Dinghy Safety And Etiquette

Dinghy Safety And Etiquette

A dinghy boat securely tied up Photo credit: Mat Reding

Is there anything better than relaxing in your favourite anchorage? That is until someone drives their dinghy through the mooring field, throwing up a huge wake and rocking every boat in their path. Although there are no white lines to stay between, there’s still standardised rules regarding safe-conduct and etiquette when driving your dinghy.

Whether you’re going on a snorkeling adventure, loading up with provisions at the dock or visiting another yacht in the anchorage here are a few tips to ensure you have a safe and trouble-free time away from the mothership.

Safety Equipment For Dinghy Sailing

Many boaters are not aware that the US Coast Guard requires boats under 16 feet to be registered and must display the registration numbers on the hull. The Coast Guard also requires small vessels to carry essential safety equipment including a USCG approved life jacket for each passenger, flares, a fire extinguisher and a sound-producing device such as a horn or a whistle.

when running between sunset and sunrise dinghies that can travel at speeds of 7kts or more are required to display an all-round white light and red-and-green sidelights. Essential equipment, such as a bailer and a pair of oars, is not considered compulsory. However, most sailors will probably agree that these two safety items get used the most in a typical cruising dinghy.

If you use your dinghy for long-distance adventures, you should also consider carrying some extra safety gear. A compass or a handheld GPS, a small medical kit, a couple of bottles of water and an anchor are a good start. A VHF radio is often more useful than a cellular phone as it will work offshore or if you’re tucked in behind an island and out of sight of a cell tower.

If you are going to be covering some miles in your dinghy, it is a good idea to check the local weather forecast before heading out. It is also good practice to top up your fuel tank before setting out for the day or to carry an extra tank with you. As is recommended when heading out on any voyage, let someone know where you are headed and when you expect to be back.

Carrying a small tool kit that includes a spark plug and any special tools needed for your outboard brand will ensure you are covered in case of a breakdown. If there is any chance of being out after dark, throw a headlamp in the bag. This will not only make untying and getting into the dinghy is safer and more manageable, but it can also be used as a running light, allowing other vessels to see your dinghy while underway easily.

Regulations and requirements vary from state to state, so be sure to check local guidelines where you boat. When sailing in foreign countries, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the local safe boating requirements and laws for big and small vessels. Just like renting a car, you must respect the road rules in the country you are driving in.

How To Avoid Fatalities On A Dinghy

The kill switch, also known as the key for the outboard, is perhaps the most critical piece of safety equipment in the dinghy. Unfortunately, it is also the most overlooked.

Every outboard manufacturer varies the size and shape of their kill switch, but they all perform the same task. Typically attached to a bright red lanyard, the kill switch is designed to easily pull free from the outboard when the driver moves further away from the motor than the lanyard allows, i.e. If they fall overboard. Removing the kill switch immediately stops the engine, preventing both the dinghy from motoring away at top speed and anyone in the water from getting hurt by the still spinning propeller.

Every year in the United States hundreds of people are injured in boating-related accidents. Falling overboard and becoming stuck on the propeller leads to fatalities. These accidents can be prevented by using the kill switch lanyard as it is designed to be used.

Wearing the “pretty red bracelet” every time you are in the dinghy is a practice that should be adopted, regardless of how far you are going. Make a point to put the lanyard on before you start the engine. Although modern outboards shouldn’t start in gear, they can catch you off guard if they malfunction.

Some people complain that wearing the lanyard on the wrist inhibits their movement. If you find this true, try attaching it to your belt or wearing it around your ankle. You might not win any fashion awards, but you could save a life.

Good Practice On A Dinghy Boat

As we all know a busy anchorage with dinghies going to and from shore all day can make life onboard feel like you’re inside a washing machine. Respect the “No wake” rule to preserve peace in the anchorage, both in the anchorage and near shore.

