Cruising from port to port, from country to country, from today into tomorrow, on your very own cruising boat, can be a joy and a wonder.  But to go exploring, to see the unattended, the uninhabited, the places of simple beauty that is nature itself, is the real adventure.  But alas, it you are a cruiser, you're going to have to get off your boat and go ashore to really see what it is all about.  And to do that you're going to need a 'tender'.

     After acquiring our cruising trawler, "Cottonwood", Lynn and I had many discussions about a tender for our long voyage.  For those of you who are new to cruising, these are the little boats that take you ashore when you are not tied up to a dock.  So, we ask, what is the best boat for a cruiser to take along when you need to get off and go ashore, when you are not tied up at a marina?  Should it have a hard bottom, a soft bottom, a hard shell, or rubber sides (for bouncing off things), big motor for going fast, or small motor for easy maintenance and better fuel usage?  Just what characteristics should it have to ferry us in ease and safety?  These are just some of the discussions we entertained during the planning stage of our 15,000 mile voyage.  And these discussions didn't stop after we departed, but continued, during the first leg of our experiences through Mexico, and again with different conditions we saw on the Central American leg, and then again in the Caribbean and up into Florida and through the Intra-Coastal Waterway.  All these areas brought new shades of discussion with different implications.  What type of boat would work better when we were faced with various 'unexpected' conditions during the voyage?  And what of exploring?  What would be best when we encountered new opportunities in remote areas, with associated conditions?  And as always, these discussions were modified further as we experienced problems, and as maintenance was required, and no help was nearby, forcing the captain to become MacGyver.

    I hope these images conjure up a varied mix of ideas for what might be the optimum tender for a cruising boat.  Because that is just what we found to be the case for our long voyage into the unknown.  In fact, we continued to change our minds all during our voyage.  And, I will have to admit to being somewhat impulsive at times, when judging which product to add to our vessel.  I usually like to error toward getting 'the best deal and best product'.  But during our voyage, what we judged be best if we were to have the 'optimum' tender actually changed many times.  So this begs the question; "What is the best tender for a cruiser, when going ashore?"


    When we were preparing to leave on our long voyage, we found ourselves becoming short on funds as our refurbishment and provisioning took a toll on our purse beyond our planning.  Isn't that unusual!  So we decided not to look for a new tender before departing.  We had two older dinghies, one that came with our 'new to us' trawler, and one we had picked up earlier at a sale because it had a really neat steering wheel console.  After engine tuning, both were in a condition we considered complimentary.  In other words, if one failed, we had the other.  And we had plenty of room on top of our trawler for the two dinghies as well as our kayak.  So we took them both.  These dinghies were both rubber inflatable boats, called RIBs.  One was 10 ft. long with a 10 hp motor, the other 11 ft. long with a 20 hp motor.  One hand maneuvered at the motor, the other had the steering console.  They both had fiberglass hard bottoms.  We took patching kits with us for the rubber inflated side tubes, and small oars in case of motor failure.  Lynn and I like the idea of anchoring out rather than going into marinas, so our going ashore mostly consisted of anchoring, then deploying a dinghy and beaching the boat on the sand.  If your idea of cruising is to stay mostly at marinas, and you can plan and manage long legs between the marinas, then the dinghy issue is probably moot.  And these adventures and our opinions won't mean a hill of beans.  But if you like to explore the wonderful places that do not have marinas, then consider our experiences and listen to our 'changing' thoughts as we progressed through our journey.


