A tale of nine dinghies

By Bill Hezlep
For Points East

Yes, we again have no dinghy. Last fall, when Nauset finally paid a return visit to the Cape, we had a dinghy that still floated and an outboard that more-or-less ran. By the time we reached Oxford, Md., and Campbell’s Bachelor Point Boatyard, where Nauset was hauled for the winter, we had neither.

In “Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,” 11th Ed., a dinghy (noun, plural dinghies) [from: Bengali dingi, Urdu, dingi and Hindi diemgi (1810)] is defined as: 1. an East Indian rowboat or sailboat and 2. a small boat carried on or towed behind a larger boat as a tender or a lifeboat. Most boaters with boats large enough to spend a long weekend aboard consider a dinghy to be, if not essential, at least useful and fun. And, for people headed off for a two-week, two-month or two-year cruise, a dinghy is basically essential.

Can you be a cruising boater if you have no dinghy? Well, yes, you can. Unless you want to go ashore somewhere where there’s no dock that you can use, no yacht club or marina launch, no water taxi, and no cruising buddy or friendly neighbor willing to ferry you around.

Over more than 30 years of cruising about on boats we have had nine dinghies – three hard and six inflatable. The three hard dinghies were Nos. 1, 6 and 7. No. 1 was a basic eight-foot fiberglass rowing dinghy. No. 6 was a nine-foot Boston Whaler equipped with a good eight horse outboard. And No. 7 was an eight-foot Trinka sailing dinghy. All three of the hard dinghies came to us on or with boats that we bought.

The rowing dinghy and the little Boston Whaler departed when we sold their boats. Both were pretty good dinghies, and I wish that I had that eight-foot rowing dinghy now. We sold the Trinka and bought an inflatable (dinghy No. 8) with an outboard. The Trinka was fun as a water toy, but it did not work well as the tender for a cruising boat.

We bought all six of the inflatables, along with the four outboards that powered them. Two of the inflatables (dinghies 2 and 5) were Hypalon, and the other four (dinghy Nos. 3, 4, 8 and 9) were PVC.

The first inflatable, dinghy No. 2, was a 9½-foot Hypalon Seaworthy, with a four-panel plywood floor we bought from BoatUS. It had a five-horse Nissan outboard and a whole lot of other stuff in September 1994, when we moved aboard a 36-foot Mariner ketch and went off to the land of palm trees and white, sandy beaches. Two years later, down in the Grenadines on a beautiful day, we went for what should have been a short pleasant motor sail from Mustique to Canouan. Short it was. Pleasant? No.

I committed the duel sins of failing to pay attention to a weather event way off to the east – and towing the dinghy. Twenty degrees farther east, Hurricane Isidore had made its turn and was moving northwest at 14 knots. Isidore was a small, compact storm, and 20 degrees is a long way away. But Isidore had been out there for a while, and had kicked up a fair-sized, long-period swell.

In the open ocean, that swell would not have been too much of a problem, but when it hit the Grenadines, and depths dropped from 6,000 to 120 feet, the swells compressed and bent to pass between the islands. We had a problem.

For a couple of miles between Canouan and Petit Canouan, we found ourselves in very large, cresting, following seas. The dinghy flipped, the weight of the motor pulled the stern down, and the dinghy became a surprisingly effective sea anchor. This was not a good thing at the time, and stopping to wrestle the dinghy and motor aboard was not going to happen.

The sea anchor didn’t last long. Before I could cut the towline, both towing pads tore off the dinghy. Seaworthy and Nissan went off to Venezuela without us, and we anchored for the night in Charleston Bay, Canouan. I read somewhere that cruising boaters, like cats, have nine lives. If so, we used one up that day.

In that part of the world, being without a dinghy is not an option. It would be about like living in the outer suburbs with no car. The nearest places in which we could buy a dinghy and outboard were Bequia and Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. Rodney Bay was a fair run north. Port Elizabeth, on Admiralty Bay, Bequia, was just 20 miles north of Canouan, and Port Elizabeth had two chandleries and a water taxi that served the mooring field and anchorage. By noon the next day, Sept. 24, 1996, we were anchored in Admiralty Bay.

