Dinghies and tenders might be small, but good seamanship is just as vital in these diminutive craft as it is in much larger boats, as Rachael Sprot explains
Some of the best adventures aren’t had in big boats, but in little ones. By motoring or rowing a dinghy, you gain access to the upper reaches of rivers, isolated coasts and drying harbours.
If you’re stuck in a rut of the same marinas but don’t have the time to go further afield, a decent dinghy can open up new areas within the same cruising ground. Don’t go further, go smaller.
I joined Kellie Grice and Jess Harrison in Largs for a weekend of cruising around Bute and the Cumbraes. It provided lots of opportunities for anchoring and dinghying ashore.
Kellie owns an 11-ton Hilyard, Seraphina, which she has lovingly restored. She lives on board with her dog, Rowan.
All sailors who have used dinghies, however, will have come across some of the challenges of using a small inflatable to get to and from a cruising yacht.
Whether it’s inflating, launching, boarding, landing or rowing a dinghy, there are plenty of opportunities to get a wet backside.
The contortions required to clamber from yacht to tender are enough to put us off trusting our lives to what is little more than a child’s beach toy.
With this in mind, I set about identifying the main pitfalls and the tricks you can employ to avoid them.
Inflating and launching
One of the biggest deterrents to using a dinghy is wrestling a dead whale through the forehatch and giving yourself cramp pumping the thing up with a toy balloon pump.
If you want to use your tender, you need to make it easy for yourself, both in where you stow it and how you inflate it.
Stow on deck
While you may feel more comfortable stowing a dinghy in a locker or below deck for offshore passages or rough weather, find a way to store it, deflated, on deck, unless you have extremely accessible cockpit lockers.
A stowage bag with flaps will protect it from UV and give some securing points to lash it on deck to the coachroof, mast foot or toe rails
Stowing an inflated dinghy upside down on the foredeck works well for short passages and takes the pumping stage out of your daily dinghying.
Even small foredecks can accommodate the 2m or so required for an inflatable. Make sure that it’s well lashed down to deck cleats and strong points and watch out for jib sheets which can get stuck underneath.
Invest in a good pump: vertical stirrup pumps (used for SUPs) are more user-friendly than foot pumps. 12V pumps which attach to the house batteries aren’t ideal: most battery banks are hard to access and the cables are too short to reach the foredeck.
For the price of a few nights in a marina you can buy a small inverter and 240V inflation pump to make the process easier.
Small dinghies can be launched using a bridle on the bow, as long as it isn’t too windy. Make sure that the painter is attached to all the strong points either side of the bow, and not the grab handle.
Attach the halyard and winch it up vertically. One person needs to manage the winch whilst a second person guides it over the guard wires.
Larger tenders need launching horizontally with a four-point lift using bow and stern strops inside the boat.
When retrieving small dinghies from the water, a vertical lift with a halyard is easiest – pulling it up by hand risks injuring your back, damaging the bottom of the dinghy, and would put undue load on stanchions.
Make sure you’ve removed the dinghy outboard, seat and any other loose items before winching.
Lifting in this way will naturally swing the tender towards the mast. Simply orient the bow forwards and ease the halyard down.
Tips for inflating and launching
- Sail wheels on the guard wires help ease the tender over guard wires
- Use a cover to protect a folded dinghy from UV. An old sail bag is fine, although a proper cover, which opens with flaps, is easier to use
- Pack the dinghy away for rough passages
- Stow inflated dinghies upside down to avoid collecting water and allowing you to open the forehatch if needed
Davits make deployment and retrieval quick and easy, but the system needs to be well-designed and they don’t suit all yachts.
Adding weight far from the centre of gravity can affect trim, especially yachts with narrow sterns and less buoyancy aft, and weight above the waterline can reduce stability.
If the dinghy is too wide for the stern of the yacht, and the davits are low, it may drag in the water when heeled.
The wide transoms of modern yachts will cope well though. Substantial backing pads will be needed to spread the load under the deck.
In a breaking sea from astern the dinghy is vulnerable to pooping so you’ll need to stow the dinghy below for rough passages.
They also add windage and an extra metre or so to the length, don’t forget about them when manoeuvring!
- Leave the bung out to drain water
- Remove the outboard unless the transom lifting points can take it
- Lash the dinghy to the davits to avoid chafe and banging
Rowing a dinghy
Dinghy skills begin with rowing. Rowing a dinghy alone is straightforward, but fully laden it’s more difficult.
With two in the boat the passenger could sit in the bows, but this will trim the bow down, making it harder to steer and increasing the chances of taking on water.
It’s better for the passenger to sit on the stern but the outboard takes up most of the space.
Kellie’s solution was to shuffle the engine sideways on the transom so that Jess could sit there rather than on a side tube, whilst still allowing her to stretch her legs out. A third person could have sat in the bow.
Or the rower could kneel in the aft section and row forwards, but with less power.
If head winds prevent you from reaching your destination, row to the closest safe landing.
Drop the crew off and float the empty dinghy along the shallows.
Heading back out, walk the dinghy until it’s dead upwind of your yacht before setting off.
