The Best Dinghy For Cruising | Become A Cruiser
Best Dinghy For Cruising

The Best Dinghy For Cruising

A dinghy or tender depending on where you come from is one the most important yet neglected items on a cruising boat.

New cruisers often hardly give the choice of their first dinghy a second thought. I say first tender, as so many cruisers we know who have been out cruising for any length of time are on their second or even third dinghy. So what then is the best dinghy for cruising, and how do you choose which dinghy will work for you?

Sundowners to Remember
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We have had may Epic Cruiser Gatherings on our boat. Look at the different kinds of dinghies cruisers choose

Our First Dinghy

We bought our boat used from a charter company in Martinique. When we were tying up the deal, trying my luck I said that we’d also like a new dinghy as part of the sale. The charter company agreed, and we left their office quite smug that we’d got a great boat, at a great price with a new dinghy thrown in to sweeten the pot.

Researching The Best Dinghy For Cruising

We had spent five years planning. We had done a ton of research into boats, cruising boat systems, destinations, and cruising or sailing around the world in general. The normal stuff most new cruisers do.

I had researched dinghies at one point and had got lost down the rabbit hole on the topic on cruisers forum where the discussion amongst armchair specialist sailors was completely counterproductive.

One poster suggests a hard-bottomed rib, the next five tell him what a moron he is for considering a hard bottom. Another suggests a rollup, only to be told they have it all wrong and that only a solid rowing boat will work. This could be said for discussions amongst the pros and cons of the various dinghy manufacturers. Completely useless.

The dinghy discussions, like so many of the forums and Facebook groups, unless you drill down to a specific boat owners group, is one person’s opinion on what works for them.

So the bottom line was I didn’t really care what kind of dinghy we ended up with as it seemed they were all the wrong dinghy to buy anyhow.

Best Dinghy For Cruising
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OC-300 So Far The Best Dinghy For Cruising That We Have Found.

New Highfield UL-290

When we arrived at the boat, we saw that the charter company had been pretty fair and had put on an entry-level dinghy from a popular manufacturer. When thinking about it, they could have given us a cheap soft bottomed no-name-brand dinghy. So I felt pretty good.

Feeling pretty good about the dingy lasted about six months. We had been given a Highfield UL-290. The UL standing for Ultra-Light. This dinghy had a single floor and lacked the double floor on the more expensive CL or classic series.

Doing a quick survey at the dinghy dock, we could see Highfield was doing a roaring trade with their dinghies. As the new guys on the block, they were rapidly gaining market share. It also seemed that the UL series was a hit as so many cruisers had the UL.

Highfield Transom Cracking Problem

Cracked Dinghy Transom Support
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Cracked Dinghy Transom Support

Then our feeling towards the dinghy began to change. We were at a beach BBQ with about fifty cruisers, and the group I was talking to started discussing how bitterly disappointed they were in their Highfields. “The transoms crack,” said one guy.

Our group walked off to the beach, and the guy who had mentioned the cracking problem showed us the cracks on his transom where the supporting welds had broken. We looked at the dinghy next to his, and there was evidence of the cracks starting. We went and looked at ours, and sure enough, looking closely one of our transom bracing welds had cracked.

Trying to Buy a New Dinghy

After much back and forth, we received a warranty credit from Highfield on our faulty UL-290. Unfortunately, there was a six-month wait on Dinghies from the factory as they were backlogged. That meant we would have to pay an +/-$2,000 over and above what we got on our warranty claim to get the only other Highfield the St. Maarten dealer had in stock. Having completely lost faith in the brand, we did not want to risk another $2,000 on the dinghy.

We kept the dinghy alive on tubes of G-Flex epoxy and 3M 5200 for a couple more months. At $20 a tube, I would guess we spent another $200-300 keeping the dingy alive. Not that this totally solved the need to pump the dinghy prior to each use. Four months after we left St. Maarten, the dinghy completely self-destructed.

Throughout this time, we had been trying to buy another dinghy. There was a double whammy in the dinghy industry, which had resulted in a shortage of dinghies.

The combination of the demand to replace lost dinghies after hurricane Irma, and Carib (one of the top 3 dinghy manufacturers) almost totally ceasing production in Venezuela, made getting a dinghy that wasn’t a Highfield, or one of their other brands very difficult.

OC Tender with Wheels on the Beach
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OC Tender with Wheels on the Beach in the Tuamotus

Used AB Dinghy

After our dinghy self-destructed we were fortunate to be able to buy a used but very old AB dinghy in Panama as a temporary solution.

