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All about Dinghy Cruising

What is dinghy cruising?

By 'dinghy cruising' we mean the use of a sailing dinghy for recreational travel over relatively long distances, generally with overnight stops. Most dinghy sailors use their boats for racing, or just for pottering, which usually means sailing for an hour or two in one patch of water. Few dinghy sailors seem to be aware that their boats are potentially capable of covering greater distances and carrying all the equipment that will be needed for overnight stops.

I suppose that if you want a definition of dinghy cruising then you need to supplement it with a definition of a dinghy. In this context we take a dinghy to be a small (say less than about 20 foot (6.1m) length), open (i.e. no permanent cabin) sailing boat which does not have heavy stabilising ballast. However, we don't need to apply these conditions too rigorously, there are some boats which most people would think of as dinghies but which do have some ballast and there are some which have a tiny cabin but which are otherwise dinghy like in style. The HSC Wayfarers are certainly dinghies in all respects. There are also people cruising with what are basically rowing boats, perhaps with a small sail to provide relaxation on downwind legs only, this can reasonably be included as a form of dinghy cruising.

Is a cruising dinghy just a poor man's substitute for a proper yacht?

Here are some real benefits in using a dinghy rather than a yacht for cruising, apart from the obvious one that the purchase cost and the operating costs are lower by one or more orders of magnitude:

  • A dinghy can be transported on a road trailer behind a car which is not possible with any reasonably sized yacht. This means that a dinghy has greater flexibility to explore a variety of cruising areas. Getting a yacht to a new cruising area can mean long sea passages which take up most of a short holiday before you get a chance to relax and explore at leasure.
  •  It is easier to find overnight stopping places for a dinghy than for a yacht. The small dimensions and particularly the shallow draft of a dinghy mean that it can use mooring sites which yachts cannot reach and which are often available without overnight mooring fees. Having said that a yacht may be able to use an exposed anchorage whilst a dinghy does need sheltered water if it is to be habitable overnight; even so I think the options for an overnight stop are ususally wider for a dinghy than for a yacht.
  •  The upper reaches of estuaries, and indeed inland rivers and even canals, are interesting places to explore by water but are inaccessible to yachts both because of shallow water and because of fixed bridges. (on most dinghies it is fairly easy to lower the mast, the Wayfarer is particularly good in this respect)
  •  Dinghies don't make you seasick. It is true, most people are liable to seasickness on a yacht but on a dinghy it is comparatively rare. I don't think this is only because dinghies stay at sea for shorter periods than yachts. We have made trips of 12 hours duration in our Wayfarers and rarely has anyone been seasick. This may have something to do with the super abundance of fresh air and the horizon being visible all round. Some have said that if it is rough enough to be sick on a dinghy it won't happen because you will be too scared to remember to be sick.
  • A dinghy can be rowed so an engine is not essential, although a dinghy can carry a small outboard. A yacht cannot really manage without an engine these days since, apart from anything else, manoeuvring under sail is prohibited in many harbours and marinas. This is a big advantage for a dinghy if you are a green purist and feel that your boat should only be propelled by non-polluting renewable energy sources.

Yachts have their own advantages too. If you want your boat to be a retirement home you are probably better off with a yacht. No one would pretend that a dinghy is as comfortable (or should we say less uncomfortable) as a yacht for long sea passages, although the trailability of a dinghy may allow a sea passage to be avoided in the first place. However, various people have shown that sea passages in a dinghy are possible if you are really determined. Frank Dye with various crew members sailed a Wayfarer from Scotland to Iceland and Norway and survived force 9 gales on route. More recently, in 2014 Phillip Kirk and Jeremy Warren sailed around Britain in just 33 days with their Wayfarer dinghy.  There are a handful of others who have made very long sea passages in sailing dinghies. For example, early in the 20th century Frank Rebel made a 9,000 mile voyage across the Pacific ocean in an 18 foot racing dinghy which he acquired cheaply since it was in poor condition. This was not even intended to be a pleasure trip, he just wanted to get to America but could not afford the fare for a steamer. When he arrived he was thrown in jail because he did not have a visa. He stopped at many islands on route but the trip still included some long passages and some bad weather.

How do you make an overnight stop when cruising in an open boat?

There are two ways:

  1. You can moor the dinghy or pull it up on the beach then find somewhere to camp onshore - or even find a hotel for the night.

  2. You can put up a purpose made tent on board the dinghy itself and sp

    end the night on board, either afloat or with the dinghy dried out or pulled up on the foreshore.

The author generally prefers the second way. In our part of the world it is usually easier to find some quiet water for camping on board than it is to find somewhere you can land and camp on shore without upsetting a land owner, or find somewhere that you can safely leave a boat while spending a night in a hotel. Camping on board also saves carrying carrying gear to and from the boat, everything is just where you need it. However, occasionally one does find a good place to camp onshore, perhaps there may even be a proper campsite with full facilities. To cover both situations I usually take both a shore tent and a boat tent.

When cruising with the HSC Wayfarers, our Wayfarer crews normally do camp on shore, despite the disadvantages. The main reason is that we often have a crew of three aboard a Wayfarer which is fine for sailing during the day but is too many to sleep on board at night (at least we think so, others have done it).

How do you carry all the camping kit and personnel baggage when dinghy cruising?

Most dinghies can potentially carry a lot of baggage, certainly more than one could carry when backpacking, cycling or canoeing. Having a lot of cargo aboard a dinghy may marginally hinder the sailing and rowing performance but this is hardly noticeable since you are not racing. The extra weight will slightly improve stability and hence may actually be slightly beneficial from the point of view of seaworthiness.

It is always an advantage for a cruising dinghy to have some built in dry stowage space, the more the better, almost without limit. However, for boats without provision for dry stowage there are now excellent waterproof bags which can be used to keep kit dry. These are available from outdoors shops and are sold mainly for canoeists. Typically these are made form a plasticised fabric and are a long cylindrical shape which can be sealed at the top by rolling the fabric several times over. Such bags should be secured to the boat when at sea. Here is a little tip for packing a large sleeping bag into one of these waterproof bags. If you just try to stuff it straight in you will probably find it does not squash up evenly, there will be wasted space at the bottom of the bag. To avoid this you start by rolling down the sides of the waterproof bag until you have a much shorter bag with most of the sides rolled up. Then you unroll the sides as you stuff in the contents.

Providing a bed(s) on board a dinghy

There are only a handful of dinghy designs which were produced with sleeping on board in mind (examples include Wayfarer, Mirror16, Cormorant 12, Dockerel 17) but there are a lot more designs which happen by chance to be suitable or can be made to be suitable with DIY adaptations. The Dinghy Cruising Association Bulletin is full of articles about how to make such adaptations and there are also a couple of books on the subject.

Basically the options are either to sleep down in the bottom of the boat or to sleep on some kind of raised platform. Most dinghies have, or should have, a rowing thwart and in many cases the clear height under this thwart is too little to permit sleeping on the bottom of the boat. If designing a dinghy from scratch, it is easy to make the thwart removable, as on my boat. With an existing boat I would be cautious about making the thwart removable since the thwart may be an essential structural member.

If there is space to sleep down on the floorboards in the bottom of the boat then this is likely to be the simplest arrangement, although not necessarily the most comfortable. If the floorboards are very close to the bottom then there may be a risk of getting bedding damp with bilge water when the boat is heeled. An air bed to sleep on helps a lot!

If it is not practical to sleep in the bottom of the boat then you need a sleeping platform higher up. Does the boat have side benches each side of the cockpit? If it does then it may be feasible to have removable extensions to add extra width to these benches for sleeping. Alternatively it may be better to completely board over the space between the benches to make a wide platform which could be a double bed. The boards used for this purpose could be the boats normal floor boards raised to a higher level. The floor boards in the little 'Cormorant' dinghy are designed so that this is possible. Alternatively you can have a set of boards used only for sleeping and arranged in sections small enough that they can be stowed away for sailing. My first cruising dinghy was an 11 foot Mirror dinghy. I used a single piece of plywood together with the dagger board to cover over the space between the side seats. This large piece of ply turned through 90 degrees and stowed aft under the tiller during the day. The space under the tiller of many dinghies is unused space and can be adapted as stowage space.