It is often argued that a boat up on plane creates less wake, but few dinghies have a big enough engine to get up on plane within a few seconds. As such, the pressure wave created before the plane is reached is quite large. Add to that the huge stern wave that occurs when the dinghy suddenly comes off of the plane, and it hardly seems worth the fuel. Not to mention how quickly a few unnecessary dinghy wakes can turn a tranquil bay into a confused and uncomfortable anchorage. Travelling at a no-wake speed may mean it takes a few extra minutes to get where you are going.

If you need to anchor the dinghy while out exploring be mindful where you throw the hook. Look for patches of sand to set the anchor and be sure to avoid letting the rode or chain drape over delicate coral beds. Since a dinghy is usually anchored in shallow water, it is easy to look over the side to ensure your anchor is safely and adequately set.

When diving is a popular tourist attraction in a location, it is polite to check with the local dive operators if any spots are off-limits to the public or if fees are charged for anchoring, diving and snorkelling. This also applies to reefs and passes that are near resorts, and to tribal property. Fail to comply with local customs, and one day you might surface to find your dinghy floating on the distant horizon if you can find it at all.

Traffic By The Dinghy Dock

Dinghy docks are busy spots, especially during happy hours. Sometimes just getting close enough to drop off crew can be difficult. To prevent a pile-up at the dock, follow these simple suggestions.

To eliminate having bodies and belongings on the dock’s busiest part, politely ask the driver to drop off passengers further up the wharf, then tie up the boat at the designated area. The same rules also apply when loading provisions into the dinghy to take home.

Before tying up your tender at a busy dinghy dock pay out as much of the painter, or the bowline, as possible. This will allow the dinghy to float far away from the dock, giving other boats easy access to the dock when they are coming ashore. A painter that sinks can easily get snagged around a propeller, so it is advisable to choose a painter that floats and is brightly coloured. Instead of using a piece of an old sheet, try a nylon or dyneema line, such as those used for watersports towlines.

Most dinghy docks supply cleats for tying up, but it rarely seems that there is enough room for everyone. As well, tying a traditional figure-8 around the cleat limits the amount of boats that can use the cleat to tie up. However, securing a simple bowline through the eye means one cleat can serve 4 or 5 dinghies. It also means that other boaters can tie and untie without disturbing your line.

If all the cleats are being used you can tie to the dock itself, make sure you connect to something secure. If it is necessary to move or untie someone else’s line when you depart the dinghy dock always make sure you tie it back up securely, preferably where and how they tied it. Also, always leave your outboard down, so your propeller doesn’t mistakenly damage or puncture another dinghy.

It is incredibly impolite to crawl over another dinghy to reach the shore, but sometimes it cannot be avoided at very busy docks. If you must crawl over someone else’s dinghy, take your shoes off and wash your feet. There is nothing more maddening than coming back to a dinghy with muddy shoe prints on the canvas.

Visiting other Yachts at the Marina

When visiting another yacht in the anchorage, it is good etiquette to standoff, say hello and wait to be invited onboard. If you choose to come alongside and knock on the hull, be polite and only knock once or twice. If there is no response, the crew is either busy or does not want to be disturbed. Don’t ever stand in your dinghy and peer into the ports. Not only is it an invasion of personal privacy, but there’s a good chance that you’ll see a side of your sailing buddy that you wish you hadn’t.

Many a dinghy has slipped away unnoticed during dinner because it was tied improperly. This is why many sailors like to secure their dinghy themselves when visiting another boat in the anchorage. If this is your preference, explain to your hosts that you’ll be more relaxed if you tie up your dinghy, but always ask what they prefer you to tie to. If someone is hosting a large gathering on board, consider buddy boating with another guest. Fewer dinghies mean fewer obstacles to manoeuvre around, which could be especially important at the end of the night.

If you are the boat who is hosting, be sure to turn on a deck light as people depart. It is polite to offer to hold the painter, allowing your guests to have both hands free as they manoeuvre down the boarding ladder into their dinghy. But, make sure to wait until after they have the outboard started to cast off, just if there are any unforeseen mechanical issues.

