#67 – Accessorizing the Cruising Dinghy

Few cruisers have a master plan for accessorizing their dinghies, and instead leave things to evolve.

The result is often a cluttered dinghy, the kind that’s hard to step into, a pain to hoist aboard, and all-too-often not prepared to do what you need it to do when you need to do it! Improvements and additions are often devised AFTER there’s a problem and not before. To help you think ahead, here’s a collection of popular cruiser aftermarket upgrades.

The first thing you need to add to your dinghy is a painter, the line that attaches to the reinforced eye(s) at front of your dinghy, with which you will tie it up at docks and to the back of your boat. A simple thing, but darn important! Lost dinghies are usually the result of careless tie-ups behind the boat (or at parties!), so cultivate a habit of cleating the painter properly and then tying a safety bowline behind it every time.

The painter is also how you tow your dinghy. The painter needs to float to avoid tangling in your prop, so most cruisers select polypropylene line. Choose polypropylene that is flexible and has a nice finish since you’ll be handling it a lot, especially when hauling the dinghy in close for maneuvering! Unfortunately, polypropylene’s UV resistance is not great, so check it regularly, replace it as it deteriorates, and resist any temptation to tow in rough or open water.

It’s also useful to have a shorter line on the stern to be able to secure your dingy bow and stern when moored alongside a dock or the big boat, especially for loading and unloading, but also when hanging the dinghy alongside overnight. One line on a carabineer can be shifted from side to side as needed.

This line is also ready to do the brunt of the work when you must harness up your dinghy to the big boat’s quarter to propel it in the event of an engine failure, a situation that usually comes up without warning.

Clutter in a dinghy is obnoxious and even dangerous, especially considering that unless you’re using davits, you’ll need to empty the dinghy every time you hoist it aboard for passage.

One of the main culprits in dinghy clutter is a fuel tank left loose to slide around.

Many new dinghies come with a built-in indent and/or tie-downs to secure the tank in the bow. Using this distributes the load forward to counterbalance a driver sitting aft which is helpful when trying to get a dinghy up on a plane, especially solo. The fuel tank forward means a long fuel line aft to the outboard, so ensure it’s led so that other items don’t crimp it.

Fuel quality in outboard fuel tanks exposed to sun, seawater and third-world fuel docks is always a concern, so a desirable addition to your fuel line is an in-line fuel filter. Simple glass ones trap dirt particles and let you see that fuel is flowing, but some cruisers go a step further and mount a fuel/water separator.

Another culprit in cluttered dinghies is oars. It’s easy to overlook the importance of oars aboard when the outboard is working, but when it fails, for any one of myriad reasons, oars better be aboard! One of the best things about today’s inflatables is that they come with collapsible oars ingeniously stowed so that they are ALWAYS ABOARD… at least as long as the rower remembers to re-stow them after use! Careless stowing of oars often results in loss of one or both! Collapsible oars may not be the best choice for actual rowing, but wooden oars are heavy and generally too long to easily stow.

Other things that should always be in your dinghy are a bailer or pump, a light to show at night, and anchors. Popular dinghy anchors are small Danforth-style anchors, mushroom anchors and folding grapnels. It is useful for dinghy users to carry two anchors, one on a short rode and one longer, to be able to set a longer rode off the stern to hold the dinghy off rubbly shores, beaches, ragged wharves, or docks and drop a short bow anchor in the shallows. Divers and snorkelers who visit remote reefs are wise to carry one rode at least 125’ long on a burying anchor with several feet of chain, if they want the dinghy to still be there when they return! Dinghy anchors are a good application for stainless chain, to avoid mess from rust.

Some way of containing anchors in the dinghy keeps them from underfoot and reduces the risk of punctures. Many dinghies have built-in bow lockers, but buckets or tubs also do the job or a mesh bag, sewn to fit the length of your anchor and designed with a flap to snap around a dinghy life line or to hang over a dinghy seat. Either contains anchors and rodes plus makes it easy to lift them in and out.

Bow lockers are good for stowing required safety gear like life jackets, but they are not water-tight, so other safety gear like a flashlight convertible to a night running light, a signal mirror, a whistle and even some hand-held flares, plus a small toolkit for your outboard with spare spark plugs, should be kept in proven watertight containers.

If you plan to cruise anywhere remotely tidal, where you need to beach and later relaunch your dinghy, you will absolutely want to invest in dinghy wheels that mount on the dinghy transom. If you have a heavy RIB, choose wheels with large, fat tires to support the dinghy’s weight over sand.

Mount these carefully so it will be easy to manipulate the locking pins into place in both the raised and lowered positions, because sometimes you’ll find yourself doing this after dark!

Another popular upgrade, for those who like to crank up the horsepower and go fast (always clip that kill switch to your person!), is the addition of hydrofoil stabilizer fins (e.g. from Doel Fin®) to your outboard. These reduce propeller cavitation and help your dinghy get up on a plane for a smoother ride.

If you are routinely driving a big dinghy solo, consider a tiller extension, which allows you to sit farther forward and keep the bow from rearing up.

Alone or with others, if you like to take your dinghy on long runs out of sight of the anchorage, add a waterproof handheld VHF radio to your safety gear.

If fishing is your thing, a couple of rod holders mounted to the transom are great for trolling inshore reefs, as is having a short handled gaff or net. For scoping out the bottom of an anchorage or a channel from the dinghy a hand-held depth sounder can prove incredibly valuable, while for sightseeing a reef or checking the anchor without getting wet, consider a Bahamian “look bucket” – simply a bucket with a see-through bottom.

We mentioned dinghy covers previously when talking about dinghy choice. Covers are conceived to protect inflatable pontoons from both UV and chafe and are usually custom made by canvas-workers to fit around all the dinghy’s handles, lines, fittings (including oars, oarlocks, and valves) via Velcro flaps.

If you choose to use one, it should fit snugly, be of UV resistant material, and have chafe patches over areas vulnerable to wear.

Finally, smart spares to have on hand are a patch kit for pontoons, a spare stern plug, spark plugs, a propeller (or shear pins), gearbox oil, and replacements for the start cord, kill switch and a set of ends matched to your outboard’s fuel line and tank.

A good cruising dinghy stands ready to serves you in many ways. Prepare it ahead instead of playing catch-up later.

This article was published in the June 2012 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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