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The Inflatable Debate

August 12, 2013

We recently visited a marina with separate dinghy docks for inflatable and hard dinghies. I was shocked by the visual reminder of the disproportionate number of inflatables. Unable to think of any good reason for this, I asked the owners of inflatables themselves. Here is what they said.


Our first dinghy: A Phil Bolger Nymph named Dovè Duff

AN INFLATABLE IS MORE STABLE, AND I CAN SNORKEL OR DIVE FROM IT.

A hard dinghy of the right design can be equally stable. Just as there are fast, tender "sports cars" of hard dinghies, there are also comfortable, stable "Cadillac" versions. The trick is to choose a dinghy designed for how you use it. We can easily climb into our Fatty Knees from the water when she is wearing her collar.

IT WON'T SINK.

When built with watertight compartments to provide positive flotation, wooden and fiberglass dinghies will not sink, either. The difference is that when there is a small hole, even above the waterline, an inflatable will indeed sink, unlike its fiberglass or wooden cousin.


Our Fatty Knees: Eureka

I CAN DEFLATE IT TO STOW IT MORE EASILY.

True, however, no one who gave me this reason does so on a regular basis. Inflatable dinghies with a rigid bottom no longer meet even this expectation.

IT IS SOFTER TO COME ALONGSIDE A BOAT.

I am not sure "soft" is a word I would want to describe a dinghy that must contend with wooden and concrete docks, rocks and sand, and other dinghies whose inconsiderate owners lift the outboard at the dinghy dock. While all these conditions will cause damage to a hard dinghy, they will not render it useless and leave us stranded on shore within a few hours. A proper rub rail on a hard dinghy is essential to protect it and anything it touches.


Dave built Miaja on St. Croix

Reasons for owning a hard dinghy:

LIFE EXPECTANCY

A properly maintained hard dingy built of any material can outlive its owner, while its inflatable counterpart regularly only lasts five to seven years in the tropics before it is too sun burnt to be worth patching. Many cruisers cover their inflatable tubes to help minimize the Hypalon's sunburn, but this added expense and hassle often frustrates them enough to make buying a new dinghy their best option. While the price of each type of dinghy is nearly equal, anyone who plans to cruise for more than five years should count on having to buy more than one inflatable, thus obviously doubling the price.


The dinghy Dave built for Walküre: a two-piece Spindrift named Irie

SELF-SUFFICIENCY

A reasonably competent owner can maintain and repair a hard dinghy himself, perhaps even build it himself. However, I have yet to hear of anyone successfully building their own inflatable, and even attempts to repair one are not successful long-term options.

WEIGHT

Our eight-foot fiberglass dinghy weighs 85 pounds. We lift it to store on the foredeck with a halyard; and being the winch grinder, I am ever conscious of dinghy weight. In order to have the same interior volume as our eight-footer, an inflatable would have to be twelve feet long and weigh nearly 150 pounds--without the motor. Raising such a large dinghy on deck is so difficult that most cruisers chose instead to build, or have built, horribly unattractive lifting and storing devices formally known as davits. Otherwise, they tow their $3,000 means of transportation behind them, rarely from more than one painter, often dragging their equally expensive motor, as well.

THE OPTIONAL OUTBOARD

Because of their hull shape, an inflatable is impractical to row to windward, making an outboard no longer optional as it is with a hard dinghy. Adding an outboard into the equation makes owning an inflatable that much more of a hassle. As we watch and count our cruiser-neighbors in the anchorage jerk on the starter cord of their outboards. Occasionally the excessive pulling is sufficient, and the outboard starts. Otherwise, when the cover has to be removed, we start a timer. Once the motor is finally running we calculate the "expense" of spending that much time working on an outboard. At this point, there are usually tools involved, cursing, bloody knuckles, greasy shorts, sweaty shirts, and no hope of gaining any pleasure from an outing to shore.

When, not if, the motor does not start, is out of fuel or feels like being uncooperative, in a hard dinghy one is merely "inconvenienced." The inflatable owner, however, will be accepting a tow from us as we row past.

I greatly enjoy our quiet, motor-less ventures away from the boat. Our most serious discussions and best laughs have been in our dinghy. We have watched raccoons flip over rocks on shore, manta rays, sharks, and countless turtles swim by, all unmolested by fumes or noise.

THE SAILING OPTION

Whether at the mercy of financial constraints or Mother Nature's fancy, we often spend longer in port than our wanderlust appreciates. At these times having a dinghy with a sailing rig helps quench our thirst for adventure. We often sail Eureka to private beaches for a romantic picnic, take her offshore fishing, explore reefs, and sail her to shore to do chores. There is also no better way to learn the nuances of sailing, or to teach them to your children, than with a sailing dinghy.

Whereas most inflatables are known simply as "tender to," hard dinghies have personalities, become members of the crew and family, and are rightfully named. They tag along behind us in the anchorage and forlornly wait for our return when we leave them tied to the dock. Like the pets our children had on land, hard dinghies are our toys and playmates, rather than just an unreliable, deflatable, means of transportation.

MONDAY we continue our trip up the East coast, playing tourist in what became our second favorite southern city.

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