The Cruiser's Car

or How To Manage Your Dinghy

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The Sailor’s Car


Colin Ward

When a sailboat is resting in a beautiful anchorage on the hook or on a mooring, the dinghy or tender becomes the sailor’s car. When the owners of that boat are cruising in faraway places, the dinghy also becomes their minivan and sometimes their tow truck. The further they sail from a marina or from civilization, the more important their tender becomes.

Although most sailors agonize over selecting their dinghy, outfitting it for safe operation often receives less attention. Whether you choose a RIB (by far the most popular cruiser’s dinghy), a stowable inflatable, or a hard dinghy, there are a few simple ways to equip it to make it as convenient and safe as possible.

First, consider what would happen if you were anchored on the lee side of a remote island. The wind is blowing at twenty knots and you are underway in your inflatable from the beach to your sailboat. Since the water is shallow, you are anchored almost a mile from shore and the waves have built up to 2 feet where the sailboat is anchored. All of a sudden, the outboard coughs, splutters, and stops. While you are investigating the cause, the dinghy is blown slowly past your sailboat and when you look up, you are heading out to sea at two knots, with Cuba as your next landfall some five days hence. What can you do to get back to the boat? If you are properly prepared, the choices would include repairing the outboard, rowing to the sailboat, dropping the anchor, radioing for help, firing a flare, sounding your horn, or several of the above. If you have no tools, anchor, oars, radio, flare or horn aboard, you may be in a lot of trouble. If this event had occurred at night, it would be even more problematic since your potential rescuers might not be able to see you and you might not be able to see to make repairs. Finally, in two foot seas or more you will probably take water aboard while you are dealing with your problem so a means of bailing out the dinghy is a must. If this scenario has got your attention, lets take a look at how some sailors have equipped their dinghies for convenience and safety.

Legal Requirements

First, there are usually legal requirements that apply to a tender imposed by the U.S. federal or state government or the government of the country you are visiting. Check your local requirements and you will probably find that Personal Flotation Devices for each passenger are required, along with a sound producing device and a copy of the dinghy registration. If you travel after dark, you will need the appropriate lights. Naturally, you must have these items aboard, but you will notice that they alone would not solve the problem described in the foregoing example.


The typical cruiser’s dinghy is powered by an outboard motor of 10 to 15 horsepower. We recommend nothing smaller than the manufacturer’s rated horsepower if you want the dinghy to perform as advertised, especially with more than two people aboard. The gear that is recommended below adds weight, as do groceries, snorkel gear, diesel jugs, etc. which can easily keep an underpowered inflatable or RIB from planing. (The down side of a larger outboard is its weight and fuel consumption, especially noticeable when gasoline is nearly $4 per gallon, as it is in the Bahamas). We also recommend the use of the kill switch and lanyard at all times, especially since we witnessed a serious accident which could have been prevented with a kill switch.

So what will cause an outboard to stop running and leave you adrift? Any gasoline engine requires three basic ingredients to operate: fuel, air and ignition. We carry a small can of premixed gasoline in addition to the main gas tank as a reserve. Assuming you have gasoline in the tank, the fuel supply can still be the culprit when the fuel line or fuel filter is clogged, or if water has contaminated the gas. Air supply is rarely the cause of outboard failure since the small ones are not equipped with a filter to clog up. A lack of ignition or spark is the second major cause of failure after a clogged fuel line. New spark plugs will often work wonders if the old ones have been neglected.

So what should you carry in your dinghy to keep the outboard running? We perform preventive maintenance on a routine basis so do not carry spark plugs in the dinghy, however the wrench required to remove a plug should be on board, along with a philips and a flat screwdriver, and a pair of pliers. That should be enough to remove a plug or a fuel filter and clean it. Most new outboards come with a small tool kit which can be kept aboard the dinghy in a “dry box”.

We keep our oars aboard the dinghy at all times. The oars are mounted on straps inside the tubes near the floor and are out of the way until we need them. Rowing a RIB is not the most desirable means of propulsion but oars can get the job done.


For operation at dusk or at night, lights are required in order to be legal. The requirements vary by boat length and location, but most RIBs with an outboard are required to show red and green bow lights and a white all-round stern light. Mounting the lights on an inflatable presents challenges but a stern light can be mounted on a short pole on top of the motor or attached to the transom. If the outboard is equipped with an alternator, the stern light can be mounted permanently on the motor case and wired to the alternator. The bow light may have to be attached by a system of straps since there is nothing solid on an inflatable bow . We carry our battery powered Aqua Signal lights in a dry box and bring them out when we travel after dark. We also keep a bright lantern type flashlight in the dry box which is invaluable for spotting our boat in a busy anchorage. If you row your dinghy, the bow light is generally not required.

