life raft, a purchase that can easily cost $4-9,000. Hopefully this is money spent for something that’s never used. The Pudgy offers an optional exposure canopy that converts it to a life boat. The canopy further increases buoyancy, visibility, and has openings to allow rowing and sailing while under cover … how moral building it would be to be able to take an active role in getting to safety rather than passively bobbing on the ocean awaiting rescue. Life rafts require regular testing and repacking by professionals to ensure its safety. We can test the Pudgy’s exposure canopy ourselves. The exposure canopy fits inside the double hull or under a seat, and there is still plenty of room for other survival items.
It’s advertised as being virtually indestructible, citing drop tests with weight and no damage. The double hull of rugged polyethylene is reassuring, especially when we anticipate dragging it over rocks or coral or bringing it alongside aging wharfs. We won’t have fear of tearing a hole or sinking it. The polyethylene is UV treated to protect against sun damage.
The Pudgy is more expensive than we had hoped to spend on a tender, but not quite at the top end for hard dinghies, and seemed to be exceptionally good value. Unless it gets stolen, because it’s so durable, we should have it forever.
4. SIZE / WEIGHT / CAPACITY
The Pudgy is 7 feet 8 inches in length, 4 feet 4 inch beam, and weighs 128 pounds. Wheels in the keel help when pulling it over ground. This makes the Pudgy small enough for us to stow on our Alberg 30’s deck (just!) or at the stern on davits.
Capacity – 4 persons or 557 lb (occupants and gear including motor), and although not recommended, can go beyond in calm conditions.
Its beamy, fairly flat-bottomed shape gives it as much cockpit area (over 16 sq. ft. + the storage space in interior walls) as many larger dinghies and inflatables.
5. POWER OPTIONS It’s versatile!
Human power. It’s said to row well. It has two rowing positions with a hinged middle seat that allows the rower to adjust a little fore or aft and two sets of oarlock sockets. No other dinghy we know of has this feature so that weight distribution can be adjusted.
Wind power. There is an optional sail kit (as with several other hard dinghies), with the mast & sail fitting into the storage compartment. The leeboards and rudder stow under the rear seat.
Motor power – based on length. At 7′ 8″, it can take a 3 HP (long shaft) motor.
6. AESTHETICS It’s cute! At a distance, the Pudgy could be mistaken for the wooden dory-type tender we dreamed of. It comes in 4 colours – we went with the forest green to complement our Alberg’s accent colours.
7. OTHER FEATURES. There are several other features, that although not part of our essential criteria, definitely influenced our decision.
Staying Dry. It’s self-draining when empty or carrying less than 35 pounds so we can leave it uncovered with no fear of it filling with rain, or worry if it is swamped by an occasional wave. It can be towed with the drain plug open, and it stays dry inside. With other dinghies, regular bailing can be a chore water and users learn to tolerate water on the floor.
Storage Space. There is a surprising amount of dry, interior storage space between the walls not available on other models. The interior hull storage space is accessible through five waterproof hatches. There’s so much interior space that you can stow the entire sail kit inside, as well the oars, provisions, exposure canopy, and other equipment… and it’s all out of sight to passersby.
Towing. It’s advertised to tow better than inflatable boats or standard dinghies. Its buoyancy, stability, and long skeg helps the Pudgy tow with minimal drag. It is supposed to track well and comes with a towing bridle that attaches to two stainless steel tow eyes.
Stowing features. If stowed on deck, the through-holes in the Pudgy’s walls enable it to be fastened to the deck. If on davits, there are lifting eyes for lifting it up into a davit harness which then supports the weight of the boat.
Low maintenance. It’s easy to clean inside and out. There are slight gutters in the floor that lead to the drain, so it’s easy to rinse out the cockpit.
Cool Options. Although the Portland Pudgy, at base price, comes fitted out with the essentials (including towing harness, oars, compass), there are lots of additional options available. Some are fairly essential, and others are nice-to-have luxuries. For example, they offer a bumper, custom cover, solar panel, electrical system for navigation lights, the exposure canopy already mentionned to turn it into a life raft, pump, ladder and many more options.
The Portland Pudgy website has lots of Technical Information if you are interested in knowing more.
- We ordered directly from Portland Pudgy. They have a detailed, user-friendly website – pretty much anything you would want/need to know is there. We had a few communication delays, but they are quick to say that it’s okay to nag, and with a little persistence we got the information we needed.
- We dealt with the customs agent.
- Unwrapped it on arrival, hopped in & rowed it to our berth!
- Returned packaging to Portland Pudgy in box provided, courier fees are pre-paid (bonus points for environmental friendliness)
- Worked 6 weeks to earn funds to pay for it … which leads to…
Funds – (sit down for this if you are prone to empathic pain)
Bare bones Pudgy = ~US$ 2800 + Options we purchased ~US$625 (bumper, cover, safety/lifting eyes, ladder/fender, lifting harness) + shipping & customs fees … that came to about $6000 Canadian for us! Yes, it’s pricey!
And there will be more… We are considering adding the sail kit, in part, for the fun of it but also expect that we’ll appreciate the assistance in getting from ehre to there (approx $1300 US), and we will purchase the exposure canopy to convert our Pudgy to a life boat before we depart (approx $1900 US).
Labour – N/A.
Of course, we did put in a few hours of research time initially, some effort to follow-up on purchase/timing issues with Portland Pudgy, and also time navigating the customs procedures. Otherwise, the good folks at Portland Pudgy put in the muscle time.
- At the time of writing this, we have only used our Pudgy for a handful of weekend outings on a freshwater lake, but to date, it definitely lives up to its claims, especially in terms of towing (in rough lake conditions), it’s extreme stability, and design.
- There are a couple points where it shines less:
- It is not as easy to pull over land as we had hoped – the wheels help but it does take a fair amount of strength.
- It seems really durable, but is not quite indestructible. In our first attempt to get the dinghy on board, we used the main halyard to help lift it, but as we did so, one of the fenders placed on the deck as a cushion slipped. The dinghy fell hard on a cleat, causing a dent or perhaps even a slight perforation in the Pudgy bottom. We’re told it can be welded. (Add that repair to our to-do-before-departure list!)
- Plan ahead – we had thought we would install davits to carry the dinghy, and have subsequently decided that carrying it on deck is a better option, so our purchase of the lifting harness and the davit option for the cover were unnecessary.
- Monitor exchange rates and if possible, time purchases accordingly.
More Info: http://www.portlandpudgy.com/
If you’d like to read more about our experiences before having a proper dinghy, check out our blog post: Tenderless.