However you make your sleeping platform I should cover it with something soft and comfy. There is no need to put up with a hard bed, we are not back packing so we are not all that restricted in the weight of gear we take with us. I like to use a pump up inflatable air bed. Others like the American made 'Thermarest' mattresses which are self-inflating but not quite as thick as most airbeds.

This link provides some pictures and text showing how I adapted one of the small plywood mirror dinghies for cruising befor I decided to design and build my present boat. It does show the sleeping arrangements but I have seen a number of other ways to provide a bed in a mirror dinghy, for example a stretcher type bed using the oars for the side poles.

Boat Tents

As discussed above, if you intend to cruise with an open boat there is much to be said for having a purpose made boat tent, even if you are going to take an ordinary land tent on board as well.

If you want a professionally made boat tent then many sail makers or boat cover makers could help. Most boats will need a custom designed tent, as far as I know the Wayfarer dinghy is the only dinghy for which you can buy a standard boat tent 'off the shelf', the firm which sells these being listed on the Wayfarer web site.

Making a boat tent can be quite an interesting project and does not require great skill in needlework but It does help to have a sewing machine. Now that garments are so cheaply manufactured in China there seem to be a lot more domestic sewing machines in the western world than there are people who want to use them to make their own clothes, hence second hand sewing machines are cheap and readily available. The more recent models tend to have complicated features such as the ability to do fancy embroidary stiches. While you could use such a machine to make a tent you only really need a very basic machine, although it is good to have a machine that will do zig zag stiches. Zig zag stitches are reckoned to be a bit stronger than straight stitches, presumably the reason sailmakers use them. However, if your machine is a basic one that only does straight stiches I think that would be quite adequate for tent making. It is good to have a reasonably sturdy machine, perhaps one with mainly metal rather than plastic parts, since you may want to sew several thickness of fairly heavy material.

If you have never used a sewing machine you will probably need to do quite a lot of experimenting with settings such as stitch length and upper and lower thread tension to get good results with the type of cloth and thread that you propose to use for your tent. One thing that can help a lot (so I am told) is to use an appropriate thickness of needle for the cloth and thread you are sewing with - a heavy tent material sewn with sailmakers thread will need a sturdier needle than dress making fabric. A good haberdasher shop should be able to advise on such matters.

There is a lot of variety seen in boat tents on cruising dinghies. Some people have very crude arrangements, perhaps just a rectangular plastic sheet or land tent fly sheet draped over the boom and perhaps fixed with lines passed right under the hull. If you are going to go cruising at all frequently it is probably worth having something better than that. Remember that a boat tent may have to withstand at least as much wind as a land tent and possibly more, you will try to choose a sheltered location to anchor overnight but this is not always possible. On the other hand there is no point in trying to make a boat tent particularly light weight. It is not a back packing tent and you will probably not need to carry it further than from your boat to the car boot. Hence I think it makes sense to use a fairly heavy grade of canvas. Synthetic canvas of any kind will avoid the risk of rot should it be necessary to stow the tent damp. The materials used for big boat awnings, caravan awnings or the lighter weight lorry tarpaulins may well be suitable. 

Here are links to three UK companies which supply tent making materials -

All these three companies can supply not only the fabric for a tent but also sewing threads, reinforcing tapes, eyelets etc.  One useful item is double sided sticky tape that can be used to tack fabric panels together prior to machine sewing. I find this makes the job much easier and having watched a sailmaker at work I am aware that this is how the professionals do it these days.  On the Kayo Spruce website this tape is rather strangely called 'Venture Tape'. I am not sure what the other two companies call it or where to find it on their websites.  I certainly found 'Venture Tape' very useful to hold the panels of my tent together for a trial fit on the boat as well as for the actual machine stitching. It is only lightly adhesive when first applied, so the seams are easy to adjust. The adhesion seems to increase over time so the tape probably does add some strength and water tightness to the seams.. I did have difficutly sewing the seams through the tape since the adhesive on the tape seemed to build up on the sewing needle, this can be avoided by using a narrow tape, say about 10mm wide, running a row of stitches each side of it.

Going back to when I started cruising with an open boat, some decades ago now, nearly everyone who made a boat tent used the boom as a ridge pole for the tent. In those days the great majority of small land tents were ridge tents, so a simlar arrangement for a boat tent seemed logical.  Since those times there has been a revolution in tent design. If you look at a campsite today you will see that nearly all the tents are supported by curved hoop poles with no ridge pole.  Some people  have used hoop poles for a boat tent but there are some potential difficulties that do not apply to land tents. For one thing the hoop poles usually need to be threaded into pockets in the tent fabric and you don't have a lot of working space to do that on board a small boat. You could perhaps have the poles permanently threaded into pockets and have the tent roll up into a long package rather than the usual compact package appropriate for land camping. Another point is that tents with hoop poles usually need at least some guy ropes to stabilise them in high winds and it is hard so see how guy ropes could be used on a boat tent - the tent pegs would either sink or float away. Perhaps you could get an adequately robust framework by using stiffer poles than those of a normal land tent but you need to be careful that the poles dont break when you bend them into position. We have a small land tent with hoop poles that keep breaking. It is easy to make the poles stiffer by increasing diameter, but, other things being the same, that also increases the stress in the pole, possibly leading to breakage.  Stiff but pre-curved or partially pre-curved poles could be an answer if you can manage to stow them. 

Assuming that you are going for a traditional shape of tent, using the boat's boom as a ridge pole, then If you want reasonable headroom along the length of the tent you will need some means to raise the height of the boom to above the normal sailing position. The gooseneck on many dinghies is mounted on some kind of vertical slide and maybe this will allow height to give headroom in the tent, or perhaps it can be extended to do so. If not, you may need an alternative boom fitting for use with the tent. In many cases the boom has a square hole in the end which sockets over a small square spigot on the gooseneck. You can then make a forked fitting with a square spigot to fit the boom and padded jaws to fit round the mast at any height. Such a fitting could be adapted from a rowlock, a plastic rowlock should do fine for this.

You also need some way to hold the boom up at the correct height and angle to suit the tent. The simplest way is to attach the main halyard (or topping lift if you have one) to the aft end of the boom and another halyard, probably the jib halyard, to the fore end. You place the tent in position and secure the sides then adjust these halyards until it is set correctly. Some people use a boom support known as a boom 'crutch'. The traditional pattern is made like a pair of wooden scissors. When opened you have two legs which fit into sockets on the boat and the other end forms a boom support. A single leg crutch is also possible but would obstruct access through the aft end of the tent. A boom crutch will make the tent structure more stable and has the advantage that it stops the boom moving around sideways as the boat rocks, such movement causing wear on the tent canvas. However, a boom crutch is one more item to stow, unless it is designed to also serve as a paddle, boat hook or spinnaker pole.

There are some dinghies which have sidedecks with a raised coaming between these side decks and the cockpit and the tent could then be fastened over this coaming rather than over the gunwhale. Fastening the tent over such a coaming allows you to use the sidedecks to move around the boat, provided that it is stable enough to walk on the side decks. On the other hand, the tent will be narrower and less comfortable to sit inside so the better option even with this style of boat is probably to fit the tent right over the gunwhales. The side decks will then become useful shelf space inside the tent.

There are a number of options for fastening the sides of the tent down over the gunwhales of the boat. The most obvious way is to have a row of hooks fixed on the topsides, these engaging loops of cord or elastic sewn into the tent. But hooks in this position could be vulnerable when coming alongside, they might look a bit ugly and you might be a bit reluctant to drill the fastening holes through the topsides, especially on an expensive new fibreglass boat. You should certainly use the smallest neatest hooks which will do the job - on a clinker built boat I have seen straight pattern hooks along the edge of a plank so as to trap a loop of cord under the land and this does not look too bad.