Storage Aboard the Dinghy

Some RIBs are manufactured with a storage compartment in the bow. If it is sealed, it may be possible to use it for lights, flares and a handheld radio, but most cruisers prefer a waterproof box or bag for those items. The box and its contents can then be removed and stored easily for security purposes or when getting the sailboat underway. A life jacket storage bag is also handy for keeping the required PFDs aboard.


If you want to snorkel from your dinghy, if you want to make sure it does not float away from a lonely beach, and if you want to keep it from drifting to Cuba with you aboard, you will need an anchor and rode aboard. We do not recommend the small folding grapnel anchors or the mushroom anchors sold for dinghies. They are convenient but do not have much holding power. An 8 lb danforth or plow type will do the job reliably. We have designated the area under our dinghy seat for the fuel tank and stowage of the anchor. We epoxied chocks for the danforth on the fiberglass floor of our RIB under the seat which keeps it secure and minimizes the danger of stepping on the anchor with bare feet.

We keep a rode permanently attached to our anchor and attach it to the painter with a snap to increase its effective length when we need it. Forty feet of light rode is a reasonable length to carry aboard. Some cruisers add a short length of light chain between the anchor and the rope.


Any dinghy will be susceptible to taking on water when the waves build. A bailing device can be anything from a sponge to a bucket, but we have been very happy with the manual bilge pump that we have mounted permanently on the transom. The pump is marketed for changing engine oil and is made of plastic that does not corrode. It is mounted to the transom with pipe clamps from the hardware store and it directs the exiting water out over the transom.

Calling for Help

A handheld VHF can be safely carried in your dry box and is the best tool for requesting help. Naturally, you must remember to keep the batteries charged if it is to work when you need it. A couple of handheld flares will also fit in your dry box. Finally a horn or whistle should be carried. With these devices, you should be able to get the attention of the neighbors in your anchorage.


The security of a dinghy should not be taken lightly, and not only in foreign ports......there are plenty of thefts in the USA. Losing the dinghy while cruising away from home creates huge problems. Even if you have the cash in your pocket to buy another one, you cannot get from the boat to shore to shop for one and there may well be none available where you are. So take every precaution to prevent theft or loss. A heavy cable or light chain (think about what a bolt cutter could do to it) at least 15 feet long should be locked to the dinghy at a strong point such as a lifting eye. That cable can also be attached to the motor and run through the handle of the fuel tank before being locked to a shoreside cleat or piling or to the sailboat. We also lock the outboard clamp screws together so they cannot be unscrewed by a thief who wants to steal the outboard. Our Mercury outboard has holes in the clamp handles which are designed for a lock. Most other brands can be locked in a similar fashion. We are partial to Kryptonite locks (from Home Depot) which are very corrosion resistant in the salt water environment. Beware of locks with chrome plated hasps which rust rapidly when the chrome wears off to reveal the mild steel beneath. Note that we are talking about three locks to secure our dinghy at a dock! One on the outboard and one on each end of the cable. We make it a policy on Mandalay to always lock the dinghy when we leave it a dock (even when folks tell us it is “not necessary here”). At night, we always lock the dinghy to the sailboat if it is in the water (and in some locations, when it is on the davits!).

Some cruisers raise the dinghy every night, either on their davits or by using a halyard and a bridle. This is a good idea because it makes stealing the dinghy from water level much more difficult. It also minimizes the growth of barnacles and slime on the bottom of the dinghy (which is just as susceptible to growth as the sailboat if it is left in the water).

Others disguise their attractive new outboard with a cover or a coat of ugly paint to make it less attractive to thieves. It is usually a simple matter to peel off the decals which identify your outboard’s brand or size if it happens to be a popular thief’s target. A 15 h.p. can easily look like a 5 h.p. if you simply remove the 1!

If you follow these guidelines, you will have done everything reasonable to protect your dinghy. We have heard stories of thieves who cut the transom of a dinghy out with an electric saw to steal the outboard. If they are that serious, your precautions will probably not stop them!