     Our first "cruising tender" opinion was developed after a mishap when we dropped anchor in Turtle Bay, just south of Ensenada, Mexico.  Four of us climbed into the larger dinghy and headed ashore.  We found ourselves with large breaking waves on shore, not good, and looking up at a wooden pier, we could not see how to tie up and climb up to the pier.  Some locals waved us over to a metal stairwell on the other side that extended down to the water.  We pulled up to the stairs, and everyone began to climb onto the stairway while I held the boat steady.  However, the waves coming in were pushing the dingy up and down with the swells.  It just so happened that one side of the dinghy slid under the fixed stairwell as one swell subsided, and the next swell raised it up and the sharp metal punctured one tube in the dinghy.  Everyone scampered and crawled up onto the stairwell while I was trying to stop the engine and keep it up out of the water, while one side of the boat was sinking.  One of the locals ran and called his friend who was on the other side of the pier in a fishing boat, called a panga.  This is a small open shell wood or fiberglass boat about 15 feet long with an outboard motor.  He came around and with the help of two other locals pulled our dinghy up onto the panga.  He then motored it over to our boat and I winched it back aboard our trawler.  They were very helpful and asked for no compensation for their assistance, although we insisted and they were grateful. We tried on many occasions in the following months to patch the 9 inch slit in the rubber, but because of the large size of the puncture and the limited size of the patches in the kits, it always had a slow leak thereafter.  We used our second dinghy for the remainder of our voyage up into Canada.  On this occasion, however, I found myself wishing we had a hard sided boat that would not puncture.  And I found myself worrying about leaking and puncturing for the rest of our voyage.

      Many of the most interesting and beautiful places in Mexico and Central America you can only see if you go ashore in coves or bays.  This required us to anchor and beach our tender on the shore.  We managed to do this quite well with our dinghies, however, the size of these RIBs, with their fiberglass bottoms, made them heavy and difficult to pull ashore, even with 3 or 4 people.  And in areas like Costa Rica and Panama, where the tide can be 10-15 ft., when the tide goes out while you are ashore, you can have a long way to pull your dinghy back to the water when you return from your excursion.  In one instance in Costa Rica, this was about 40 yards!  We went back to town and waited for the tide.  For this reason, I was now wishing we had a smaller, lighter tender.

    We also used our RIB for various explorations, especially in the Caribbean where the waters are so beautiful that you just have to go searching for places to explore and snorkel.  This brings us to another problem with a high, round sided RIB.  If you anchor your dinghy out away from shore to go swimming, unless you are very athletic and strong in the upper body, you cannot get back into a round rubber sided dinghy from the water.  I actually was stifling a laugh as I watched Lynn kicking and struggling to get back in, even with my help.  Then I tried it.  Your legs just swing under the boat when you pull up.  We were both exhausted after getting back aboard.  Believe me it is very difficult.  I made a rope ladder with a wooden step that we attached and this helped, but the ladder still wants to swing under the boat when you step on to it, and we still found it very difficult.  On these occasions I found myself wishing we had a lower sided boat to make this use easier.  We did hear there are companies that make ladders that you can buy for RIBs to ease the transition back into the boat, but once you are in far away places, it doesn't help to know this.  It only makes you angry.

    We had time to ponder another problem one day as we sat in our smaller dinghy with the 10 hp motor, full open throttle, heading for shore.  We were trying to get into an inlet, and the tide and waves and wind were working against us and we were hardly making any headway.  It can be very difficult to travel very far or very fast against these conditions.  We actually saw another boat trying to go ashore with what looked like a smaller than a 10hp motor and they were actually traveling away from shore, even at full throttle.  So on this occasion we calibrated out thoughts again.  The size of the outboard is important to be large enough to get you through tough conditions, but too large and it adds to the weight and makes moving the dinghy difficult on the beach. Hmmm.


    Another experience which you must consider, we experienced repeatedly, but most wickedly, while anchored at Little Lake Worth, in West Palm Beach, Florida.  The wind blows.  Yeah, weather happens.  And when the wind blows, it causes waves, and your boat gets to rocking, and this can be fun.  Unless you are trying to launch your dinghy.  And when anchored in shallow water, like at Little Lake Worth, there can even be more 'rock and roll' than in deeper water.  Now when we are anchored, we usually want to go ashore.  But our tender sits atop our boat, and hangs out over the side from our winch arm while launching into the water.  When the wind blows, and waves rock the boat, and the dinghy is hanging out, and swinging and banging, and... Well, it's a problem.  In this condition, rubber boats are nice, because they bounce.  But heavy tenders, even heavy rubber tenders, can be a nightmare to launch in a blow, even dangerous. In this case, we and several others anchored with us, couldn't get the tenders down to go ashore.  We had to wait a day for the wind to die down.  So, the consideration here might be: small dinghy, rubber dinghy, maybe even davits off the back which more easily launch the boat without the swinging problem.  Think about it.  Because weather happens all the time.