I could see the AB was a good product. The dinghy was about twelve years old. Looked like hell but held it’s air quite well after we fixed a few minor leaks. I’m sure it had served at least a few cruisers really well.

The biggest issue was that it was huge! Far too big for our boat so we needed a solution as we were planning to cross the Pacific to French Polynesia in a couple of months. We really wanted an OC Tender but they had an order backlog of almost a year and we couldn’t wait that long.

The Best Dinghy For Cruising
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Friends with inflatable dinghies need to pump them up before leaving the beach.

Building a Hard Dinghy

One night in Linton Bay we met some cruisers who were discussing building their own hard dinghies as they too needed dinghies and couldn’t find what they needed. We agreed to join in and help build each other’s dinghies.

What can be said about building a hard dinghy in fiberglass under a lean-to in the tropics during the rainy season? The people we built the dinghy with were great. As for building the dinghy, not having ever worked with glass and epoxy, we learned a lot.

We worked about 8 hours a day for six weeks, spent just under $2,000 on tools, materials, and protective gear. Wrecked about the same value in clothes between the four of us and ended up with a pretty cool dinghy.

Or so we told ourselves. The thing weighed a ton. It was so solid you could have taken it into battle. Each night we lifted it, I cringed at what we were doing to our davits. New dinghy builder mistake number one, trying to make it too strong!

We crossed the Pacific with this behemoth. And during the crossing picked up our correspondence with Karin at OC Tenders Again.

Please note, that this is our honest review of the OC Tender, and for us, on a catamaran, this is the best dinghy for cruising. We haven’t been compensated by OC Tenders in any way.

Buying an OC Tender

The Best Dinghy For Cruising
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OC Tender in our opinion, the best dinghy for cruising

Being the conservative little company OC Tenders are, she had kept the news that they were building a small factory in New Zealand quiet. Never once hinting that the backlog of orders would be cleared up quickly until the factory was a reality. OC Tenders would go from building four tenders a month by hand in a shed, to about 15 a month in the new factory. We only needed to wait for about three months!

We were in. We had first seen an OC Tender in Grenada a few years before and were mind blown by what a game-changer this tender was.

The OC in OC Tenders stands for Offshore Cruising. The concept itself comes from Russel Carylon, Karin’s husband, and it came about from their extended time cruising on their catamaran. Russel designed what he felt was the perfect tender for cruisers going offshore.

the best dinghy for cruising
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Brand new OC Tender outside their new factory.

OC Tenders Review

The OC Tender is light, our OC-300 (3m/ 9.9 ft) tender weighs just 42kg (92lbs). They also offer an all-carbon version which comes in at 34kg (75lbs). She flies along the surface with three of us add a fourth and we no longer plane. I do believe the inability to plane has more to do with our outboard, which I’d guess is currently putting out less than 6hp.

the best dinghy for cruising
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OC Tender in the Apataki, French Polynesia

OC Tenders – Pros

The ride on the OC Tender is dry. We took the optional wheels and are very happy with them. Pulling the dinghy up on the beach is easy for one. We love the front storage for our shoes and how the fuel tank slips neatly out of the way under the bench.

We also took the Lighting option. It is always a relief at sunset seeing the distinctive bright LEDs of our dinghy coming from some far corner of the anchorage as our kids push the “be home at sunset rule” to the last second.

Being in French Polynesia we have learned to fully appreciate the mesh storage bags on each side under the seats. The bags are a perfect baguette length and have kept lunch dry on many a rainy trip back from town.

The OC Tenders OC-300 light enough for Lagoon 380 Davits
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The OC Tenders OC-300 light enough for Lagoon 380 Davits

OC Tenders Cons

What I don’t love about the OC Tender is cosmetic. It’s not so much about the tender but the environment in which the tender must survive. And to be honest many docks in French Polynesia especially the Marquesas are horrendous for any type of dinghy. The worst we have seen anywhere so far.

I know for aesthetics, the nonskid on the tender ends and gives a little one-inch gap of exposed gelcoat before the Sunbrella. And that carrying the nonskid further would have taken away from the tender’s beautiful modern look. The problem is docks with protruding edges, concrete, and metal (who builds a dock like this anyhow) have chipped away at some of the glass between the Sunbrella padding and the nonskid top cover.

Dinghy damaged by dinghy eating dock
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Dinghy Damaged by Dinghy Eating Dock in Tahoe Bay, Nuku-Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia

Dinghy Eating Docks

In Nuku-Hiva, Marquesas the dinghy dock is awful. It is crowded and dinghies must park between local fishing boats that are tied a few feet off of the dock. The dock is concrete, covered in massive oyster shells.