We also are concerned about an unattended dinghy being blown out to sea from the beach so we anchor it securely when going ashore. I retrieved and returned three errant dinghies in one Bahamas harbor in a six week period this past winter, each of which escaped from the beach. I know there were several more that were retrieved by other cruisers. Tying the dinghy to a tree is possibly more secure than anchoring it on the beach, but if you use a good anchor and set it properly in the sand, it should hold with no problem.

Finally, we double up on painters if we are towing the dinghy or if the wind is blowing so hard that we are worried about the painter chafing in two.

Getting Underway

When it is time to get underway in your sailboat, there are several ways to bring the dinghy along. Most of us will carry it on deck, carry it on davits, stow it below decks or tow it. Many sailors will use one method for protected waters and another when they head offshore.

Carrying the dinghy on deck is arguably the best method for passages and most offshore work. The dinghy must be short enough to fit between the mast and the bow or alternatively between the mast and the cockpit if there is room under the boom. For potentially rough passages we stow our RIB upside down on the foredeck and use a halyard to get it there. We pick it up by the towing eye on the bow until the now vertical dinghy clears the lifelines. Then we swing it over the foredeck and lower it in the inverted position. That’s a two person job on Mandalay but a friend does the same thing by himself using a four part tackle and a bridle suspended from the spinnaker halyard. He lifts it onto the deck by pulling the line on the tackle, keeping it upright. Then he inverts the dinghy when it is on deck. After lashing it down, he is ready to go. If you have a stowable inflatable, you will probably want to hoist it onto the foredeck for disassembly and deflation prior to storing it in a locker.

Hoisting the dinghy on davits is the best all around method for storing cruising dinghies. I believe all cruise worthy sailboats should be designed with the simple installation of davits in mind, but alas they are not, and you may well have to design or adapt your own. I would think twice about leaving my RIB on the davits for a passage with the potential for really rough conditions, but otherwise, hoist the dinghy and away you go, making sure it is restrained and not likely to chafe. Some folks leave their outboard mounted on the dinghy while it is hanging from the davits. You need very sturdy davits for this to work since you are increasing the weight by 50% or more. Be aware that the static weight of the dinghy may be increased by a factor of two or three when it is swinging around in a seaway. Do not exceed the capacity of your davits!

Towing a dinghy is usually not a problem in protected waters and almost everyone tows their dinghy for short distances. We learned a lesson many years ago when we chartered a sailboat in Guadeloupe which came with a small and light inflatable. Against the recommendation of the charter agent, we towed the inflatable a short distance in protected waters and sure enough, the wind caught it and flipped it over and the oars were lost. The outboard was firmly attached to the inflatable but it was inverted in the salt water for a few minutes and I was very thankful that we were able to resuscitate it with no ill effects.

Small sailboats may be forced to tow their dinghies while passagemaking if there is no room for the dinghy on deck. This is at best a compromise. A long tow line will reduce the likelihood of the dinghy surfing on a wave and overtaking the sailboat. Doubling up on painters will provide redundancy if one should fail. The outboard and any other contents of the dinghy should be removed and stowed on the sailboat for anything other than protected waters. A heavy dinghy in tow at sea could easily be flipped over, at which point the drag would increase many times, possibly breaking the painter. It is very difficult to right an overturned dinghy while at sea. If you must tow your dinghy, you must select the conditions you venture out in very carefully.

The best place for your outboard when you are underway is on a securely mounted bracket on the stern rail of the sailboat. Brackets for very small outboards are readily available but we found all of them too narrow for the clamps on our 15 h.p. Mercury. A carpenter built us a sturdy teak bracket custom designed for our application. A lifting device to assist in getting the outboard, which can weigh 80 lbs or more, from the dinghy to the bracket is almost essential. Even if you have a small, light outboard, it should always be tied off so that if it slips out of your hands, it does not go for a swim.

Having Fun With Your Dinghy

You probably bought your dinghy with fun in mind, and perhaps think that some of the above recommendations are overkill. That may be the case if your boating takes place in confined waters or only during daylight hours. You must decide what is appropriate for your use once you have the legal requirements covered.

When you are away from home on your sailboat, the dinghy is your car and you will use it for all your off-boat excursions. Fetching fuel, heading to shore or to town, snorkeling the reefs, visiting friends are just some of the uses. Cruisers also use their dinghies for spearfishing expeditions, they troll behind them to catch ocean fish, and even use them for water skiing.

Dinghies open up your cruising area and are great fun. With proper outfitting and prudent operation, you will avoid the scenario described earlier and enjoy your tender to the fullest.