Here are some alternatives to the use of hooks fastened to the topsides:

  • For boats which have no side decks and which have single skin topsides, small holes, say 4mm diameter, can be drilled through the topsides just under the gunwhale. Cords attached to the tent, say 3mm diameter, can be threaded through these holes and fastened inside. I used this method for the boat tent on my Mirror dinghy and it worked well. The tiny holes in the topsides are so high that they are hardly ever under water unless you are just about to capsize in which case you won't be worried about a few drops leaking in. I am not sure I would want to use this method for boats which have side decks since the holes could then be underwater for longer periods. Maybe holes with screw in or push in bungs?
  • A cord tied tightly to the topsides just under the gunwhale and held in place with small fittings, eg very small plastic or metal fairleads. The bottom of the tent can then be fixed with ties round this cord or more conveniently with velcro covered flaps which loop round it. This method does not avoid the need for permanent fixings on the topsides, it just uses fairleads instead of hooks. The advantage is that the tent attachments are free to slide horizontally and this should help getting the tent to set nicely.
  • Suction cups to secure to the topsides. I have heard of this being done but have not seen it in practice. In the UK there is a mail order company called Betterware Ltd. which markets various household gadgets. They offer some suction cup with attached hooks, I daresay you can buy similar things elsewhere. The cups have a diaphragm action worked by a cam mechanism and this does seem to make them stick very firmly and semi-permanently to a smooth surface such as glass. I don't know how well they would stick to a typical painted boat hull but they should work well on smooth fibreglass. This method avoids the need for any modification to the hull so it might be useful if you want to use a tent on a borrowed boat or to transfer it from one boat to another.
  • Cords passed under the hull. This is what people sometimes do when they first try dinghy camping and want to avoid permanent fittings on the boat in case they don't want to camp again. It is a fiddle to set up and the cords can get messy when the boat grounds.
  • An alternative to the above is to tie a loop of rope horizontally round the hull and fix tent cords to this. The flare of the topsides keeps the rope from riding up. Awkward to set up and would not work well with some hull shapes
  • For my own boat I have a cord sewn into the hem of the tent fabric where it drapes over the rubbing strake. At each end of the tent there are slots behind the rubbing strake through which this cord is passed and the ends of the cord are then made fast inside the boat. Because the rubbing strake is curved, as seen from above, when these cords are well tensioned the tent fabric tucks in under the rubbing strake and stays there. It is a neat and simple system, but does need the cords in the hems of the tent to be well tensioned.  I have loops in one end of each cord, these secured to small hooks fixed in the boat while the other ends of the cord are pulled tight and held in the jib sheet jamming cleats. On the new version of my tent I also have hooks that secure the tent fabric under the rubbing strake midway along the length of the tent, just to make sure tent fabric does not ride up over the rubbing strake in high winds. I probably should do a diagram to better explain all this. The picture further down this page shows what it looks like when set up.


Some boat tent ideas seen at recent DCA rallies:


Many people do like a more spacious tent then the simple ridge tent. As shown in the second of the sketches above, the tent can be extended across the foredeck to give more space to put things down. Also the tent can be fitted over some kind of box shaped frame or a set of hoops as on a covered wagon, so that there is more comfortable sitting space or even standing room inside. A really good tent of this kind should provide more indoor space than a small cabin boat and there is no reason why it should not be similarly weather proof.

 Windows in flexible plastic, zip doors etc are all features which can enhance a luxury boat tent. Interestingly, I have never seen a double skin boat tent but most land tents have an inner tent and a fly sheet. Perhaps this would be of no advantage if the single layer of the boat tent is substantial enough to be fully weatherproof.

Another little point to think about is how will you use fenders when the tent is set up. It is probably not a good idea to have fenders or their securing lines rubbing against the tent fabric. I usually find that I can get away with one large fender placed just forward of the tent, adjusting the mooring lines so that only this fender is needed. On big boats the fenders are often tied to guard rails or cabin top. On a dinghy there are no such securing points and the fenders tend to hang too low to be much use. If you use a single big fender then this can be attached to a shroud. However, even if you use a proper rolling hitch the fender line will slide down a wire rope shroud. The trick here is to fix the end of the fender line to a spare halyard to keep the fender at any required height. If you dont have a spare halyard you can use a length of line to any suitable fitting part way up the mast. Also, when alongside a floating pontoon in a marina it is often better to fix fenders to the pontoon rather than the boat but don't forget to take them with you when you leave.

Some notes on the two boat tents that I have made for our own boat

I have now made two tents for our own boat. The first one was made shortly before the boat was first launched and was made in a bit of a rush, I recall that the job was done from start to finish within a day. The second tent, made in 2012, was done at a slower pace and with more care, it took quite a few days work.  The first tent was made from a dark blue pvc proofed nylon fabric, not unlike the fabric often used for tarpaulins on lorries. This fabric was fully waterproof although there was some annoying leakage at the gaps where the boom fitted through the tent. The fabric was also very durable. After some thirty seasons use there was slight wear where the fabric rubbed on the top of the boom but the tent would probably have lasted many more seasons. The main reason that we chose to replace this tent was simply that we never liked the dark blue color which we found dark and gloomy inside. For our second tent we choose a light beige color which we much prefer - it is lighter inside both in daylight and when lit by an LED lantern at night.  Having said that, some people do prefer a dark colored tent since they find it difficult to sleep in a light tent if there is still daylight outside, we have not found that a problem.

The type of fabric we used for our second tent is called Odyssey, manufactured by Marlen Textiles in the US and available from Kayospruce in the UK, possibly also from other wholesalers. It is an acrylic coated polyester fabric, weight 6.5 oz per square yard. We have found this a very suitable fabric for a boat tent, it is stronger than the fabric of most land tents but not so heavy that it cannot be stitched with a domestic sewing machine. For all practical purposes it can be considered to be water proof but it is not a breathable fabric and there is often at least some condensation on the inside. 

boat tent

Our first boat tent (pictured on a beach in the Scilly islands)

Both the tents I have made for our boat are simple ridge tents covering only the open cockpit and also the hatch into the stern locker aft of the cockpit. This makes for quite a small tent that is easy to set up and to fold away since you dont have to handle a large area of canvas. I felt that it was particularly important to be able to set the tent up quickly and I was prepared to compromise on spaciousness to achieve this. Sometimes you sail into harbour feeling very tired and then you just want some weather protection as quickly as possible. The last thing you want is to fiddle with a large and complicated tent, even if it is going to be more luxurious when you eventually get it set up. I am always amazed at how suddenly a cold wet dinghy becomes a cosy home once a tent is up and a lantern lit inside, just shielding the wind makes a huge difference.

tent 02

Our second boat tent (pictured in the harbour at Teschelling, Friesland)

The main difference between the first and second tents made for our boat, apart from the color of the fabic, is that the first tent draped over the boom whereas the second one is hung from a row of five sliders that slot into a groove in the underside of the aluminium boom extrusion. There are advantages and disadvantages to both these options. Simply draping the tent over the boom is the simplest option but we have found that hanging it from below the boom is actually somewhat quicker to set up. With the tent over the boom, but not extending to the mast, the boom had to be threaded through a hole in the front of the tent. This hole was a potential leak point and on a dark night it could be a bit difficult to find the hole and get the boom threaded through, delaying getting the tent set up. With the slider arrangement we just reach up and thread the sliders into the boom one by one, then drop a cord into a clam cleat to tension a length of webbing that is sewn into the ridge of the tent, this avoids the ridge drooping excessively between the sliders.. Another advantage of having the tent hung from under the boom is that the mainsail can be left furled on the boom at night. On the other hand, if the tent is draped over the boom it is possible to fold back part of the tent so as to leave the front of the cockpit sheltered for cooking etc. while leaving the aft end open to sit outside or stand up to don oilskins etc. The abilty to do this was a nice feature of our original tent but we have not been able to work our a way to do it with the tent hung from below the boom. 