What makes matters worse is, Tahoe Bay has the worst surge we have yet encountered in an anchorage. And dinghies are constantly thrown hard against the rough wall. Stern anchoring is strongly discouraged in Tahoe Bay, as the dock is too small and there are too many dinghies, and stern lines become a hazard to other dinghies.

Consequently, the Sunbrella nose got chewed through. The good news is that it looks like there are four layers of fabric and only the top layer is torn. Right now, it has held well for about eight months with a strip of sail repair tape.

As much as it sucks looking at our nice new tender with a piece of sail repair tape. I do believe we fared better than some inflatables who suffered massive punctures when driven hard into the oyster shells. Sunbrella is easy to repair, and once repaired it’s not like a patch on an inflatable that will leak in time.

These cons of mine don’t in any way, compromise the safety, reliability and performance of the OC Tender.

Why Spend So Much Money on an OC Tender

Price, The OC Tender is a little pricy starting at around USD 6,000 before options. Ours as configured with options and delivered to Tahiti came in at around USD 8,000.

That’s expensive for a tender! Or is it? That’s fifty percent to double more than you’ll pay for a good quality RIB of the same size. The price seems high. Now think that it will last as long as any fiberglass boat. Where you can expect 7-10 years from a high-quality Hyperlon Rib.

Next time we have someplace to pull the dinghy on shore, well patch up the gel coat damage, and use some of the extra non-Skid OC Tenders sent us to make the topsides look pretty again.

The OC Tender is well made and I have no doubt we could sell ours in five or ten years and get half of our money back. Plus we can rest knowing that it will not self-destruct in the hot tropical sun. Or need to be pumped every morning. I love knowing that we will never need to buy another Dinghy.

We know we can jump on our dinghy and it will be ready to go at any time.

Dinghy at Sunset
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Dinghy at Sunset

What Should You Look For in A Dinghy

You may be paying 2x the price of a rib, but chances are high that if you cruise for five years or more that you may need a second rib it’s not that bad.

My husband’s favorite saying to the family is that “We are too poor to buy cheap shit!” I just hate that it took owning a Rib, and building a homemade dinghy to figure this math out!

My only regret with the OC Tender is I just wish that we had bought one size bigger.

An OC Tender is not for every cruising budget and style. We love our tender but understand why this tender may not work for other cruisers. Be it budget, taste, or cruising style. A hard tender may not even fit on your boat. To find out how to choose a dingy for cruising please take a look out for my upcoming article on the Ultimate Dinghy Evaluation Checklist.

In case you’ve missed it take a look at The Ultimate Cruising Boat Evaluation Checklist to use when deciding on which big boat to buy.

Nic

Hi, I’m Nic! Our Family of four have been out cruising since 2016. We have sailed about 15,000nm, almost halfway around the world. We sold everything, took the leap of faith, and bought a 10-year-old Lagoon 380 ex-charter catamaran. We’ve fixed every system on the boat, often more than once. Cruising has been such a wonderful, positive experience for our family that I want to share my tips to help you Become a Cruiser.


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3 thoughts on “The Best Dinghy For Cruising”

  1. Q about the OC tender and how tender it is when climbing in from diving or snorkeling? We are considering a new dinghy and the advantage in lifespan makes the OC tender an attractive choice, but with a family of 4 divers there’s a lot of gear to move and lot of people climbing in and out while the dinghy is on a mooring. How easy is it to reboard? Is the boarding ladder an advantageous upgrade or one you wish you had?

    1. Hey Darryl,
      Regarding carrying the weight of the diving gear for the four of you I don’t think that will be a problem at all. We have a 300 but a OC Tender 330 with a 15hp may make more sense, especially if dive sites are far off. As for getting up the side of the dinghy, my husband and kids have no problem. I on the other hand have no upper body strength and find it perfectly easy when I’m wearing fins, but need a tug when I’m not. As for the ladder I was under the opinion we wanted one and was told by my family to suck it up. So far we’ve been just fine without it. Although knowing OC Tenders, if it’s anything like the nav lights, I’m sure the ladder is quite slick. The only thing I would do differently is to get an OC Tender 330 rather than a 300.
      Nic

  2. Great OC Tenders Review! We have an OC Tender which we bought last year and are enjoying it. It is very well made. Looking at the pictures of your OC Tenders beat up Sunbrella nose. I’m pretty sure OC Tenders have changed the material they use for the rub rail. I’m sure ours is not Sunbrella, the material looks almost like some kind of tight mesh. It’s super durable. So far no problems for us but our use has been confined to nice smooth protected dingy docks. I’d suggest you give OC Tenders a call and ask about your rub rail.

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