Many people do not realize that voices carry much easier over water. Be mindful of talking loudly to your boatmates above the hum of the outboard. This is especially important at night when it is calm, and there is less background noise. A candid chat on the way home might just let your neighbours hear all your late-night secrets!

Sailors often refer to the dinghy as the family car, but many of us forget that they must drive responsibly. A sailboat with an outboard is considered a motorized vehicle. In most countries, including the US, allowable blood alcohol limits that apply to drivers on land also apply to boaters. BUI, or Boating Under the Influence, is a Federal Offence in the USA and carries the same penalties. Never let someone dinghy home drunk.

The high seas may seem like a wild place, but there are still laws that apply. When it comes to dinghy safety and etiquette, common sense is all you need. Being considerate of other boaters doesn’t take much extra time, but it will win you, friends, at the dock and in your favourite anchorage. Always wearing a kill switch lanyard, carrying some essential safety gear and displaying lights when running at night doesn’t take much extra effort, but it may save a life.

Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada and has lived and worked on boats worldwide. She has spent many hours in dinghies and finds the white-noise of an outboard rather relaxing. For the last decade she has been sailing onboard Kate, a Newport 41, she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought in California. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind, and you can follow their adventures at www.yachtkate.com.

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An Atlantic City Skiff by Mark O Custom Boats set up as a dinghy. Photo: Pop Yachts / Mark O Custom Boats. An Atlantic City Skiff by Mark O Custom Boats set up as a dinghy. Photo: Pop Yachts / Mark O Custom Boats.

The dinghy is an unsung work horse on any boat. Part taxi, part tour boat, part delivery vehicle it is often referred to as the “family car.” And like cars there are different manufacturers, sizes and styles of boats. So, how you know which dinghy is right for you?

Things To Consider

Before you go shopping for a dinghy there are a few things you need to determine. Answering the following six questions will help you narrow down your search and ensure you buy a boat that is right for you.

1. What is the maximum number of people that will be in the dinghy at once?

A crew of two can manage with a much smaller dinghy than a family of six. As well, four adults require a bigger boat than two adults and two small children. Knowing the total number and maximum weight of your crew is important information for choosing a dinghy that will be comfortable and safe.

2. How will you be storing the dinghy?

If you have davits to lift your dinghy you need to be aware of the maximum weight they can hold. If you are storing your dinghy on deck you should know the maximum length you can accommodate safely. Mapping out where and how the dinghy will be stored when not in used and on passage will help narrow down the size and design of dinghy that you can accommodate.

3. How will you be using the boat?

Not everyone uses their dinghy the same. Some boaters simply need it to go the short distance to and from shore, others take regular day-long dinghy adventures. Avid divers need to consider the size and weight of the gear they need to carry. This information will also affect the size of outboard you choose. For instance, a small 3hp is suitable if you are only intending to potter back and forth to the dock in a calm anchorage. However, more adventurous dinghy users will need a larger engine.

4. What is the shoreline like where you will be using the dinghy?

If you’ll be using your dinghy in an area that is mostly rocky shorelines and sharp coral then a soft bottomed dinghy is probably not the best fit. If your area has large tides and long sandy beaches than a heavy dinghy with a deep keel could be difficult to maneuver when going ashore. How your dinghy will perform ashore is also an important consideration.

5. Can all adult crew members move and lift the dinghy by themselves?

Many people choose heavy, fibreglass hulled inflatable dinghies because they are sturdy and robust only to discover that only the strongest crew members can lift it up on deck at night or safely pull it up a beach out of the surf. Having a dinghy that all crew can corale and control not only distributes the workload but ensures everyone’s safety.

6. What is your budget?

There are a lot of choices when it comes to dinghy shopping so you need to be prepared before you start looking. Setting a realistic budget to meet the above criteria will help you find the boat of your dreams without breaking the bank.