The method I have used to get the right cut for a boat tent is to use the boat itself as a three dimensional template. The main panels of the tent are sewn together then the tent is fitted to the boom and draped over the topsides. Sticky tape can be used to fix the material in position and adjust until there were no wrinkles before marking out for the final hemming all round the lower edges. I found that to minimise wrinkles it helps to cut and sew the corner seams and any 'bell end' seams slightly concave. By that I mean that the cloth panels adjacent to corners of the tent were cut with an inwards curve of something like one inch in one yard. This gives a nice wrinkle free appearance to the tent but one would not want to overdo this or space inside the tent will be unnecessarily reduced.

The fixing of both the first and second tents at the gunwhale is as described in the paragraph above where I list various alternative methods to fix a tent to a boat. It is a neat way to do it, but does require the rubbing strake to have slots through it in the right places, for this boat these slots were incorporated when the boat was built.

The aft end of our boat tent has 'doors' like most land tents. These can often be left open since the wind comes from ahead on a moored boat, unless you are tied alongside a jetty or in a marina. To make the tent as weatherproof as possible there is no door at the front end of the tent but the front of the tent can be unfastened from the cockpit washboards and you can then get out underneath the front of the tent onto the foredeck. You do need to some way to get to the anchor lines from inside the tent and indeed we find that when the tent is in place we usually get on and off the boat via the foredeck, this just seems easier than via the tent doors at the stern. 

Dinghy cookery

You can cook aboard a dinghy using a camping stove. You can of course also visit pubs/restaurants/chip shops wherever you go ashore and the Hostellers Sailing Club often takes this attractive option. However, we would not be without our camping stoves for breakfast and for brewing cups of tea during the day. The Hostellers Sailing Club used to have a club owned collection of paraffin primus stoves but a few years ago we had an unfortunate incident which left all these at the bottom of the sea a couple of miles out from the mouth of the Blackwater estuary! Our members now mostly use camping gas stoves which are less trouble to light and cleaner but they do cost a lot more in fuel. The best type of camping stove to use on a boat is the low lying type which has a tube from the gas cylinder rather than the upright type with the burner on top of a cylinder. The latter type could so easily fall over if someone passes by leaving an unexpected wake. With the squat type of stove I think it is reasonably safe to cook on board with the boat at anchor, keeping an eye on the stove and another eye for passing boats which may leave a wake. We also do make cups of tea on board our Wayfarers while at sea in fair conditions but this needs great care and occasionally a hand to steady the kettle on the stove. Do be careful with camping gas stoves - many years ago a member of the HSC was injured when a camping gas stove was knocked over and this was on shore in our club hut, not afloat.

One point if you sail to France - Make sure that you either have a stove which is compatible with the gas cylinders sold in France or that you have an adapter for the French cylinders or make sure that you have enough gas to last all your holiday. The type of cylinder which used to be called Epigas, now Colman or Primus, is not available in France. Once you get used to having hot drinks available on your open boat you really miss this luxury if you suddenly find you have no gas!



Above is a picture of a single burner stove I made for dinghy cruising and which we have used for many years now, both afloat and when camping on shore. Actually I did not make all of the stove - I started with the regulator, gas hose and burner from a standard stove and fitted this into a home made sheet aluminium housing which offers improved wind shielding and stability.

The width and height of this assembly means that it can hardly tip over, it would slide sideways first or the pan would spill. We use the pan shown in the picture both as a kettle for boiling water and for cooking food but we do also have a second pan for more complicated meals - e.g. tinned curry plus rice cooked separately in the other pan. Anything much more complicated usually means a trip to a local pub.  

The gas burner for this stove is mounted under two stainless steel 5mm diameter rods which support the pan above it and there are also some little pegs that locate the pan horizontally so that the pan does not slide around. The dimension between the burner and the pan was copied exactly from the original stove. The metal sides extend about 40 mm above the bottom of the pan to act as deep fiddles for the pan and extra wind shielding. I thought I might need air holes for the burner but it works fine without,

I have fitted piezo electric lighters to this stove, so that it lights by pressing a button. This is is much handier than matches but the lighters I have dismantled to fit to this stove have suffered from corrosion in a marine environment and have needed to be replaced after a few years.

The sides of the metal box do get warm when the stove is in use but not warm enough to set light to any woodwork. I have thought about adding some internal sheet metal baffles to further reduce the external surface temperature. I have a large drawer which slides out from under the foredeck and which contains most of the cooking equipment and some of the food aboard the boat. I have found that I can operate the specially shielded stove inside this drawer, in which case it is protected from almost any amount of wind and will work at some angle of heel.

I hope that these details of my stove are not going to get anyone into trouble - if you make something similar to the stove pictured above do test it thoroughly to make sure that it cannot overheat or burn incorrectly and I would never operate it in a boat without keeping it under close observation and with the gas tap accessible to turn off if anything goes wrong. Also do not store gas in an unventilated space. One member of the Dinghy Cruising Association kept a gas stove in a locker which was so well sealed that the gas collected and eventually caused quite a serious explosion.

Oars and engines

If the wind falls calm during a dinghy race there will be rescue boats and probably a committee boat to tow the fleet home. If you are making a coastal cruising passage in a dinghy you should be self sufficient and able to continue somehow. Many dinghy cruisers carry a small outboard motor for this eventuality, others are sailing purists and prefer the simplicity and 'greeness' of keeping to sails and human power only. I do have an engine for my boat but these days I rarely take it on a cruise and I do get a certain satisfaction from managing without it. After all, if you continue with this engine idea a bit further you don't really need a sailing dinghy, you could have a speedboat, or just go by car. Come to think of it why do that, you could just stay at home and look at a web site about sailing. Generally we seem to get pleasure by achieving things and there usually needs to be some slightly arbitrary set of rules to make that achievement difficult enough to be satisfying. Apart the philosophy, an engine and fuel are clumsy items to stow and with most if not all engines there will be some smelly and messy oil and petrol leakage. Having said that, there have been a few trips for which I found an engine most useful, although not essential. For example, in the summer of '98 we sailed to Kent then up the River Medway into the upper reaches where you really could not do much sailing because there are so many bridges and the trees shield the wind. We could have used oars but we would not have got so far in the limited time available.

If you do decide to have an engine then I would advise against buying an unnecessarily large one. Reading the writings of Wayfarer sailors it would seem that a 2 to 3HP engine is enough for a Wayfarer, anything much more powerful will take up more space and use more fuel but give only a marginal increase in speed since speed under power tends to be limited by hull form. I would be wary of an engine salesman who suggests that you should get a bigger engine in case of bad weather or in case you have to tow someone off a mud bank. An engine on a sailing dinghy is not for bad weather, it is for calms and situations where you cannot sail, e.g. because of low bridges. It is not often that you will need to pull someone off a mud bank but if you do then in most cases the best way is to lay out a heavy anchor, either your anchor or the anchor from the boat that is stuck. You don't even need an engine at all this way.

Standards for new outboard motors in the USA require a 75 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions from 1996 levels by the year 2006. These standards are not retrospectively applicable to existing motors. Manufacturers are now marketing four stroke outboard motors to meet these low emission standards. Manufacturers are also working on the development of direct injection two stroke engines to achieve low emissions with lighter weight than typical four strokes, but this approach may be mainly applicable to larger engines than are required for dinghy propulsion. If buying a new outboard I would suggest giving consideration to four stroke engines which appart from low emisions use less petrol than conventional two strokes for the same power and avoid the complication of needing oil as well as petrol to run.

When I do carry an outboard motor on my boat I much prefer it not to be on the transom when not in use. With the motor tucked away in a locker the boat looks much more like a sailing boat! Apart from that, the motor is kept dry so that it has a better chance of working when needed, the weight distribution is probably better and the motor cannot get caught up in the mainsheet or other ropes. I know cases of sailing dinghies capsizing because this happened. When arranging a stowage for an outboard motor you do need to take account of any restictions the outboard manufacturer may place on the position of the motor when stored, for example some of them cannot be stored lying on their side. This probably applies more to 4 stroke than 2 stroke motors.