Tips for rowing a dinghy
- Always carry the oars, even if you’re just scrubbing the hull
- Tilt the outboard up when rowing to reduce drag
- A V-shaped profile and inflatable floor improve handling under oars and motor
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Safety when handling or rowing a dinghy
It’s easy for our risk awareness to wane in a dinghy.
The anchor’s down, the offshore passage is over and it’s time to relax.
But we’re more vulnerable in a dinghy than we are in a yacht.
Wearing a lifejacket is the single biggest thing you can do to protect yourself.
The RNLI has teamed up with popular destinations, such as Falmouth and Salcombe, to provide lifejacket lockers where small items can be left securely.
Guy Addington, regional water safety lead of the South East RNLI, explained that overloading dinghies is one of the biggest causes of problems, as this can lead to swamping.
Make extra runs if necessary, especially in poor weather.
It goes without saying that alcohol and salt water don’t mix.
Although attitudes towards drinking and sailing have changed, it hasn’t filtered down to small boats. Even as a passenger you need to be alert.
Allocate a designated ‘dry’ driver when making trips to the pub.
- Wear a lifejacket with a light and a whistle
- Carry a waterproof grab bag including a radio, flares and torch
- Have a set of cheaper lifejackets which you’re happy to leave in the dinghy whilst ashore
- Keep an anchor and length of line in case you start drifting offshore
- Take a bailer, repair kit and pump with you on longer trips
- Take the EPIRB or PLB in areas without phone/VHF reception
Getting on and off a dinghy or tender
Getting in and out of the tender can be challenging, especially on a yacht with high topsides.
Moving from one moving platform to another requires agility, with the risk of ending up in the water between dinghy and boat – a serious situation in swell or cold water.
Many people prefer to use a sugar scoop or stern platform for boarding by securing the tender athwartships with bow and stern lines. This works well in calm conditions but not in chop as the dinghy sits beam-on to the sea or tide.
If you’re struggling, bring the dinghy alongside. This gives better hand-holds.
A common mistake is to tie the dinghy up too short. This causes the tender to snatch unpredictably, catching people off balance.
A human being is the best painter as they’ll dampen the motion. A stern line with plenty of scope will help if the person in the dinghy can’t hold on.
With novice crew, explain the boarding technique before they’re on the ladder. Ask them to step down onto the seat rather than the tubes.
This keeps weight central and gives a more secure foothold. In swell the step-down needs timing for the top of the wave.
It must be quick and clean, transferring completely from the boat to the tender. Offer your shoulder, rather than a hand, as a support.
That way you can keep hold of the boat and stay braced.
A boarding ladder is a useful addition. Fender steps protect the dinghy and hull.
Rigid steps feel more secure, but in swell the dinghy may catch underneath and lift them off, so they need lashing down.
- Position the dinghy where you can step down onto the seat
- When entering or exiting, try to step up or down but not across. Any lateral force pushes the dinghy away from the hull, widening the gap
Handling or rowing a dingy solo
Incidents involving tenders are more serious when the driver is on their own, according to Guy Addington, as the dinghy is often less stable.
Without assistance, things escalate quickly, but it’s common to have nothing more than a mobile phone in your pocket on the dinghy, which won’t be much use once you’ve had a dunking.
Ten years ago, the skipper of a yawl, Musketeer of Stutton, was lost whilst running crew back to the boat after an evening in Studland Bay.
Having dropped one group back, he set off to collect the final crew members, but never arrived at the beach.
They raised the alarm just before midnight. There were strong winds and rough conditions. His body was recovered by a lifeboat two hours later next to the upturned dinghy. He wasn’t wearing a lifejacket.
Even small waves can be destabilising, especially when travelling solo. Try to take them head on, or nearly head on.
Too much weight aft can cause the bow to rise and the wind to get under it, particularly at speed. Slow down and shift weight forwards if this starts to happen, perhaps using heavy warps or a jerry can of water as ballast.
- Take extra precautions when using a tender alone
- You need to have a means of raising the alarm which works even when wet
- Take a handheld VHF and attach it to your lifejacket
- Have a competent crew member maintain a listening watch
- Take an extra person with you in rough weather
Choosing a landing place
Finding a safe place to land starts early. Try to identify potential landing places before dropping the hook and position yourself nearby.
Sometimes an anchorage is tenable for the yacht, but not for landing the dinghy, and it’s better to avoid the risk of damaging the dinghy on an inhospitable or rough landing.
We arrived in Millport Bay, Great Cumbrae, and had a choice of anchoring off Kames beach in the NE corner or picking up a mooring closer to town.
It was low water and there was a strong westerly blowing. We were planning on walking around the island so needed to leave the dinghy somewhere secure.
Kames beach has a shallow gradient so it would have been a long way to carry the dinghy above the tide line. The moorings had much less fetch and the small harbour provided a safe landing place.
We checked for obstructions on approach as there can be protrusions from walls and jetties but it looked clear. It wasn’t easy to hold the dinghy alongside whilst we all got out.
Although we managed it, motoring forwards against the steps is another option. Some harbours have a dedicated dinghy pontoon.
The etiquette is to allow plenty of length on the painter so that other people can get their dinghies in and out. A long chain will stop an opportunist from borrowing your ride, though not a determined thief.