Type of Dinghies

Dinghies generally fall into two categories – inflatable boats and hard boats. Within those categories there are also variations. No one design is better than all the rest. The important thing to remember is to choose a dinghy that best suits your needs and demands


RIBS or Rigid Inflatable Boats – The most popular choice when it comes to dinghies is the RIB. These boats have inflatable pontoons and a hard, shaped bottom. The combination of the structured hull and inflatable tubes make them lighter that a fully rigid boat without compromising on the performance.

These types of boats are great for large crews, divers and avid fishers. There is no need to worry about dropping sharp objects on the floor or grazing a rock when heading ashore. They are also easy to get into from the water, simply hoist yourself up over the pontoons, or a larger RIB may have a boarding ladder on the stern.

However, since the hull is made of either fiberglass or aluminum, even small RIB’s can be too heavy for one person to easily pull up a beach. Their weight demands a larger outboard to reach sufficient speed to plane. It also makes them harder to row, especially in choppy seas or directly into the wind. Although the pontoons can be deflated a RIB cannot roll up so they require a dedicated storage space at least the length and width of the hull when underway.

SIB / Soft Inflatable Boats

Similar to a RIB these soft dinghies also have inflatable pontoons but lack the sculpted rigid floor. Instead a SIB floor is made of wooden or aluminium slats or is fully inflatable. Much lighter than a RIB a soft inflatable lacks a deep hull which effects the handling, especially at higher speeds. This flat hull design also makes them difficult to row efficiently despite being light weight.

Easier to maneuver on the beach and to lift onboard for storage the underside of a SIB can be easily punctured by sharp objects such as oyster shells and rocks. Like an RIB they are easy to get into from the water over the pontoons. However, they are much lighter than and RIB so they can reach high speeds with a smaller outboard engine.

The removable floor of an SIB allows the dinghy to be fully deflated and rolled up for storage. This makes them perfect for smaller vessels and for boaters who do not want a dinghy on deck for long passages. This portability also makes it possible to throw the dinghy in the back of a car, perfect for weekend or inland boaters.

All inflatables have one thing in common. It is nearly impossible to sink them. Even with a hull full of water most RIB’s and SIB’s have enough buoyancy in the pontoons to keep the dinghy afloat. Many even have enough buoyancy to keep the outboard dry when the hull is semi-submerged. This one characteristic is probably their biggest selling point.
The pontoons of inflatable boats are made out of either PVC or Hypalon and there is a great debate over which material is better. Hypalon is heavier, more resistant to abrasion and is more UV stable. Hypalon seams are welded using a specific technique and this makes them difficult to repair and more labour intensive to manufacture. A Hypalon dinghy is always more expensive than a PVC dinghy of the same size.

PVC is lighter weight and slightly less abrasion resistant, although still quite durable. The seams of a PVC dinghy are usually glued, which means punctures are easy to repair. However, there has been widespread complaints about the decline of quality of several manufacturers in recent years. Several boaters have complained about seams coming unglued, which is not only disappointing but dangerous.

Hard Dinghies

A hard dinghy is any small boat that has no inflatable components. They can be made of plastic, hardwood, aluminum, fiberglass, plywood or PVC. Hard dinghies come in a variety of designs and lengths, are produced by several different manufactures and can even be DIYed.

Sailing Dinghy

Usually wooden, fiberglass or molded PVC these small dinghies make a fun addition to any boat. Fully rigid and designed to accommodate a sail, centerboard and rudder/tiller these boats are also fully functional with an outboard. However, due to the hull designs outboard size if often limited. Fun for kids to sail in a protected anchorage they can often be wet boats. This can make bringing home provisions sometimes difficult. These types of boats are also often rowed ashore as their hulls glide nicely, making them efficient and easy to row.