If you don't have an engine then you need oars. Even if you do have an engine you will probably find oars worth having as well. You might break down or run out of fuel and also oars are probably better if you need to manoeuvre your boat in really tight spaces in a harbour or marina. Many racing dinghies carry paddles rather than oars but oars are much better, especially if you are single handed. Using a paddle single handed on a typically beamy sailing dinghy will send you round in circles. With two persons and two paddles it is just about possible but rowing is better for any distance. If as a last resort you have to use a paddle single handed in a sailing dinghy you may do best to sit astride the bows and skull the boat along by working the paddle in a figure of eight motion. This can be useful if you need to move your boat a few yards after you have put up your overnight tent (you can do it with an oar as well as a paddle), but it is not a way to cover any distance.

Rowlocks are quite easy to fit to most dinghies, if not already supplied. There are special (plastic) rowlocks you can use if you need to fit the rowlocks into a buoyancy tank built into the side of a boat. I managed for many years with these but as with most plastic rowlocks they spring apart and release the oar at the most embarrassing moments. Recently I brought some galvanised iron rowlocks and fitted them into turned plastic sleeves which fit plastic sockets in the side decks. These metal rowlocks feel much more solid to row with than plastic ones.

Both metal and plastic rowlocks will sink if they are dropped overboard so it is a good idea to keep them permanently tied to some adjacent part of the boat. If this is not convenient then you should definitely take a spare rowlock or two.

Oars on sailing dinghies are very often shorter than the best length for rowing. The optimum oar length is a function of the width between the rowlocks and the resistance of the boat to motion, a light easily driven boat can utilise slightly longer oars then a heavy one. There are various formulae for calculating oar length on the internet but for most sailing dinghies it is best to get the longest oars which you can stow in the boat, the chances are that they will still be too short. If you should be designing a boat for dinghy cruising then oar stowage is something to think about from the beginning. On my purpose designed boat I have stowage for the oars each side of the cockpit and above the level of the rowing thwart. That way the oars can be used quickly without having to get them out of the bottom of the boat where they are under the thwart and possibly buried under baggage.

If you would like to make your own oars then a simple and effective method is to glue plywood blades onto a shaft rather than building up the whole oar from solid timber as the traditional method. For most sizes of dinghy the shaft should start at about 50mm x 50mm section and is then planed octagonal before rounding off all the corners, a satisfying job and if you use an electric plane it will be done in no time. If you are going to use the plywood blade idea then the outer end of the oar can blend from a circular to elliptical section which then becomes a D section so that the blade can be glued to the straight side of the D. If you make this face curved you can form a blade with a slight spoon shape. 6mm ply is quite thick enough for the blade. Sitka spruce is one of the best woods for making oars, albeit expensive. Sitka spruce is one of the lightest woods and was used for racing oars prior to the advent of carbon fibre. For general purpose oars some people recommend harder woods than sitka spruce, eg ash or pine since these are less easily bruised by being knocked about.

I remember a tip from Eric Coleman for applying fibreglass to the ends of oars to protect them when they are used as punting poles, which tends to happen with oars on cruising dinghies. You wrap a few layers of fibreglass tape or cloth impregnated with resin (epoxy is best) round the end of the blade and positioned so that it overhangs the end of the blade by perhaps 6 to 10 mm or so. This forms a little pocket extending beyond the wood of the blade. After the fibreglass has hardened you can then stand the oar on end so that this pocket can be filled with a mixture of resin and scraps of fibreglass off cuts or a suitable proprietary high density filler. When that has hardened you will probably have a horrible looking mess with spikes of fibreglass sticking out everywhere. However, a few minutes work with an angle grinder and coarse disc will shape this so that you end up with a solid fibreglass blade tip extending beyond the end of the wood and that should last for years of shoving off mud banks.

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. 

Does a cruising dinghy need another dinghy to act as a tender?

It is not essential to carry a tender since most dinghies are small and light enough to act as their own tender, being brought up to a landing point whenever the crew need to get ashore. However, there are some situations where a small tender can be quite useful, particularly with a heavy cruising dinghy. If a heavy dinghy is allowed to dry out on a beach as the tide ebbs the crew may not easily be able to get it back into the water until the tide returns, which may be many hours. Thus if you want to make a quick trip ashore it may be preferable to anchor or moor the larger boat in deep water and go ashore in a tender. A small tender that you can carry around on shore is also useful when the only landing point is likely to damage a boat, e.g. there may be rocks, submerged obstacles, fishing boats going to and fro etc. In this situation you can anchor off or take a mooring then go ashore in the tender and find somewhere to safely leave the tender well clear of the water.

I have found that one of the tiny inflatable boats sold as a beach toy makes a suitable tender for a cruising dinghy. I have had several of these beach toy tenders over the years. Even if you use them carefully they tend to develop leaks but they only cost a few pounds to replace whereas a proper yacht tender costs hundreds of pounds and would in any case be too bulky to carry on board most dinghies. Toy inflatables are usually poor rowing boats since apart from anything else the rowlocks are too weak and flexible. I do not use oars with mine, I prefer a pair of home-made paddles which look very much like ping pong bats. The picture below shows my tender in use with the small paddles on the Odet River in Southern Brittany. This particular toy inflateble is an 'Octopus 110' which is large enough to take two adults. I think the next size down is the 'Octopus 90' which is adequate for one adult. The Octopus range of toy inflatables is just a bit upmarket from the really cheap ones. In case of a puncture there is a double main air chamber but I am not sure how much of a safety feature that is since you would not have a useable boat left once once the largest chamber is punctured. The largest air chamber features a proper valve with a screw on lid. Unfortunately the second largest chamber has only a small plastic air connection with a moulded plastic flap as a valve, as on the really cheap toy boats, this is much less satisfactory for easy inflation.


Get a good pump to use with your inflatable, otherwise it will take ages to inflate. If a pump is supplied with a cheap toy inflatable this pump may well be poor quality. Get an inflatable large enough to feel secure but no larger than necessary otherwise again you will be all day inflating it. Remember that the inflatable only needs to carry the one crew member who has stayed on board to anchor or moor the larger boat, any other crew can usually be put ashore first. Do not leave loose items aboard your inflatable while it is moored by its painter - a gust of wind can capsize it and all is then lost.

Reducing sail

It is pretty well essential for a cruising dinghy to have provision for reefing, that is for reducing sail area as the wind strengthens. For a tryout dinghy cruise on an inland water or sheltered estuary you could manage without but you should have tested your arrangements for reefing before you go coastal sailing. Most dinghies designed for racing or general purpose sailing have a gooseneck which allows the mainsail to be partially rolled up onto the boom for reefing. That is better than nothing but it is not the ideal reefing method. A sail is not a flat sheet of cloth but is shaped three dimensionally. Hence when you roll it up from the lower edge you get creases and usually the outer end of the boom drops well below horizontal. Also the luff rope bunches up at the inboard end and it is awkward to use a kicking strap, although this can be done by attaching the kicking strap to a length of webbing rolled in with the sail. The preferred method for reefing a cruising dinghy is known as points or slab reefing and this has also now largely superceded roller reefing for big boat sailing. With slab reefing there are pairs of cringles (large eyelets) for each reef, one at the luff and the other at a similar level near the leech. Tying one of these pairs of cringles down to the boom takes a section out of the sail and also produces a bag of loose material. This loose material can then be rolled up and tied along the boom, usually by means of reef points which are short cords fixed through a row of eyelets running across the sail between each pair of main reefing cringles.

