A nearly perfect dinghy

Let me start by saying that the perfect dinghy for us may be vastly different than the perfect dinghy for you. I’d love to hear about what you use and how you’ve adapted it to fit your needs. To start the conversation I thought I’d share our solution to harbor transportation.

Initially, we were kindly gifted a rowing dinghy from my grandparents. It was lightweight, easy to tow and row, and most importantly, free. I loved that boat and learned to row it as a young child, tethered to the dock by an extra-long painter. But due to its light weight and small size, it was fairly unstable and had a very limited capacity. We knew that eventually we’d like to upgrade.

Our first dinghy

Almost a year ago, a wayward boat smashed into our stern at the marina, crushing our dinghy, davits, and solar panels. It was an upsetting time as we watched the dollar signs rack up for an incident that occurred while we were tied to the dock. The insurance money (mostly) came through eventually and we were able to make the necessary repairs and move forward. We decided to take this opportunity to seriously upgrade our dinghy.

We knew from prior cruising experience that we wanted a hard bottom inflatable. While they are heavier and bulkier than a simple rowing shell, they have much greater stability, capacity, and speed. As full-time liveaboards at a mooring, this is like a car for us. We need ease of use, reliability, and comfort.

Dinghy alongside in Buck’s Harbor

My philosophy, when it comes to inflatable dinghies, is that they should be able to plane. I find no use for smaller, soft-bottomed inflatables that glide along at speeds similar to a rowboat. If I wanted to go slow in an unstable boat, I would always opt for a rowing dinghy with an optional sailing rig. At a minimum, our dinghy needs to be able to get up on a plane with two adults, a cat, and a few bags of gear. Anything beyond that is a welcome bonus, but that is a minimum.

My reasoning is multifaceted. First of all, comfort. Maine weather is, at best, unpredictable and fickle. We’d rather not get stuck in a sudden downpour or squall. Similarly, speed is important for safety. Our local waters have strong currents with large tidal ranges. Sometimes in order to overcome the current, you need a little extra power and speed. When the wind and waves stack on top of the current, I’d rather throttle up and power through than lose headway in a slower boat.

Also, because we opted for a larger 15 horsepower motor, we can use the dinghy as an emergency towboat in calm weather, a bow thruster in tight quarters, or a rescue boat if necessary. When we look at all things we want to be able to do with our dinghy, the hard bottom inflatable ticks nearly every box. Now if only it could transform into a cute little sailing pram for catching zephyrs in picturesque anchorages, then we’d have it all.

As an employee at Hamilton Marine, Skye was familiar with North Atlantic Inflatables so we investigated our options and spoke with the company about their construction and various features. Ultimately we chose an aluminum model as it was lighter, slightly more durable for the rocky coast, and allowed a higher maximum horsepower. As an added benefit North Atlantic Inflatables is located right in Portland so service and support are only minutes away.

Pulled up onto the dock to install a new bow eye

We compared all of the different outboard motor brands considering weight, power, customer reviews, features, and prices. We chose a Suzuki because it had excellent reviews, a very reasonable price, electronic injection, and was lighter than the competition. When placing the order I was surprised to see that the upgrade to an electric start was surprisingly cheap (I think it was around $100). At the time Skye had a shoulder injury so I thought the money would be well spent to avoid further aggravating the joint. To crank the engine I purchased an extremely small, and lightweight, lithium motorcycle battery. It is able to fit, along with all of our safety gear except PFDs, inside a standard battery box and weighs only a few pounds.

In our first year of use we have been extremely satisfied with the performance of our setup. Still, we have made a few small changes so far that have further improved its usefulness. The first is an automatic bilge pump. Seems overkill, right? Well, once again, we think of this boat as a car. We use it several times a day, on our way to work or out to dinner or errands. It’s nice to have dry feet. Plus, since the start battery was already installed, it was a simple project to add a pump with a built-in float switch.

Another project that I recently undertook was to modify the bow eye attachment. Standard on the aluminum hull is a welded aluminum tab with two holes for attaching a painter. To connect to the tab we had used, as have many others, a locking stainless steel carabiner. As a much harder metal than aluminum, the stainless has slowly eroded and elongated the hole. While it is nowhere near tearing out, it made us nervous to think of looking back to see the dinghy floating away one day.

I went in to speak with the guys at North Atlantic Inflatables to come up with a solution. They were aware of the issue and noted that it is more of a problem for boats with heavy use or in areas of rough water. The mooring field off of Portland for example, is constantly choppy, increasing wear on the aluminum tab. We discussed two different ways to alleviate the issue and I ultimately chose to add an additional stainless bow eye above the existing tab.

New bow eye being installed

This new eye should wear much less than the previous and is easily replaceable should I ever have a problem. Since the introduction of a nobler metal in the presence of salt water was a recipe for corrosion, I took extra precaution to isolate the two metals with rubber pads and butyl tape. I foresee this modification lasting for many years.

For coastal cruising, we simply tow the dinghy behind us and it usually behaves nicely. Should the weather deteriorate we intend to lift the motor off and place it on the stern rail to allow the dinghy to ride more comfortably. And finally, for serious offshore passages we are able to fit the dinghy forward of the mast, lashed to the foredeck.

With the two of us aboard we have no problem jumping up onto a plane, and can usually do the same with a third passenger. At our maximum capacity of four, there is little hope of planing, but we are comfortable and dry with plenty of power to make it to our destination. We have removed the athwartship seats both for increased space and to allow us to easily shift our weight fore and aft to balance the boat.

In the future we plan to add a wedge shaped bow tank to maximize space, increase fuel capacity and move weight forward. Other than that, we are more than happy to continue using the dinghy several times a day for work and play. If you are in the market for a dinghy and looking for a multifunctional and safe platform I highly recommend a rigid inflatable, particularly from North Atlantic Inflatables.

Winter storage on the bow with temporary cradle

Now that you’ve heard all about mine, let me hear about yours! What do you use and how have you modified it to really fit your needs? Join the conversation at A Life Aboard and Maine Sailing and Cruising.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.