Dinghy Handling


Often forgotten or overlooked when investigating a charter company, the dinghy is a critical element to a charter cruise: It can be either the source of much help and fun or the cause of lots of frustration, which could potentially ruin your charter.

When doing your homework in choosing your charter company, you definitely want to inquire what kind of dinghies they have in service. There are several kinds: the inflatable, the hard fiberglass (usually older) and the semi-rigid - also called rigid inflatable or hard bottom (the new ones). The latter combines hard bottom and inflatable sides. Most charter companies have, over the last few years, progressively replaced the old types with the hard bottom kind. Some 2nd. tier companies have not and in that case, you will be given and old fiberglass dinghy. Our first advice is to insist for a hard bottom dinghy every time you can. They are much nice, as you will read.

Before Casting Off: Checking Out the Dinghy

Often, during the boat briefing by a charter company employee, charterers focus on the yacht and completely forget the dinghy. BIG mistake! How would you like to reach your first anchorage, a big smile on your face at the thought of the beach bar waiting for you 300 yards from your boat, only to find out that your dinghy outboard refuses to fire up? Believe me, you would be veeeeery upset! So here is a list of things to check out before leaving.

  • Always start the outboard and check that it spits water. The outboard is the most important item in the dinghy. You can make do with many flaws in a dinghy, but not with a faulty engine. Ask the briefer if your outboard has any idiosyncrasy before firing it up.

  • If it is an inflatable, make sure it is properly inflated and that you have an air pump on the boat. Find or ask where the air intake valve is.

  • Check the gasoline level in the tank and ask what mixture you should use for refilling it.

Items that must be in the dinghy:

  • Long painter-the painter is the long rope that is attached to the dinghy for towing it, tying it to the boat or to a dock.

  • Small dinghy anchor

  • Paddles / oars / oarlocks: are they in there and the right size?

  • Bailing bucket

  • Wrist/disconnect attachment set

  • A safety line between the dinghy hull and the outboard in addition to the outboard clamps. Make sure the outboard motor is securely fastened to the transom.

Operating the Dinghy

  • Before boarding, make sure that kids and people who do not feel too secure swimming don a life jacket. It is also a good idea to have a couple of extra life jackets on board. In some countries, this is actually a Law.

  • Using the painter, bring the dinghy as close as you can to the boat. Personally, I tie up the dinghy laterally to the boat's transom, so it is very easy to board, especially for kids or older people.

  • When you jump in the dinghy, try to jump straight inside it. Do not try to stand on the gunwales if it is a hard hull. If it is an inflatable, you can step on the side tube to get in. Then ask other crews to jump in. Make sure all the crew weight is not on one side or in the aft part: spread the load evenly, and do not overload the dinghy.

  • If you are going for a snorkeling trip, take the diver down equipment. This is a bag with a diver-down flag and float safety equipment.
  • Check that there is enough gasoline in the tank for the trip you intend to take.
  • Start the outboard before casting off from the boat or a dinghy dock, not after. If you don't do that and your engine does not start, you will a) look silly, and b) have to paddle against the current.
  • Starting the dinghy for the first time in the morning, do not run it full throttle with a cold engine. Run it a moderate RPM for a few minutes.
  • Using the dinghy at night, always carry a 360¾ white ligt if possible, and/or at least a powerful flashlight to show your presence, spot obstacles like mooring balls, anchor chains etc., and incidentally to be able to find your boat in the dark.
  • When you go to dinner ashore, there is one guarantee when you will get back to the dinghy: it will be soaking wet of humidity. (Some) ladies will make fuss about wetting their pants! We always take a towel to wipe off the humidity from the seats or the side tubes.
  • Is climbing back in the dinghy difficult for you or your party?
  • Very important: When you get to an anchorage and before you start maneuvering your boat to anchor or around a mooring ball, shorten the painter considerably until the dinghy almost touches the boat. This will ensure that the painter will not get fouled in the boat propeller.

Docking and Beaching

Docking is pretty straightforward. Just approach the dock slowly, that's all. When tying up to the dock, leave the painter long enough to handle tide changes (you did not think about that one, uh?) if you are in an area that has a tide.

If you are in an area that you know is theft prone — and unfortunately, they do exist- you want to tie up your dinghy with a steel cable and a padlock, preferably including the outboard engine handle in the loop. If you are in such an area, the charter company will certainly supply you with those items and alert you to the situation.

Beaching the dinghy is relatively easy if there is no swell or breaking waves near the beach.

  • Approach with some speed but not too much. Have someone at the bow looking out for coral heads. When getting close to the beach, tilt your outboard up 1/3 of the way then kill the engine and finish coasting on the sand. Half the time, it does not work :-) and one of your crew has to jump in the water to pull the dinghy up. When on the beach, pull the dinghy way above the water line and tie it up to a tree or a rock if you can. When you carry items like a camera, cell phone etc. it is a good idea to put them in a waterproof bag.

  • Now, if there are big breakers or a deep swell, simply do not try to beach the dinghy. It can be a hairy and dangerous experience.

Towing The Dinghy

It sounds simple, but there are some tricks to this.

  • Charter companies often use a floating type of line for the painter, so it will not foul the boat propeller during your maneuvers. Problem is, those lines are very slippery even when tied or cleated. As a result, you will sometimes see lonely dinghies on the water or thrown on the rocks ashore: These are lost dinghies. Very embarrassing when this happens to you. There are several solutions, including towing the dinghy with an additional regular line, but it is a little cumbersome. My preferred solution is to tie the painter to the stern cleat with a cleat hitch (see this knot) and then attach the remaining free end of the painter to aft stern rail with a bowline (see this knot)

  • When towing the dinghy, you need to remove all extra gear from it, like your snorkel gear, sandals etc. If you are allowed to leave the outboard on the dinghy at all times (see below), always tilt it up to the max position. If you don't, the outboard will act as an anchor and slow you down a lot.

  • In most areas (except the Virgin Islands) charter companies will request that you remove the outboard engine from the dinghy while sailing. The reason is that the chop on the water shakes the dinghy too roughly and the outboard could simply tear the wood transom of the dinghy and sink. I won't hide it from you: removing the outboard every time you move to another anchorage is a major drag! When you remove the outboard, make sure that you have a safety line tied from the engine handle to the big boat. Those engines can be heavy and if you drop yours in the water, you will be very happy to have that safety line set.

The Dinghy at Night

  • A dinghy is like a dog: at night, it will make noises to attract your attention. It will gently tap against the hull (usually exactly where you are sleeping) or make a slapping sound like it is drinking water. The best trick I found against the noise at night is to tie the dinghy with its bow looking the other way. In another word, turn it around 180˚ from the usual position, which is the bow looking at the boat. In most cases, the noise disappears.