Taking the time to properly equip your lifeline to shore for safety will help ensure you don’t get caught short.
We boat owners are generally more safety-conscious than the average Joe, particularly when it comes to planning our time on the water. From flares and life jackets to EPIRBs and radios, we outfit our vessels in efforts to anticipate Murphy’s law and cheat Davy Jones prior to even leaving the dock. That’s why I’m constantly amazed at the number of boaters who fail to properly equip their dinghy to the same level of safety.
Many fail to grasp that the time and effort spent outfitting your boat comes to nothing once aboard your dinghy — unless you’ve had the foresight to properly outfit it as well. “But I can see where I’m going from the cockpit,” you say. “It’s right over there! What’s the worst that can happen?” Let’s illustrate by way of example.
While anchored near a quaint waterfront town, you decide to fire up the dinghy and hit the all-you-can-eat wing special at Jimmy’s Oyster Shack. On the way over, the engine dies and refuses to start. No problem, you can use the oars to row toward the town dock — if only there were some on board.
As the wind picks up and sweeps you past the docks and out toward the bay, you sensibly decide to drop anchor while trying to get the engine started — or would if there was an anchor on board.
If you tow your dinghy behind the mothership make sure to remove all gear so you won’t lose anything if the dinghy flips over.
It’s rougher in the bay and water begins splashing into the dinghy. Now would be a good time to start bailing (if there was a pump or bailer onboard). It would also be comforting to be able to radio the mothership and ask your crew for help. Unfortunately, the handheld VHF is sitting on the chart table back at the boat. You also don’t have any flares or even a whistle onboard.
We could go deeper down the rabbit hole of dinghy nightmare scenarios, but you get the picture. Most of us wouldn’t get underway without equipment such as a VHF radio, flares, or an anchor. Why should a trip in the dinghy be any different? Let’s take a look at how to increase the safety of every dinghy ride, both for you and everyone else aboard.
While the legal requirements will vary based on the type and size of your dinghy, typical safety equipment includes a life jacket of the correct size for each person, a sound-producing device (air horn, whistle), bailer, and, if operating after dark, proper navigational lighting. A throwable floatation device, such as a buoyant seat cushion, is also good to have.
Dinghy Grab Bag
The key to ensuring your dinghy is properly outfitted every trip is to make placing required gear on board as easy as possible. A life jacket bag makes it easier to toss and store them on board. Similarly, a dinghy “grab bag” containing the rest of the necessities will keep everything organized and easy to carry.
Any noncorrosive, buoyant, watertight box or container of suitable size can serve as a grab bag. Dry bags or smaller abandon-ship bags (usually constructed of nylon and padded with foam) also work well. Regardless of what type or style you choose, make sure it’s large enough to carry what you need and that it floats with everything inside. Secure or attach it to the dinghy with a lanyard so it doesn’t float away if you capsize.
What To Bring
Next up is outfitting your grab bag, which could also rightly be viewed as a mini ditch bag. My dinghy grab bag contains a hand-held VHF radio, signal mirror, whistle, flares, flashlight, several light sticks, tape, multipurpose tool, small first-aid kit and a couple of space blankets. I also carry a small tool pouch with spare spark plug for the outboard (and the wrench to change it) as well as a handheld compass in case the fog rolls in, making a trip back to the boat interesting. Additional items, such as sunblock, a bottle of water, and maybe a few energy bars might come in handy as well. Cellphones are a good item to have, too, but should not be considered a replacement for a handheld VHF radio. Get creative and customize the contents of your grab bag to meet your particular needs, but avoid making it so bulky that you have an excuse to leave it behind.
Pumps And Bailers
Always have some method of dewatering your dinghy, be it a bucket and sponge or that old standby, the venerable “plastic jug with the bottom cut out” scoop. A small hand pump (such as the old naval piston type) mounted inboard of the transom works well, too. Like the grab bag, your bailer should be secured to the dinghy to prevent loss in the event of a capsize.
Regardless of how you power your dinghy (outboard, sails) always carry a pair of oars or at least a paddle. Ensure oarlocks are of adequate size and strength. Unless they’re self-locking, it’s also a good idea to have a light lanyard securing each oar to the dinghy to prevent loss while rowing. The oarlocks on some inflatable dinghies simply mount into a socket along the gunwales and tend to pop out fairly easily under anything but the lightest rowing.
Put in a little rowing time before any problems occur to see how your dinghy performs under various conditions. Some types (particularly inflatables) are poor rowers due to characteristically short oars with small blades and oar locks positioned too close to the water.
While living aboard in Hawaii, my dock neighbor found it easier to paddle his inflatable like a one-man canoe (while sitting or kneeling forward) than to actually row it.
Each dinghy should have an anchor and suitable length of rode onboard for the area of planned use. Being able to “put the brakes on” while trying to correct a problem (such as a stalled engine) can often keep a relatively minor situation from deteriorating into something worse. Folding grapnel and mushroom-type anchors are easier to store and use but typically don’t provide as much holding power as a small Danforth or plow. A short length of chain can also be added for increased holding power if desired.
The anchor itself should be securely mounted in an out-of-the-way but easily accessible location, such as beneath a seat or perhaps mounted to the transom. I keep mine mounted beneath the center seat of my sailing dinghy with the rode stored in a small, glassed-in locker forward. Another option would be to store the anchor and rode in a small mesh or canvas bag, which not only serves as storage, but also makes it easy to carry on and off the dinghy (mesh construction aids in drying after use).
Tips For Safe Dinghy Use
In addition to proper outfitting, here are commonsense tips for safer dinghy use:
- If your dinghy uses an outboard, attach the safety lanyard/emergency cut-off to your person before starting the engine — especially important if your engine can be started in gear.
- It’s a fact that regardless of what Pepe Lopez or Captain Morgan says, you can’t fit more people in the dinghy after returning from the marina Tiki Bar than you could heading over. Know your dinghy’s carrying capacity and don’t exceed it. Newer dinghies will have a plate mounted on the transom stating maximum recommended capacity. Overloading a dinghy greatly affects performance and stability. If in doubt, make two trips rather than trying to carry everything and everyone at once.
- Dinghies tend to move when you step in or out, so position them so that you can firmly tie both bow and stern lines to your boat prior to boarding and departing.
- If you’re on the hook and will be returning to your boat after dark, make sure you have some type of light on board to aid in locating your vessel. Mounting a solar-powered walkway light to the stern rail is a popular choice. I prefer hanging a blue 15-inch neon light bar (available at most auto parts stores) above the cockpit. Aside from being distinctive, it draws minimal power and looks awesome at night.
- Ensure your dinghy has adequate buoyancy to stay afloat if capsized or swamped. While not a problem with inflatables (unless punctured), some hard dinghies are negatively buoyant. If yours tends to sink when full of water, consider adding buoyancy either by glassing in watertight compartments or perhaps adding foam or a few inflatable bags at strategic locations.
- If your dinghy capsizes and you can’t right it, stay with it until rescued. Most dinghies will float, and a boat (even an upside down one) is easier to spot in the water than a person.