For many boat owners tenders, or dinghies as they are also known (and in this instance we mean small boats powered by an outboard or oars, as opposed to sailing dinghies), are a vital all-purpose workhorse used for everything from going to the pub to ferrying supplies and spares. For others they also have to double up as watersports toys in their own right. Yet all too frequently little or no thought goes into which model is be best suited to an owner’s needs.
Over the years a great deal of development has gone the design of tenders and there are now many more options available than in the past.
Don’t be enticed into sacrificing load carrying ability in the name of economy, or to minimise stowage requirements. Of course, it’s always possible to make multiple trips ashore in the dinghy, but there’s always the temptation to put one extra person on board – and we’ve all seen dangerously overloaded dinghies.
In any case, a tender that’s relatively lightly loaded is faster under power, easier to row and gives a more comfortable, drier ride. If the deflate facility on the pump is used to remove as much air as possible, even relatively large inflatables can be made to pack down to a conveniently small size.
You’re often exposed to the greatest risks that you’ll meet afloat when in the dinghy – statistically a dinghy ride is more dangerous than an offshore passage (it's a key time to ensure you are wearing adequate personal buoyancy). Stability is paramount and adequate buoyancy also an important consideration – a boat that sinks when swamped is clearly dangerous, as is one that capsizes if you sit near the edge. Inflatables, whether roll-up models or mini RIBs, score highly on both counts, which is a key reason behind their popularity. It’s also possible to retrofit good buoyancy into hard dinghies, while an inflatable collar around the gunwale increases ultimate stability enormously.
A fast planing dinghy can be a great attraction – there are many small RIB-like tenders that will happily buzz around at 10-15 knots – and can be a great option for those who spend time in anchorages far from facilities or shore. Equally, these can be fun in their own right and larger models may be able to tow watersports toys such as donuts. However, it’s also worth considering the downsides – as well as the extra cost and weight of a larger engine that will be harder to lift on board, they use significantly more fuel. In addition, many smaller models won’t plane with more than one or two people on board, which can defeat the purpose of a fast boat.
The importance of this should never be underestimated, yet far too many people are complacent about the risk being swept out an anchorages or estuary in the event of the outboard failing. A dinghy that rows well is therefore an important consideration.
Hard dinghies score particularly well in this respect, although an inflatable that’s lightly loaded – choose a size a little larger than the minimum needed – has the potential to be relatively good in this respect. It’s likely to need longer oars than standard – 6ft (1.8m) is a minimum to make the boat row well and 8ft (2.4m) ideal, if you have space to stow them. It’s also important to ensure an inflatable is fully inflated to its recommended pressure, to prevent sizable proportion of your effort going into distorting the tubes, rather than driving the boat forward.
Roll-up inflatables win hands down for stability, buoyancy and easy stowage compared to a more traditional hard dinghy, However, inflatables are not as easy to row and even the toughest models are no match for in terms of longevity.
Inflatable keels for roll-up inflatables are nearly always worth the extra initial cost. They improve speed under power – and therefore fuel economy – and provide more directional stability when rowing. Hard-bottom inflatables and small RIBs are even better in this respect, tend to tow better and provide protection against damage if the boat needs to be dragged up a beach. However these benefits come with additional weight and they won’t pack down for stowage in a cockpit locker.
Fabric coated with Hypalon, a rugged synthetic rubber, is arguably the best material for inflatables – it’s very resistant to degradation in sunlight and easy to repair. As a result there are still many 30-year-old Hypalon dinghies in regular use. However, it’s also an expensive option and therefore now only accounts for a small percentage of dinghy sales, although its use in more prevalent in quality RIBs.
The alternative is material impregnated with PVC, which has the potential to be long lasting, especially if seams are heat bonded rather than glued. However, repairs are more difficult as it’s difficult to get patches to stick and the material has less resistance to sunlight than Hypalon.
See more on inflatable tenders in our feature: How to pick the perfect inflatable tender.
Rigid dinghies are easier to row and are intrinsically more robust than inflatables. Hard dinghies therefore generally tend to be the prime choice for as a tender kept in a boat park ashore and used to reach a swinging mooring.
In this case stowage on board is not an issue and inflatables are not so well suited to staying permanently inflated. For similar reasons, many long-term cruisers prefer a rigid dinghy over an inflatable, often choosing one that folds or nest in two halves to reduce the deck space needed for storage. However, reduced inherent stability and buoyancy – both important safety factors – must be factored against these advantages.
RIBs are much harder to stow, but tend to be more fuel efficient, faster for a given engine size and models with an aluminium hull are very robust if they need to be regularly hauled up a beach. A recent entry to the market is the F-RIB range of folding RIBs. These were originally developed by the Russian military and offer the advantages of a solid RIB, while solving the stowage issue.
Folding RIBs are also an interesting choice for yachts with tender garages, which tend to be relatively small compared to the overall size of the yacht. A folding RIB therefore allows a larger tender to be specified, while freeing up space for other watersports equipment to be stowed.
These may not be an immediately obvious alternative to a tender, but they are gaining in popularity, both among weekend boat owners and serious long-distance cruisers. Stand Up Paddleboards are cheaper than a conventional inflatable, yet faster under human power, are lightweight and easy to stow. In addition, they only take a couple of minutes to inflate or deflate, and can be stowed along the guardrails for short trips in sheltered waters.
Even if you don’t opt for one as a main tender it could be worth considering as a secondary means of transport. Much like a household with two cars a second tender can be a boon to long-term cruisers and those with big boats and commensurately large crews, transforming life on a swinging mooring or at anchor. It also means that, in the event of one tender being stolen or otherwise disabled, any disruption to your plans is minimised.
Read about some of the best tenders for motor yachts and larger cruising yachts here.
Don’t forget the anchor!
Most of us are guilty of not routinely carrying an effective anchor in the tender, but it could be the last defence against getting swept out to sea in an anchorage with a strong offshore wind, or an estuary with a fast ebb tide. The same applies to person buoyancy and to dry bags to protect, as a minimum, phones, car keys and other gadgets.