    OK, I said I have made some decisions sometimes in haste and with good intensions but let the desire to get the best deal and the best product blind my good judgment.  We continued to use our one remaining dinghy, but had continued problems with leaking air valves, and rough running engine.  And our back up dinghy had a patch that kept leaking at inopportune times.  Even though we flushed and maintained the engine, and paid for service on several occasions, we continued to have a growing problem with it starting and keeping it running.  When we arrived in Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, in Canada, we decided we needed to look for a deal on a new dinghy.  We were excited about all the extraordinary places we were told about in Georgian Bay for exploring.   So I went looking for a dealer and actually found a local one having an "end of the season" sale .

    I was able to get him to take our two dinghies and motors as a trade in on a new dinghy.  Yeah!  Then Lynn was horrified when I returned and said we had purchased a new 12 foot RIB with a cool steering console.  And the salesman had convinced me I needed a 30 HP motor.  All designed to take us quickly and in comfort to all those out of the way places there were to explore in Canada.  And, anyway, most of the remaining travels for the remaining portion of our voyage was not going to be beaching the dinghy.  All I could think about while shopping was the ability to travel quickly between coves and remote areas and see sights we would not be able to get to if we took out trawler.  And it turned out to be the perfect tender for doing just that.  What a joy.  We explored many coves and bays, and little towns, that we would not have had time to see if we took our trawler. However, even though I was told it would not be more that a few pounds heavier, I was 'misinformed'.  It was a lot heavier.  I soon had to have our winch arm modified and braced and change to a larger powered winch motor just to get it back on top of our trawler.  And if we beached the dinghy, which it turned out we still had to do on occasion, especially when we got back to Florida, the two of us could only move it a few feet to get it back into the water.  Yes, we enjoyed it while in Canada, but for that two months we enjoyed it there, it was not worth the aggravation the large, heavy dinghy imposed upon our full cruising experience.  On the occasion of leaving Canada and the wilderness exploration, I found myself again wishing we had a smaller tender.  Even though we really look great skimming along at 25 knots in our plush sport RIB.


    After arriving back in Southern California, after 15,000 miles, using our RIB dinghys for going ashore in many conditions from rivers to oceans, in coves and bays, in rocks and in sand, in waves and varied tides, and even from one marina to another or from one store to another on the water, we have a very definite opinion of what we would want on our next excursion.  And even though we have a 46 foot, 25 ton trawler, with a beefed up winch and winch arm to handle our new sport toy, we would definitely want a smaller hard shell tender, not a RIB, with a maximum 15 HP motor.  This would give us the lightest boat that would be easily pulled ashore and re-launched even if the tide goes out.  The motor would be strong enough to get us through the roughest conditions and also take two of us at quite a good speed between destinations, and still the motor weight would not hinder beaching as well as loading and unloading from our boat.  And it would not get punctured, by the many, many things out there in cruising land that love to steal the air from your rubber raft.

    Now we have had many give us their opinions, and they all vary considerably.  But this is ours from our extensive experience with our RIBs, as well as our experience with other companion boats on our voyage who had the hard shell tender.  Limited space and lack of a winch, such as on a sailboat, would alter this opinion to an even smaller boat with smaller engine.  But I think it would still be a hard shell unless it had to be deflated for storage.  I still have to investigate which hard shell, and Lynn insists that she will go along with me this time to give better weight to the judgment, and I will welcome her involvement.

    We hope our experiences are helpful, and "We wish all of you who cruise, fair weather, and may the wind always be at your back.  But we know better, and that's just part of the adventure."

  Les and Lynn Cotton

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