We took the water taxi in to the Whaleboner Restaurant and Bar (where a pair of whale’s jaw bones bracketed the entrance), enjoyed a good lunch, and then walked over to the Bo’sun’s Locker, one of the two chandleries and an Avon dealer. At the Bo’sun’s Locker we bought dinghy No. 3, an Avon Typhoon 2.7, and to push it we bought a four-horse Yamaha outboard. The Typhoon was the floor model and the only dinghy in the place except for a massive and very expensive Avon RIB. The 2.7 in the designation was the dinghy’s length in meters. Our new car was eight inches shorter than the Seaworthy (2.7 meters is 8 feet 8½ inches); had larger tubes; three, not four, plywood floor panels; was PVC not Hypalon; and it carried a two-year-full and five-year-fabric warranty.

We spent hurricane season 1998 on the Gulf Coast. Thursday, July 2, we were at a small marina on Contraband Bayou in Lake Charles, La., and Betty’s mother drove out from her home in Houston for the day. Before lunch, we took her for a dinghy ride up the bayou to see the alligators and birds; Contraband Bayou is pretty, and there are lots of both. Betty and mother sat on the seat facing forward, looking and talking, and I sat aft driving.

Shortly after leaving the dock, I noticed that a little water was seeping in somewhere around the dinghies transom. Half an hour later, I had the outboard’s throttle in one hand, the bailing sponge in the other, and the seep had become a trickle. I tapped Betty on the shoulder and pointed to the water coming in.

Suddenly it was lunchtime, and back we went. By the time Betty’s mother left, the dinghy had four to six inches of water in it. I pulled the dinghy to the dock, and yanked its bow up on to the edge of the dock, and when the water inside surged aft, the transom detached from both tubes. Betty refers to this incident as “the time you tried to feed Mom to the alligators.”

Two weeks later, in Clear Lake outside Houston, I took our dinghy to the local Avon dealer. After several phone conversations with Avon Central, I was offered a brand-new Typhoon 2.7 as a replacement for the “defective” one: dinghy No. 4. The new dinghy came with a two-year-full and five-year-fabric warranty.

In 2000, we stayed in the Bahamas until late June. Our last stop in the Bahamas was Marsh Harbor and early the morning we left, I got into the dinghy to take a last bag of trash ashore and pick up a couple things. When I stepped into the dinghy, the fabric floor under the plywood panels parted company with the starboard tube. I was standing in the dinghy, ankle-deep in water, holding the side of the sailboat, and looking at the pale, sandy sea floor seven feet down through a rather large opening.

We rescued the outboard before it went under; got the newly deceased up, deflated and lashed down; and we left (with the trash) for Brunswick, Ga. When we reached Charleston in early July, I conveyed the recently deceased to the Avon dealer, along with its warranty, the two-year full warranty less than a month from its expiration date. Avon no longer sold the Typhoon in the United States, so, in lieu of a new dinghy, they offered me the original purchase price in credit toward the purchase of a good Avon, a 9½ foot long Hypalon one with an air floor and an inflatable keel: dinghy No. 5.

Two years later, we sold the Mariner ketch, along with the Avon and its aging outboard, and bought a trawler. The trawler came with a nine-foot Boston Whaler: dinghy No. 6. The little Whaler was great; the trawler it came with was not. Almost exactly one year later, we were pleased to part-company with that particular vessel. Unfortunately the little Whaler went with it.

The trawler’s replacement was a Duffy 35 (Atlantic Boat Company). Of all the boats we have owned, that Duffy was Betty’s favorite, and, among our powerboats, it was by far the best. We lived aboard the Duffy for four years, and drove it from Ottawa, Montreal and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Maine, the farthest Out Islands of the Bahamas (three Bahamas cruises), and to the Gulf Coast. It was a traveling boat.

