End the "dinghy dilemma"

By Susan Peterson Gateley

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 3, Number 2, March/April 2000.

It's quick and inexpensive to stitch together
the one that suits you best

Homebuilt dinghy
Dinghy fitted on boomkin

Susan's first homebuilt dinghy fit on the afterdeck and boomkin of her 23-foot sloop, Ariel. She says, "I carried it back on the boomkin (well lashed) in some fairly rough water. Once in a while, when we heeled, the ends would dip in, and the dink would try to launch itself. The roughest crossing we ever made with it on deck we had a few honest seven-footers. We were on a beam reach to a close reach, and the dink behaved fine. The biggest problem was on a run with following seas and heavy rolling."

Dinghies are a mixed blessing. They are a "must" for cruising, allowing you the option of anchoring out in a quiet cove or in a busy harbor when all the docks are full, and they are wonderful for entertaining the kids in a quiet anchorage. A dinghy also makes cruising safer, since you can use it to carry out a second anchor on a windy night, or to kedge your cruiser off, if she is not too inexorably grounded.

However, finding a good dinghy that meets your needs and desires is no simple task. An ideal dinghy in our view was one we could sail, row, or tow, while being stable but still fairly lightweight. It also had to be narrow enough to fit on our 32-footer's foredeck. (As a good old boat, she's not too beamy.) We soon concluded that the only way to get the dinghy we wanted was to build it ourselves.

Where and how to transport the dinghy while you're under way is a common cruisers' dilemma. Small motherships all too often lack space to carry a dink on board. Towing it leads to frayed painters and nerves and the occasional embarrassment. More than one cruiser has managed to wrap a prop shaft up in a lovely bundle of dinghy painter while working into a strange harbor.

Limited deck space, especially on good old boats of 30 feet and less, prompts many sailors to opt for inflatables. These skippers reason that their blow-up boats can be easily deflated and stowed compactly. The only thing is, they usually aren't. It's too much of a pain to disassemble and re-assemble the darned things every day. So they end up dragging astern just like hard dinks.

Inflatables have a couple of drawbacks, too, when compared to rigid dinghies. In my opinion, the worst is their utter dependence on outboards. In anything more than a light breeze, your standard inflatable rows like a wet noodle. The stubby little oars are so short you can't manage more than a dainty little snatch at the water with the oar tip at best. And the bulky blow-up boat presents ample sail area to the wind, making manual propulsion in anything more than a light breeze problematic at best.

Build your own

One solution is to customize your own dinghy to fit the available deck space aboard your cruiser. With new materials and techniques, even amateur carpenters with five thumbs can manage a fairly serviceable and completely watertight dinghy. Thanks to epoxy and fiberglass cloth, it should prove fairly durable, too, given normal usage. And those assorted sticky-goos and cloth coverings allow you to slide by with something far short of the perfect bevel. Three or four winter weekends in the basement with a minimal tool kit (that should include a circular saw and an electric drill for speed's sake) will produce a very serviceable custom-made plywood dinghy.

Second dinghy, bow
Second dinghy port side

Susan's next dinghy was one she and husband, Chris, built using the stitch-and-glue method. Plans for this one, a D4, are offered by Jacques Mertens.

My first custom-fitted dinghy was an Itty Bitty pram (shown at left), designed many years ago by master naval architect William Atkin. He wrote that, inch for inch, you get maximum carrying capacity in minimum space with the basic boxy pram. By flaring the sides outward sharply, you gain additional carrying capacity and stability in a very small dink. Putting as much rocker as the quarter-inch plywood will tolerate greatly improves rowing performance and seaworthiness of prams.

I built my tender several inches narrower than the usual beam of most production dinghies. This allowed me to jam the 7-foot 7-inch pram onto my 23 footer's afterdeck and boomkin, between her rudderpost and backstay. If a small tender is still too big for available deck space, another alternative is to build a two-piece dinghy. Each piece is a discrete watertight entity, and each will float independently. By joining the two halves with a latch or hinge arrangement, you end up with a more-or-less regular-sized dinghy. (Phil Bolger carried this folding boat idea to an extreme a few years back with his folding 30-foot schooner.)

Downloaded plans

Thanks to the rise of the stitch-and-glue technique so well promoted by Harold ("Dynamite") Payson and others, almost anybody can craft a watertight dinghy. This was the method we used recently to build the dinghy pictured above. We used plans downloaded off the Internet for a tender called the D4 Dinghy, whose creator supplied dimensions for the bottom and side panels of plywood. This eliminated any tricky lofting steps. The D4 tender plans were developed by Jacques Mertens, who operates a website called Boat Plans Online. Mertens has been selling marine supplies and books online since 1986, when he operated from a bulletin board via Fidonet. Today, he offers plans for several small tenders, including the D4, whose plans were downloaded by more than 80,000 people last year.

After cutting out the sides and bottom of plywood and the stiffening athwartships bulkheads, the stitch-and-glue method of building requires that you drill approximately two million holes, spaced about three inches apart, near the edges of adjoining plywood pieces. Then you stitch your boat together, using bits of copper or steel wire three or four inches long. We twisted the wires together on the outside, giving the developing dinghy a distinctly prickly aspect. The next step was to build up a fillet of epoxy putty along the inside joints between the bottom and the sides and the bulkheads. A light bulb worked well for shaping and smoothing the fillet of putty.

Dinghy diagram

For more on the stitch-and-glue method of boatbuilding, email: Jacques Mertens at jmg2@aol.com or visit his website at http://www.bateau.com/.
The postal address is Mertens-Goosens Inc., 2032 Old Dixie, Ste. 3, Vero Beach, FL 32962. The book Building New Instant Boats, by Harold Payson, also contains information on stitch-and-glue building. It's available through Jacques' website.

After this had set up, the developing hull was quite rigid. We then clipped the excess wires off the outside and faired out the joints externally with more putty before applying 3-inch biaxial cloth tape on the seams for strength. The seams were glassed on both sides and now, even with just two bulkheads in place, the developing dinghy hull was stiff and strong.

Prone to checking

Ultimately, we also covered the entire plywood exterior with a fine-weave, 3-ounce cloth to increase the dinghy's durability. We also tried to seal all exposed edge grain with epoxy resin. Fir plywood is very prone to checking and

weathering, and we thought that covering the dinghy's bottom and sides might extend its life as it sat upside down through the summer. My previous pram of painted plywood had to have a new bottom installed after only four years of daily use to and from a mooring and being left upside down on the dinghy float between trips. The epoxied and painted stitch-and-glue hull has weathered well to date after a full year of upside-down exterior storage.

Dinghy assembly

The finished D4 pram proved highly satisfactory as a tender and sailing dinghy. I found it more stable to step down into than a friend's Dyer dinghy, and it seems to tow well in a Lake Ontario chop of up to, perhaps, four feet. Best of all, when it gets really rough, we don't have to tow it because it will fit on our foredeck.

Susan Peterson Gateley (featured in the January 2000 issue of Good Old Boat) has written two books about boats she has known. Ariel's World and Sweet Water both feature her good old 23-foot 1930s vintage homebuilt sloop. She now sails Lake Ontario with her husband, Chris, on Titania, a 32-foot Chris-Craft, and gives sailing lessons with a Lippincot Lightning. Both are circa 1968. Visit Susan's website at http://www.silverwaters.com.

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