Choice of dinghy for dinghy cruising
Almost any type of dinghy can be used but some dinghies are better than others and some suit particular types of waters. I have even met someone who cruised with a sailboard. He carried his equipment and dry clothing partly in a rucksack and partly in waterproof bags strapped to the sailboard ahead of the mast. He said that the biggest problem is that a sailboard needs different sizes of rigs to suit different conditions and obviously he had no way to carry spare rigs.
One could easily give undue emphasis to the selection or design of a boat for dinghy cruising. If you already own a boat and are thinking of trying a cruise why wait until you can change boats? People have fun cruising in all kinds of boats and if your boat is not particularly seaworthy you can always start on inland waters or sheltered estuaries. So unless your existing boat really is totally unsuitable why not leave the acquisition of your ideal boat until you better know your requirements and get started with your existing boat now - or just join the HSC and sail our excellent Wayfarer dinghies!
Some dinghies do not have enough space for it to be feasible to provide a berth(s) for sleeping on board. In such cases camping ashore is the only option and this does have disadvantages as discussed above. Also some of the smallest and lightest dinghies, espeicially the light weight tall masted racing dinghies, have too little stability to sleep securely on board, even if there were space to do so. A section below covers sleeping on board in more detail.
If you want to make long sea passages you will probably choose one of the larger and/or heavier dinghies. However, as discussed above, long sea passages can usually be avoided by doing some road trailing so lightweight dinghies should not be discounted, they are fun to sail in lighter winds and they have advantages in ease of launching, road trailing and recovery, ease of rowing and the possibility of hauling up clear of the water for a comfortable night on board. Also, if you do suffer a capsize, light dinghies can often be easier to right than heavy ones, although this is not necessarily so. Racing dinghies can be used as lightweight cruising dinghies and the older ones can sometimes be purchased remarkably cheaply. Just as an example, I recently met someone cruising aboard an Albacore dinghy which had been purchased in very good condition for 150-00uk£. Don't ask me where to find such bargains, I only know that they do come up from time to time.
The number of crew anticipated should certainly have an influence on the selection of a dinghy. A 12 foot dinghy will be cramped for two persons sleeping aboard, anything much smaller than that will be only for one. When considering the size of a boat remember that the weight and space generally increases with the cube of the length, if you accept this basis of measurement a 14 foot boat is 60% bigger than a 12 foot one - a significant difference. A nice size of sailing dinghy for two persons is around 14 to 16 foot. This seems to be a nice size from several points of view - it is a feasible size to tow behind a smallish car and it will fit in most domestic garages. I dont think it should be necessary to store a boat in a garage but it can be handy to get it into a garage to do maintenance work. Few dinghies will comfortably sleep more than two persons on board, although some of the larger dinghies might take three, this depends on the internal layout. For over nights on board with a party of four or more the best way is probably to have two or more boats, as we do with our club. If you need to be able to sail the boat singlehanded then there will be an upper size limit as well as a lower one. Specially designed 60 foot yachts are raced round the world single handed but these are ballasted boats. With a dinghy the crew weight is the ballast and one person may not be heavy enough. It is difficult to state a maximum size since this depends on the sail area and the general style of the boat. Many sixteen footers would certainly be a handful for single handed sailing in anything other than light winds.
The multihull possibility
Multihulls for dinghy cruising are a possibility which might be given more consideration. There have been organised long distance races for small day sailing catamarans demonstrating that such boats can cover hundreds of miles of coastline in a few days. These races are always accompanied by rescue boats so the crews do not have to worry too much about the possibility of capsize. Capsize, or rather the difficulty of recovering from it, has always been the big question mark attached to the seaworthiness of multihulls. But in reasonable conditions a practised crew can right a catamaran in the dinghy size range provided that the boat does not turn completely turtle. Thus it could be argued that this size of multihull may be more seaworthy than slightly larger multihulls which are too heavy to be righted by crew weight but not large and heavy enough to be safe from capsize. To avoid turning turtle I would think it would be a great advantage to have a masthead float. Suitable floats are now commercially available for fitting to small racing catamarans. These floats look like a small airship made of plastic and fixed to the masthead with brackets. An alternative is the 'Secumar' inflateable masthead float linked to a compressed gas cylinder and triggered automatically by a moisture sensor. I would suggest that a catamaran crew should practice capsize drill be for they go cruising and that this practice should be with all cruising gear aboard or at least with weight to represent it. A heavy load strapped down on deck is unlikely to make it any easier to right the boat. One possibility to make righting easier is to have the shrouds attached to powerful block and tackles as for the inflateable Catapult catamaran. This is one catamaran type which has been successfully used for cruising despite its small size and low carrying capacity.
Most small catamarans do not have any arrangements for stowing baggage. There is potential stowage space in the hulls of a small catamaran but no way to get access to it, the small hatches usually provided are only for inspection and ventilation. Hence I think that the few dinghy cruisers who have tried catamarans have carried there luggage in waterproof sacks lashed down to the trampoline, far from an ideal arrangement. I was sailing along the Normandy coast when I met up with a couple of English students spending their summer vacation sailing to Spain on a Hobbie 16 catamaran. I later got a postcard saying that they had made it but they ran out of time for the return trip. When I saw them they were a couple of hundred miles out from Dover where they had started and already the bags strapped down to the trampoline were leaking and chaffing. But one advantage of this kind of boat for dinghy cruising is that I guess you would not need an airbed, the trampoline deck should make a lovely bed provided it is not of the highly cambered type.
Trimarans for dinghy cruising are even more of an unexplored possibility than are catamarans. A potential advantage is that the centre hull of a trimaran is likely to be more voluminous than the individual hulls of a comparable length catamaran and so could provide more storage space and a more comfortable seating position which could be a big benefit if long passages are intended. There are few trimarans in the sub 20 foot size range. There is the American made Rave, a hydrofoil sailing boat which might be a little extreme for dinghy cruising and there is the Challenger which is really intended for disabled sailors. I think there is also a French small trimaran design which is intended for cruising rather than racing. Also one member of the HSC (not me) has given a great deal of thought to a custom built dinghy cruising trimaran and perhaps in due course we will be able to report the outcome of this development.