At this point in life, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever own another Duffy 35, but if I ever start playing the lottery, and win, y’all know where the money is going. When we bought the Duffy, it came with a Trinka sailing dinghy: dinghy No. 7. The Trinka was fun, but it was not a particularly good tender for a traveling boat. We sold it and bought an eight-and-a-half-foot long Aqua Dutch inflatable and a small Honda outboard: dinghy No. 8.

The Aqua Dutch was made from a newer, improved PVC. It had large-diameter tubes, with three chambers, not two. It had an inflatable floor and an inflatable keel. It was a good dinghy and it served us well.

In 2007, a combination of age, a progressive medical problem, and family considerations forced a change in lifestyle. We sold our Duffy, with the Aqua Dutch dinghy (but kept the Honda outboard), moved ashore, built a house in a very small town in rural Texas, and bought a Cape Dory 28 powerboat. At the Annapolis Boat Show that October, we bought a Defender “boat-show special,” a Zodiac RU-230: dinghy No. 9. It was a short, pudgy, slatted-floor, PVC roll-up, seven feet, seven inches long, with a four-foot, five-inch beam. But our little Honda outboard pushed it right along, it was small enough to inflate in the Cape Dory’s cockpit, and, deflated, with the tubes folded in, it rolled into a neat, easily stored package. Defender warned us that the storage bag that came with the dinghy was not UV-resistant, so we had a canvas shop make a good bag for us.

Two years later, the Honda outboard died from ingesting ethanol a few too many times, and it was replaced by a two-and-a-half-horse Suzuki, which lasted – at least ran, sort of – until last fall, when the dinghy ceased to need it.

The Zodiac was the dinghy that, at age 11, died last fall. We used it with the Cape Dory and, from September 2012 to last fall, with Nauset. That little PVC dinghy got a lot of use: It made two, long Gulf Coast cruises down to the deep reaches of South Texas; it putted around in The Bahamas; it survived seven winters in the Florida Keys, fourteen trips (seven up, seven down) on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and two to New England. It was a damn-good, pudgy little PVC dinghy.

So, no dinghy – now what? Do we, or do we not, buy another one? And, if we do, what kind? Well, we don’t know, it’s under discussion, we’re undecided, and a couple of other things. Given our set-in-Jell-O plans for the next year or so, do we even need a dinghy?

Between April 2015 and September 2016, Nauset traveled from the Florida Keys to the Chesapeake, back south to the Keys, north to the Chesapeake, on to Cape Cod, and back to the Chesapeake. In all that chugging up, down and around, how many times did we use the dinghy?

The log book says 11 times: four visits to Vero Beach (one an extended stay); two stops in Titusville, Fla.; a week in Stuart, Fla.; a visit to Marathon; an overnight anchored in Solomons, Md., and two visits to Annapolis. Both Marathon and Annapolis have water taxis, and we used the taxi more than the dinghy. We could have tied up in every single one of the places at which we used that dinghy. While tying up would have been more expensive, it would also have been more convenient and easier on us.

My current theory is that our next dinghy, if any, will be a rowing dinghy, possibly with a sailing rig, something about eight and a half to nine and a half feet long, either fiberglass or wood/epoxy, and weighting, say, 100 pounds or less (think Weaver Snap Davits on the swim platform). I enjoy rowing, and the possible when-and-if dinghy would be as much, maybe more, for recreation and fooling around than for transportation.

Anyway, we’re in no hurry: We’ll just wait, think, and look around. Eventually, in some boatyard or marina dinghy rack, somewhere along the coast, we’ll stumble across a decent, workable skiff or rowing dinghy that’s available, and then we’ll, maybe, get serious.

A cartographer, Bill’s infatuation with boats and the sea began in 1961 when, at 17, he went to sea on a Norwegian school ship. He met his wife Betty – aerospace engineer, mathematician, pilot and sailor – at an Annapolis sailing club in 1993. A year later, they left the Chesapeake on a cruise to the Bahamas, and they never returned to their former lives.