The reefing cringles at luff and leech are heavily loaded and the sail needs to be suitably reinforced at these points. Fitting reefing cringles to an existing sail is probably best left to a sail maker, it is less likely to be a DIY job than, for example, making a boat tent. Luff and leech cringles suitable for reefing are usually fitted with a small hydraulic press and special tools. Also, sailcloth is harder to sew than most tent materials. If you really want to fit your own reefing points to the sail I have heard a suggestion that one could use a loop of heavy polyester webbing to secure a stainless steel ring to the sail at the leech and luff. You would still need reinforcement patches on the sail where the webbing is sewn on. This method is sometimes used for attaching sheets to the clew of a foresail so I am sure it is strong enough for reefing lines provided that adequate stitching and reinforcement is used. I don't think many domestic sewing machines would stand a chance of sewing through two layers of webbing and several layers of sailcloth so hand stitching is required. A proper sail makers needle is needed, these are sold in chandlers shops. You may need to pre-make holes for the needle using a spike or even a large masonry nail used with a hammer and a block of scrap wood. I have also resorted to the use of pliers to pull the needle through.

When you take a reef you need to tension the sail between the luff and leech as well as just tying it down to the boom. The method I usually use with the HSC club boats is to start by tensioning the sail horizontally by taking a short cord through the luff cringle and tying it round the mast then taking a cord from the end of the boom through the leech cringle and tensioning this back to the end of the boom. The cord round the mast takes the considerable horizontal tension in the foot of the sail and importantly it keeps the luff of the sail close to the mast so that the luff rope is not trying to pull out of the mast groove. Having got the right sort of tension in the foot of the sail I then tie down down both leech and luff cringles to the boom and finally tie down the reefing points. The various short lengths of cord used can all be fitted with reefing pegs. Reefing pegs are an easy way to tie ropes tightly without using knots which could be hard to get undone later. They are described later in this script, click here to jump down to this section. 

This link gives full details of an improved arrangement (perhaps better than as described above but needing a few extra bits of gear) for reefing a Wayfarer mainsail. This would be applicable to most other bermudian rigged dinghies. Perhaps we should set up a similar arrangement on our HSC club dinghies.

The main function of the reefing points between the luff and leech cringles is simply to tidy up the loose part of the sail, they do not carry the main loading on the sail. You don't need many reefing points, I have seen just two or three for each reef used successfully. Traditionally these reefing points consist of a short length of cord run through a small eyelet and kept in permanently on the sail with a couple of stopper knots. I just have the eyelets in the sail and thread the cords through them when needed, using reefing pegs (as above) to secure them.

I would advise against having your rows of reef points too closely spaced in the vertical direction. It is not necessary to adjust sail area in small steps and if you do you will spend a lot of time reefing since it is usually not really practical to keep a sailing dinghy fully on the move while the reefing operation is in progress. For most purposes two deep reefs are adequate, you might have three if you plan to do a lot of sea sailing. You can save taking out the lower batten by having the first row of reef points just below the lower batten. The link given above suggests that for a Wayfarer the first reef could be 69 cms from foot of sail which is just below first batten and the second reef 154 cms from foot which brings head of sail to top of shrouds. These dimensions could be scaled appropriately for other bermudian rigged dinghies.

You will probably also need to be able to reduce foresail to match reductions in mainsail area. The first thing I would say here is to check whether you actually need to use the foresail at all when the main is deep reefed. I discovered that my boat remained well balanced with a much reduced area of mainsail (actually a separate small mainsail rather than a reefed sail) and no foresail at all. Thus I usually remove the foresail altogether when the small size mainsail is in use and from then on I don't have to go on the foredeck to fiddle with foresails. However, the majority of boats do need a small foresail area to balance a deep reefed main. This means either changing to a small foresail or having a roller reefing gear for the foresail. Changing foresails at sea on a dinghy can be quite tricky. On most dinghies the safest way is to lean out across the foredeck rather than trying to climb right onto the foredeck. I don't have personnel experience of foresail reefing/furling systems but such systems should make foresail area reduction much easier and safer and are probably to be recommended for cruising.


You will use anchors more frequently when cruising in a dinghy than when racing or just pottering around. If you sleep on board your dinghy you may often find it simpler to anchor overnight rather than getting permission to use a mooring or finding a berth alongside. You may also want to anchor to go ashore for sightseeing or shopping and you will want your boat to stay where you left it rather than drift away and possibly cause damage to expensive yachts. However there is no need to get paranoid about this, if you have good anchors and warps and anchor on suitable holding ground you should have no problems.

The Dinghy Cruising Association offers a useful guideline that a traditional fisherman style anchor for a cruising dinghy should weigh about one pound for each foot length of dinghy. It is also stated that if you use one of the more modern anchor styles with broad flukes the anchor weight can be reduced to two thirds of that recommended for a fisherman anchor. It is generally accepted that broad fluked anchors such as the CQR, the Bruce and the Danforth hold better than a fisherman on a soft seabed, eg soft mud, and this is hardly surprising. On the other hand, a fisherman anchor is at least as good, and indeed probably better than, the modern anchors when the seabed is stones or is overlaid with kelp. I certainly would not write off the fisherman anchor as an obsolete design, it is a reliable anchor under a wide variety of conditions, even if it does not quite have the best holding ability on soft seabeds, which are in any case not the kind of seabed which usually causes trouble with anchoring.

I have seen published test results for the holding ability of different anchors but the results seem rather inconclusive. Holding ability probably depends more on the type of sea bed than the type of anchor and this makes comparison difficult. Certain sea beds such as shingle provide very poor holding for any type of anchor and if you need to anchor securely you simply have to avoid anchoring on this type of seabed altogether. We have used various anchors with the HSC club boats and I think that only the Danforth type has let us down, having on one occasion allowed both our boats to go adrift. The local sailing school retrieved them for us. I cannot be sure that this was the fault of the anchor itself but it does look to me as though the Danforth anchor could be prone to getting jammed up with debris from the sea bed. Suppose that the anchor drags a bit before it bites home then something like an old boot or a clump of sea weed lying on the seabed gets stuck between the shank and the flukes. Then if the tide turns and the anchor topples over the other way up the flukes will be locked pointing upwards and unable to dig in. This is only a theory but it makes me a bit wary of Danforth anchors even although they are a convenient flat shape to stow and have large flukes for maximum grip in soft mud. I have a CQR anchor and have found this to be reliable to date. The Bruce anchor is another type which has good reports from users. Both the Bruce and the CQR anchors are rather awkward shapes to stow. The traditional fisherman anchor folds up and is then a good shape for stowage but it does take a few seconds to unfold it if you need it in a big hurry. Incidentally Roger Barnes of the DCA has provided a tip to speed up the deployment of a fisherman anchor. This is to lock the stock in place not with a metal wedge and lashing as usually provided with the anchor but with a hairpin shaped stainless steel spring clip which you can buy from a good chandlers.

It is often suggested that a dinghy should be anchored with a short length of chain attached between the anchor and a warp (rope). The idea is that the weight of the chain improves the direction of pull on the anchor and improves holding. I would question whether it would not be at least as good simply to use a correspondingly heavier anchor without the chain. I have tried using chain on a dinghy anchor and have found it awkward to handle. It can do a lot of damage to varnish work or pristine fibreglass and it will not run properly through the small fairleads or other bow fittings on most dinghy sized boats. I prefer just to have a plain rope and with the DCA recommended anchor weight and adequate length of rope (scope) this seems fine. I don't think I have ever dragged the anchor on my own boat other than when anchoring on unsuitable ground (famous last words!). 

Incidentally, the idea that chain lying on the seabed provides a valuable shock absorbing effect is questionable, analysis shows that this only works in moderate conditions and that under conditions when the ground tackle is heavily loaded the shock absorbing capacity due to a chain catenary is actually less than that provided by a nylon rode - various studies confirm this eg.

The recommended material for an anchor rope is nylon since it is has high strength for a given diameter and is slightly stretchy so it can absorb shock loads. Anchor ropes for dinghies tend to be oversized in terms of ultimate strength and so for practical purposes polyester is probably almost as good as nylon and is available in a wider range of colours and plaiting styles. The floating ropes such as polypropylene are to be avoided for this purpose since an anchor rope floating on the surface could catch motor boat propellers. Plaited rope seems to tangle a bit less than the traditional laid (3 strand) rope and is usually more comfortable to handle. I used to use 10mm diameter rope to anchor our boat but have now changed to 8mm 'Anchorplait' nylon (available from Liros ropes and possibly other manufacturers) since we don't have a lot of space for stowing the rope. I would not go any smaller than 8mm since although a smaller rope may be quite strong enough in new condition it will not allow much margin to allow for wear by chafing.

