The Importance of the Dinghy

3 Sep

We tend to underestimate the importance of our dinghies, referring to them as dinks and rubber duckies, but they are one of the most important pieces of gear we've got on a vessel. They're the family car, the delivery wagon, the exploration vehicle, and in some cases, the liferaft.

A few years ago Tamarindo, Costa Rica, was having its swell of the year. Eight to ten foot surf pounded the coast for four days. It was also the season for Papagayos, fierce offshore winds that can blow up to thirty knots in the mornings. Combine the big swell with strong offshore winds and you've got the recipe for perfect waves for surfing, hollow monsters tubing down the beaches in all directions. The whole town went surf crazy and the broken boards pilied up on the beaches.

One great surf break, Langosta, lies about a mile south of Tamarindo Bay, where Condesa was anchored. A week before, my friend Larry and I took my little dinghy with its 3.3 horsepower motor, putted around the point down to Langosta, anchored the dinghy just outside the break, and went surfing. No problem.

When the big swell was running I did the same thing on my own, but with the ten foot surf pounding everywhere I had to go way out to sea to get around the outside reefs. I anchored the dinghy and went surfing, but the surf kept building and breaking farther and farther out, so I kept worrying about the dinghy getting nailed.

I paddled back out to the dinghy and pulled the anchor, but the Papagayos had kicked in with violence and it was howling thirty knots offshore. Again I had to go way out to sea to get around the outside reefs—which had twenty foot walls breaking on them—and once out there found myself battling against a fierce, steep chop. I could barely hold onto my surfboard, which wanted to fly away. With all the spray the boat was slowly filling with water as the little 3.3 horsepower struggled.

And then it died. I was suddenly in a very dangerous situation, being blown out to sea by thirty knot winds. I was already about a mile offshore, and a good mile and a half from Condesa. Nobody could see me or knew I was out there.

Years ago I wrote in an article for SAIL, entitled Inflatable Nirvana, that rowing is not one of these small boat’s strong points. I didn’t have oars anyway, not that it would make any difference against a thirty-knot headwind. You need a motor to make these boats move. It was time for triage:

Plan A was to try with all due haste to get the engine running again. Yes, there was gas in the tank. Plan B was to tie the dinghy’s bow line around my ankle and try towing it while paddling on the surfboard. No, I didn’t have any faith in making any headway in this manner, but I figured I had to try it before jettisoning $2500 worth of dinghy, motor, and associated gear. Plan C was to jettison $2500 worth of dinghy, motor, and associated gear, and paddle back to Condesa on the surfboard to save my life. This would have taken several hours, but I would have been able to make headway on the surfboard, even in the rough conditions. I would have let out all the anchor rode and left the anchor dragging to slow the drift with the outside chance that I’d be able to get someone with a fast boat to charge out to sea to try to find the dinghy, but it would drift out to sea, and out of sight, pretty quickly in those conditions.

Luckily plan A worked, but it wasn’t easy to replace the spark plug while bucking around, all the while losing ground at 2-3 knots. The motor didn’t run well, but it ran if I kept choking it and restarting it when it died. All the while it sounded like a dying cow. By the time I got it running I was more like two miles offshore, and wouldn't have even been a speck on the horizon for someone looking from shore.

I made it home, exhausted, having learned my lesson about long sea journeys in small boats. It turned out the motor had a seized piston ring, which required a complete disassembly.

This was probably the closest I came to a life-threatening situation on my whole circumnavigation. Not a big storm, not sinking, not pirates, not foundering on a reef, but almost being blown out to sea in my dink.

If we're going to use our dinghies how most cruisers use their dinghies, it's time to get serious about them. That half mile run in the dark after a few drinks, with five people sinking the thing up to the gunwales, in a breeze, could end up being a life-threatening situation if the engine conks out.

Some of us have hard dinghies that row well, but most of us have inflatables that row terribly, and can't be rowed at all into a headwind and chop. This means we need outboards to move them, and small outboards are known to be less than reliable. There's not much we can do to to increase their basic reliability, but we can keep them in good working order, and we can keep some basic supplies with us, at all times, in the dinghy. 

I stitched a pouch into the cover on my dinghy, and in it, always, are the repair kit for the motor, a spare spark plug, a spare starter cord, and a pint of pre-mixed fuel. The fact that I had a spark plug wrench and a spare plug probably saved my dinghy during my little episode in Tamarindo (the seized piston ring caused the plug to foul quickly).

For the fuel I use an MSR camping fuel bottle, which is solid and has a very tight fitting lid. This bottle serves as a reserve tank, of sorts. This pouch has a velcro closure, and will keep all these items secure, even if the dinghy gets rolled in the surf:

On longer trips I throw a handheld VHF, a flashlight, a handheld flare, and some drinking water into this pouch:

Oars and/or paddles? Yes, we should have them, but let's not be unrealistic about how well we can move an inflatable under oars. What we can cover in minutes with an outboard could take hours with oars or paddles. Any time a dinghy voyage could put you in a dangerous situation, the buddy system with another dinghy, or radio contact with the mother ship, are good practice.


  1. Mateo

    I would argue that your most life threatening situation may have been the freighter collision off the coast of Brazil…no?

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