Your dinghy is the only way off the boat short of swimming. Do not skimp.
Our first opportunity to prove ourselves and our dinghy mojo came in San Simeon as we travelled down the West Coast. We failed miserably. It wasn't just embarrassing. We made a costly mistake, lost some valuable gear, and nearly decapitated our youngest. It was not a good time had by all. However, dumping our dinghy in the surf early in our Pacific career taught us a very valuable lesson in caution and the value of appropriate equipment for the dinghy. Before you consider cutting corners, remember this important relationship: car is to house as dinghy is to boat. Unless you want to remain housebound throughout your entire cruising life, I strongly encourage thoughtful and copious investment in a quality launch.
Size Matters -- As with an anchor, invest in a dinghy at least one size larger than the directions on the package call for. Don Quixote carries a rigid inflatable which is rated for eight people. We have five. That's about right. We discuss whether or not we'd want a smaller dinghy were it just the two of us, and frankly, neither of us is convinced. A ten foot dinghy for a couple is essentially like owning a minivan or an SUV as a couple. You don't really need it all the time, but when you need to haul something around, it's very nice to have.
Power Up -- It probably goes without saying that a bigger dinghy needs a bigger motor. This is another place you do not want to skimp on either size or quality. When you consider a motor, put it on your dinghy, load up your entire crew plus two bags of groceries, laundry or garbage. If you can plane, the motor is big enough. If you can not, keep looking. Have a mechanic look it over from top to bottom to make sure there are no hidden gotchas. Outboards are pretty easy to maintain, but you want to start with one in very good shape. If you are cruising down to Mexico, I recommend Yamaha motors only because they are absolutely everywhere so finding parts and a mechanic are very easy.
It's Nice to Stay Dry -- Some landings and traverses are going to be drier than others. Equip your dinghy with at least one dry bag. We also recommend a Pelican Case for transporting your computer.
Keep It Together -- When you flip your dinghy -- and you will someday, some place, in some swell -- everything is going to want to escape into the depths. Create a simple clipping system to tie down your dry bag(s) and cases. It doesn't hurt to also have a quick and easy way to nail your shoes into the boat though the ubiquitous presence of Crocs down here pretty much assures your footwear will float. You might have to go swimming, but you'll recover your goods.
Night Lights -- We've seen a few dinghies with really nice navigation lights, usually mounted on the motor. While I like these, you don't have to get that fancy. You do, however, want to have at least a flash light or head lamp for after dark passages. Don't tell me you won't have your dink out at night. We all lose track of the time over sundowners and suddenly realize that the sun is actually down, we're more than a bit snookered, and our boat home is over there in a westerly direction… I think. Use the light to keep other launches from smacking into you as well as a tool to find your own boat. For ideas on how to make your boat uniquely visible at night with a flashlight, see my article on anchor lights.
Tie It Down -- Do not underestimate the power of your dinghy to spontaneously launch itself off a cleat and wander around the anchorage. We use both a strong primary painter which we monitor assiduously for chafe as well as a secondary chunk of line. Double tying the dinghy at night has a secondary advantage in that it makes it a wee bit harder to steal.
Security System -- It's not as dangerous out here as folks might lead you to believe, but of all the types of crime you might be exposed to while traveling, the most probable is "dinghy ransom." You wake up one morning to find your dinghy has miraculously come out of its two ties and moved upwind and across a bar into the care of a very friendly local who will charge you a 300 peso tip to give it back. I've seen several ways to discourage this type of blackmail. Some cruisers actually lift their dinghy on davits or with their main halyard up the side of the boat at night. Others like ourselves cable the dinghy to the boat and the motor to the dinghy. Another creative way to prevent theft is to paint your motor entertainingly obnoxious colors and mark up your dinghy so that it's resale value is minimal.
Wheels Rock -- Retractable dinghy wheels are a hugely valuable addition to your dinghy. They enable a single adult to relatively easily move a large heavy dinghy and motor from the surf up the beach and out of the tide line. A secondary benefit is that as you move into the shallow water, dinghy wheels can partially protect your prop since by the time it's shallow enough to eat your prop, your wheels are hitting the bottom. Without reservation, I recommend getting your dinghy wheels from DaNard Wheels. In addition to an awesome product, he provides unparalleled customer support. The guy is fantastic.
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Our dinghy system isn't perfect, but it has served us well for nearly two years. Frankly, our only real problem with Rocinante is our eldest daughter. Watching her zoom around the anchorage makes me dread the looming challenge of teaching her how to operate a car. Ugh. Teenage drivers.