Outboard locks may be stipulated by your insurer, but a flexible bike lock is more user-friendly. On Great Cumbrae we decided the chances of a dinghy theft were low!
- Consider the suitability of the mooring at all states of tide
- Avoid jetties where the dinghy could stray underneath and be trapped at high water
- Keep a long, lightweight line on board for use as a painter
- Record the engine serial number
Towing a dinghy
Towing tenders is a stressful business. Inevitably the mirror-calm conditions you set off in soon turn into an uncomfortable chop, by which point it’s too late to bring the dinghy alongside and lift it aboard.
There’s a risk that the dinghy could be flipped – bad news with the outboard still on, or the dinghy strong points or line might part, especially if the dinghy becomes waterlogged, leading to complete loss of the dinghy.
However, sometimes it’s the simplest way to get the dinghy from one anchorage to another. We towed Seraphina’s dinghy for the three miles between Great Cumbrae and Glencallum Bay.
Kellie made a bridle using strong points on the bow to spread the load. Jess paid out a long line to reduce snatching. As with any open water tow, you want the tug and tow to be in the same part of the wave cycle (both on the crest or trough) of consecutive waves.
The flat calm conditions didn’t present any challenges though. As we entered the anchorage we brought the tender close alongside at midships to prevent it from going under the stern or the painter from wrapping around the prop.
- Choose a sheltered route and check the forecast
- Lift the outboard up so that the propeller is clear of the water. This reduces drag and minimises wear and tear. Lash the outboard securely and ensure the clamp pads are tight
- On all but the shortest tows, remove the outboard completely. It won’t thank you for being dunked
- Remove loose gear which could bounce out
- Use a long tow line to absorb some of the shock loading
- Remember to move it alongside on a short painter for manoeuvring to avoid prop wraps
Landing on a beach
Glencallum Bay is a lovely, remote spot with no road access. It took a couple of attempts to set Seraphina’s anchor – the claw hooked a perfectly sized boulder, complete with flourishing ecosystem.
The beach was made of the same material and it was going to be difficult to land and secure the tender.
We made an approach, tilting the outboard up early and paddling in. Some beaches have a Jekyll and Hyde character, with a strip of soft sand at high water and rocky outcrops blocking an exit at low water so take note of what’s below.
Securing the dinghy
The safest way to leave a dinghy on a beach is to carry it above the tide line but this would have been difficult on the uneven surface.
Instead, we set the grapnel, burying it amongst the sand. It was a falling tide, so we were confident that soon the dinghy would be safely aground and
if we timed it right we’d return just as it refloated.
The crew play a vital role in beach landings. With nothing to tie up to alongside, someone needs to get out and stabilise the dinghy.
Everyone needs to be prepared to get wet: unless the beach gradient is steep allowing you to step straight ashore, it’s a case of socks off or wellies on!
Swell and mud
Beach landings in swell aren’t for the faint hearted, they require careful timing and a strong crew who are confident jumping out in waist-deep water to hold the dinghy head to the waves.
You want to avoid being caught beam on to the waves. The calm waters of rivers and estuaries disguise a hidden hazard.
The retreating tide can leave an expanse of soft mud, making it dangerous to relaunch.
Try to identify an all-tide landing like a slipway instead.
Relaunching a dinghy
Relaunching is often a wetter activity than landing as the boat needs to be pushed further out as you don’t want to damage the propeller or clog up the water cooling.
Stern-first is better as the heavy end reaches the deeper water and gets the outboard into sufficient depth. If you’re struggling, push the bow down and then away, this tilts the stern up and free of the bottom.
In swell you’ll need to wade out beyond the surf line.
One person must remain in the water as the anchor, holding the boat head to swell until a relatively calm patch. Then it’s a case of quick reactions and good timing!
- Use a manual lifejacket in swell
- Watch other people to learn the best technique
The same principles of navigation apply in a dinghy, just on a smaller scale: think wind, tide and hazards.
With limited power and stability, you need to navigate defensively to avoid being swept offshore or damaging the dinghy. It doesn’t take much to swamp a small dinghy and there’s a fine line between a damp bottom and a more serious outcome.
Chart details may be limited inshore so use micronavigation techniques when exploring by employing visual cues.
Reefs and rocks can be identified from a distance by disturbed water or colour changes. A back-eddy identified with a change in surface texture along the coast or a wind shadow from buildings on shore can make all the difference when tackling a headwind or foul tide.
Make sure you know where you are going, where the main hazards or shallows are, and what the tides are doing.
- Take advantage of local effects
- In strong winds take the shortest distance to sheltered water and then turn upwind
- Be conservative when it comes to sea state
- Always keep upwind or uptide of a point of safety
Handling or rowing a dinghy after dark
Darkness poses a greater threat to dinghy users. You’re invisible and you’re less likely to see obstructions.
If there’s any chop it will be more difficult to see the waves or make out your yacht amongst others. Cooler temperatures will also make the tubes soft.
- Take spare torches
- A strobe flare is a good addition
- Slow down to allow more time for hazard perception
- Leave a deck light on
- Take a pump for soft tubes
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