I find the easiest way to keep a long rope such as an anchor rope free of tangles is to dump it into an open topped container as the anchor is hauled in then just let it run out from the container when the anchor is next lowered. A suitable container is a plastic bucket, washing up bowl or small basket. A small hole at the bottom of the container will provide drainage and another hole will allow the free end of the rope to be lead out so that it can tied to some part of the boat. No attempt should be made to coil the rope in the container, the more untidy it looks the better it will run out when needed. Contrary to what most people would think, coiling ropes neatly is a sure way to get them in really bad tangles! 100 feet length of rope on each of two anchors is sufficient for cruising in most areas. It is usually stated that the length of anchor rope should be five times the water depth. Hence in most areas 100 foot length will allow you to anchor at high tide and be sure of not grounding at low tide, as may be necessary if you are not sure that the bottom is safe for the boat to ground on. If you sail in areas such as the west coast of Scotland where the water is often deep even close to the shore it would do no harm to have even longer anchor ropes.

At this point I would mention a strange and rather annoying property of certain modern synthetic ropes. I purchased a 10mm diameter plaited nylon anchor warp and found that after a couple of years use it had increased in diameter to something like 15mm. I asked about this at a chandlers shop and was told that it is due to the fibres bunching up with use. I am sure that the extra diameter does not increase the strength of the rope one iota since there are still the same number of fibres in the cross section but it may reduce the length and it certainly increases the storage space required for the rope. I have another plaited nylon warp which has not grown in diameter at all with use, I wonder what is the difference.

I think there is much to be said for having two anchors and warps when dinghy cruising. One of the main reasons is that the use of two anchors allows you to restrict the space your boat can swing through when at anchor. This can be essential if you need to anchor in proximity to other boats or obstructions. Two anchors also allows more secure anchoring since the two anchors can be placed so that they are always loaded in roughly the same direction and hence less likely to pull out as the tide turns. It is sometimes useful to anchor with one of two anchors on the beach so that you can pull your anchored boat to the shore. Finally, two anchors provides a backup if you loose one of them. The most likely reason for loosing an anchor (apart from not tying it to the boat) is getting it inextricably tangled in some debris on the sea bed. This is fairly unlikely but it can happen. It has happened to me twice but so far only in water shallow enough that I have been able to get the anchor back by going swimming. Of course, if you are rash enough to anchor in proximity to laid moorings you considerably increase the risk of loosing your anchor.


Two anchors laid at 120 degrees. - Swinging space shaded grey compared with swinging space for one anchor as dotted red circle

When anchoring with two anchors a typical technique is as follows. You drop the first anchor while still sailing, rowing or motoring. Then with the boat still moving you run out the warp until you reach the position where you want the second anchor. Often this will require the full length of the rope or perhaps the rope from the second anchor temporarily joined onto that from the first. As soon as the second anchor is down you lower sail or stop rowing or motoring and then adjust the two warps. Probably you will aim to have about the same length of warp on each anchor and an angle of around 120 degrees between the two warps. This angle gives roughly the same holding strength whichever way the wind blows your boat. Furthermore, as noted above, with a fairly large angle between the ropes the pull on each anchor is always in roughly the same direction even when the wind and/or tide turns. Anchored in this fashion your boat should be secure and it will also take up a lot less swinging space than with a single anchor, even if a chain cable were to be used with that single anchor. You may want to anchor for an extended period, perhaps to park the boat between two weekends. In this case if you have ropes to two anchors secured within the boat the two ropes will probably get twisted together as the tide repeatedly turns. I have never yet found this to be a problem, you don't usually get that many twists since if there is any wind a half twist made by the flood is more than likely going to be untwisted by the ebb. If you want to avoid twists in the ropes you can join one rope to the other using a rolling hitch outside the boat but then you loose the slight extra security of having both anchors individually fastened to the boat.

Quite frequently one wants to anchor the boat and go ashore awhile leaving the boat so that it will not ground when the tide ebbs or so that you can still return to it when the tide floods. If the wind is offshore and there is not much current this is usually just a matter of placing an anchor on the beach letting out plenty of rope then giving the boat a push off - see diagram below. The anchor rope must be long enough to keep the boat clear of any small waves breaking on the beach since these will tend to drive the boat back to the beach despite the offshore wind. The length of anchor rope and position of the anchor on the beach must also take account of the rise/fall of tide expected during the period the boat is to be anchored.


Anchoring with offshore wind and single anchor placed on beach - This only works if there is little or no current.

If the wind is not truly offshore or if there is any significant current a single anchor will probably fail to hold the boat clear of the beach. The boat will end up lying on the beach and if there are even small waves breaking on the beach this is not good for the boat. Also, on shingle beaches there is a good chance of getting the centreboard jammed up with small stones. A more certain way to hold the boat clear of the beach is to use two anchors, one to anchor the boat suitably clear of the shore and one on the beach to pull the boat back in when you whish to re-board - see sketch below.


Anchoring with one anchor on beach and one offshore - This works with some current and even with the wind in a direction slightly onshore.

If the tide is ebbing the time you can spend ashore before your boat grounds will be limited by the length of rope - another reason for not stinting on the length of anchor rope. If the tide is flooding you also need a long rope to get the anchor far enough up the beach that you can reach it later without swimming.

If the wind is onshore, i.e. it is a lee shore, or if there is almost no wind at all it is possible to anchor using a pulley attached to the anchor. A long rope is lead from the boat, through the pulley, then to a second anchor on the shore then back to the boat. The boat can then be pulled in and out as required. This arrangement is quite complicated to set up and in most situations it is easier just to find a windward shore to anchor on. The length of rope required probably means you will need to join both your anchor ropes together and the knot must be the right side of the pulley. There can be difficulties if seaweed gets jammed in the pulley. The load on the anchor is doubled compared with normal anchoring so you need to be sure of good holding ground. A large free running pulley works best and I keep one on board for this purpose but don't use it very often. I have also heard of a large metal ring attached to the anchor being used rather than a pulley, perhaps this might be a little less prone to jamming up with seaweed.


Anchoring with a line through a pulley attached to an anchor - Keeps the boat afloat in an onshore wind but can be tricky to set up properly.

The above notes on anchoring on the shoreline are really only applicable when there are no significant waves, that is in calm weather or where there is shelter as in a good harbour. If there are waves of any size breaking on the shore then landing will at best result in a soaking and getting away from the shore again will be even harder than landing. Lee shores with breaking waves are particularly unfriendly places for any kind of boat and whilst a dinghy may well survive better than a larger boat it is not wise to take chances with lee shores.

Weatherproof Clothing

Dinghy cruising in anything other than the best of UK weather is potentially a very cold and miserable past time. So if you are actually going to enjoy this pastime rather than merely endure it the choice of clothing is quite important. However, there does not seem to be any one solution to this, different people wear different kinds of weather resistant clothing and many people seem to be in a state of constant experiment trying one option then another.

Dry suits The author's own choice for dinghy cruising in adverse conditions is to wear a dry suit. At least one other of our club members seems to agree with me on this. The main disadvantage of dry suits is that they are expensive - at the time of writing I think most are in the range £200 to £400 and the really posh ones with integral hoods and lifeline attachments etc are even more than this.

A drysuit, in the usual meaning of the term, is a loose fitting garment made from waterproof synthetic cloth, it is not at all like a wet suit which is tight fitting and made from cellular neoprene. A dry suit is like a boiler suit but with a special waterproof zip and with the legs terminating in rubber feet which are bonded to the rest of the suit and rubber seals which seal against your wrists and neck. There is also an alternative design of dry suit which is in two pieces joined by a rubber seal around the waist, this is much less popular than the one piece type with a zip but I do know someone who had one and was happy with it. There is also an alternative drysuit foot design which has ankle seals which fit round your ankles but I think the integral rubber feet are a more popular choice and would give you a better chance of keeping your feet warm.