Nesting Dinghy

Usually wooden, and these days custom made, these fun little rigid hulled boats break into two pieces along the middle. They are designed so that one piece of the hull fits neatly inside the other, essentially halving the required deck space needed to store them. Unfortunately, this style of dinghy is not common these days. However, if a nesting dinghy would be your ideal boat and you are skilled DIY-er then check online for tutorials or patterns.

Folding Dinghy

Folding boats are a fairly new design that incorporate the handling and durability of a fully rigid hull while being light weight and easy to store. Constructed from NASA developed reinforced PVC these boats fold up like a paper airplane with the seats removed. Weighing in with the SIB’s a 10.9” dinghy folded takes up about as much room as a surf board. The full hull gives good performance, but their light weight doesn’t demand a large outboard. A folding dinghy is strong enough to run up on rocks but light enough to be moved by one person. Unlike the RIB/SIB market, there are only a few manufacturers of folding boats.

Outboard Engines For Dinghies

Just as it is important to determine your requirements and budget when choosing a dinghy, so to it is necessary to consider your needs when buying an outboard for the dinghy. Firstly, every dinghy will have a maximum rating for an outboard, either given as max horsepower or max weight. It is very important not to exceed these guidelines. Doing so could result in damage to the dinghy or injury to the crew.

It is also important to factor in the activities that you will be using the dinghy for. For instance, if the boat is only needed to ferry people to the dock and back a smaller outboard is perfectly suitable. However, if you are using the boat in larger swell or for longer distances, than a more powerful outboard is required.

Where the outboard will be stored when not in use or underway should also be considered. If you are storing the engine on a rail-mounted outboard bracket you must be able to lift the engine off the dinghy and up, over the railing. This is no easy feat when you consider even a 6hp four-stroke can weight 50lbs.

RIB’s and some hard dinghies can handle larger, more powerful engines. However, this also adds to the overall weight of the boat, making them even more cumbersome and difficult to haul out. Larger outboard also mean more fuel consumed and that equals more expensive dinghy to run. When it comes to dinghies, a bigger outboard is not always better.

New Versus Pre-Owned Dinghies

Everyone loves that new dinghy smell and the excitement of taking it out for the maiden voyage. But, buying new can be very expensive, and isn’t always the best option. Over the past five years there has been several reports of the build quality of several reputable dinghy manufacturers going down, way down. Seams coming unglued, handles falling off, and strong points not being all that strong. Unfortunately, buying a well-respected brand name these days doesn’t guarantee high quality construction.

It pays to do a little research on cruiser forums and to ask around on the docks. It is not only what brand people like but how old the dinghy they have is and what problems they have encountered. If you shop at a store don’t be afraid to ask the retailer their opinion too as they will have dealt with warranty issues, repairs and returns.

Buying a pre-owned dinghy is a great option for boaters who have a smaller budget, or who are looking for boat to fit their unique needs. Hard dinghies are especially good candidates but an older inflatable that was well stored and maintained can still have many years of life left in them. As well, there is always the boater who bought new only to find out they chose incorrectly, and you can snag a lightly used dinghy for a bargain.

Dinghy shopping is not always smooth sailing. Taking time to consider your needs and requirements, as well as your restrictions, will help you make the best choice. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to dinghies, but there is a dinghy for everyone.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is A Dinghy?

A dinghy is any variety of small boat carried, towed or stored onboard a larger vessel for use as a tender or lifeboat and to access the boat from land. Some people refer to dinghies as support vessels, gunboats or pilot boats, although those are typically terms reserved for military or industrial purposes. Most dinghies are powered by small outboard engines although some may have inboard engines or even jet drives (especially those that accompany larger yachts and expedition style superyachts), while some may even be simple row boats with no form of mechanical propulsion. Sailing dinghies are usually designed more for sailing rather than accessing a larger vessel./>

How To Choose A Dinghy
Category: Guide to Buying and Selling Boats
Heather Francis helps yacht owners choose the right dinghy for their boat.

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