A dry suit on its own is not a particularly warm garment, the idea of it is that clothing worn underneath it stays dry and keeps you warm even if you go in the water. At first I was sceptical about this but I can confirm that the seals do work provided they are in good condition. Unfortunately these rubber seals perish and disintegrate after a few years but they can be replaced for much less than the cost of a new suit. You could go swimming with a business suit under your drysuit and if the seals are in good condition you would keep it dry, not that this is recommended.

The degree of insulation of a dry suit is adjustable according to what you wear inside it. You can buy special 'woolly' suits, usually made from fleece material, to wear under a dry suit and one of these is a good starting point. Providing the dry suit is an adequately loose fit you can then add additional pullovers etc. to increase warmth in cold weather, or in warmer weather you can wear the drysuit with out the wooly suit and with just light clothing underneath.

If you do buy a dry suit it is important to make sure that you get one the right size, large enough but not ridiculously over size. For dinghy cruising use you need to be able to change into your drysuit while aboard your boat and even while actually under way in worsening weather. In these conditions standing up can be a bit tricky, you really need to be able to put the suit on while in a sitting or at least a crouching position, so I suggest you check that this is possible when trying on the suit in a shop. You also need a fit generous enough to allow for the possibility of wearing thick warm clothing under the drysuit. It is advantageous to be able to open and close the drysuit zip yourself, indeed if you plan to sail single handed this is essential and effectively narrows the choice to those dry suits with front opening zip rather than a zip across the back of the shoulders.

The majority of dry suits are now made from materials which claim to be 'breathable' and this is supposed to stop them becoming clammy with condensation building up inside. I would say that I have had two dry suits, one breathable and one not breathable and I have not noticed any difference in clamminess between them. It may be that some people produce more perspiration than others, or some are more energetic perhaps. For my own use I am not sure that I would choose a drysuit in breathable material again given that the cost of a breathable suit seems to be somewhere between 50% and 100% more than a similar but non-breathable one. Also, I understand that most if not all breathable materials can be damaged by salt water and should be rinsed in fresh water after use in the sea, something which is really not practical when dinghy cruising.

I would mention at this point that a couple of years back the term 'dry suit' or 'semi-dry suit' was sometimes also used for a low leakage neoprene wetsuit fitted with a waterproof zip, and this terminology may still be in occasional use. This is a bit misleading since a wet suit, even one which is so low leakage that it is not actually wet inside, is not at all like the garment most people think of as a dry suit.

'Oilskins' Most people would not find a drysuit to be an ideal garment for sailing in fair weather, being awkward to get on and off (although easier than a wetsuit), sometimes too hot and it does not quite feel right for going ashore to a pub. Consequently you will probably want some less extreme form of waterproof clothing to wear when the weather is somewhere between the shorts and teeshirt situation and the anxious about survival situation. Chandlery stores certainly offer a big variety of specialised sailing clothing, still often referred to as 'oilskins' although they no longer depend on being soaked in oil to stay waterproof. General purpose outdoor wear can also be considered and may well be cheaper although it is usually a lighter weight fabric so less resistant to damage by catching on sharp bits of boat (which really should not exist, but you do find this problem on many boats).

I have sometimes been disappointed when I have brought fairly expensive sailing waterproofs, for example waterproof trousers which had taped seams which fell apart after they had been worn three or four times and a jacket made from a proofed material where the proofing peeled off in sheets after two seasons use. I had better not mention the manufacturers since these purchases were a few years back and perhaps these manufacturers have now improved their technology, but I would say that both these hopeless garments were from very well known UK manufacturers of sailing clothing. As I say, perhaps the technology has now improved, I certainly hope so since a top of the range sailing jacket and trousers now costs £600-00 or more and for that money I would hope you would get something that will keep the rain off for at least the first few times you wear it! However, I don't think you necessarily need to spend anything like that much. I have had a moderately priced jacket and trousers made from pvc with welded rather than stitched seams which has proved to be durable and waterproof over a number of seasons. These particular garments were from a range of no-frills sailing clothing from the French manufacturer Guy Cotton, they are not claimed to be 'breathable' nor do they have fancy features such as reflective tape markers or built in lifeline attachment points. I think the same manufacturer does also make clothing with these fancy features and in materials other than pvc, whether these are as good as the more basic pvc garments I could not say.  You do also see some very cheap welded PVC waterproofs made in the far East, I have tried these and they were not bad considering the price (about £5-00 for a complete two piece suit!) but they are not nearly as tough or well made as the French ones.

I now wear my pvc waterproofs for most sailing but keep a drysuit aboard for use in difficult conditions. The trick is to anticipate such conditions in advance, once spray is flying everywhere it is difficult to change clothing without getting soaked in the process.

Wetsuits Racing dinghy sailors and sail boarders usually wear wet suits. A wet suit is a close fitting garment made from an insulating cellular foam rubber. Water can leak into most wet suits but since the cellular rubber material does not soak up any water it keeps its insulating quality even when wet on both sides. Wet suits are good for active sports like sail boarding but our kind of sailing can include long periods of little physical activity. In cooler summer weather most wetsuits will not keep you warm when you are inactive and exposed to the elements for a long period. Also most people do find a wetsuit uncomfortable to wear for a period of hours at a time, even if it is warm enough. Another disadvantage of wetsuits is that if they fit properly they are so difficult to change in and out of, changing into a wetsuit while actually on board a small boat could be really awkward.


Turning now to footwear, provided that your boat is free of dangerous sharp metal fittings it is fine to sail in bare feet in warm weather but you must have some kind of footwear to put on when you need to step out of the boat. It is not a good idea to step off a boat onto a beach or into shallow water in bare feet since there is always the possibility of a broken bottle, an old fish hook or some other horror. 

In colder weather your feet will be one of the first parts of your body to feel the cold so you will be more comfortable if you can keep them at least a bit insulated. Ideally it would be nice to keep them dry as well, but experience suggests that may be just too much to ask, unless you are prepared to wear a drysuit.

Here are some comments on some of the many possible alternatives for dinghy sailing footwear:

Plastic shoes The traditional plastic shoes were moulded from a transluscent plastic and had a strap and buckle. They appeared to be made from recycled jelly fish so we used to call them jelly shoes. We found jelly shoes excellent sailing footwear for many years, but they now seem to have been superceded by shoes that look like dutch clogs moulded in soft plastic in a range of colors. I havent tried these new clog shoes, but they do look as though they should offer similar advantages to the jelly shoes and I have even seen some with a strap and buckle which would probably be a good idea for use in soft mud. Plastic shoes will give your feet reasonable protection from injury but they don't do much to keep them warm. They are easy to rinse clean before bringing them into the boat. If they have a strap and buckle you can tighten them for wading in mud. I think they are a good option for fine weather as well as to wear over dry suit feet in adverse weather. Flip flops/slip on beach shoes etc. Comments as for plastic shoes except that most of them are no use for wading in mud (they will get sucked off and you will probably never find them again). Old Trainers/cheap plimsolls A alternative to plastic shoes is an old pair of trainers or plimsolls which have become so scruffy that you don't mind using them in low tide mud. But plastic shoes are easier to wash clean and won't turn smelly after they have been left in the bilge a week or two. Knee length sailing boots. Most yacht crews seem to wear these. They are also quite good for dinghy sailing. Disadvantages are that sooner of later you will probably get water over the top and once that happens your feet will not stay much warmer than if you were just wearing jelly shoes. They are bulky to store on board. They often have very fine tread on the soles which collects fine grit which is hard to remove and scratches paint and varnish on your boat. For cold weather it would be best to have them large enough to wear with thick socks or to wear over a drysuit. Wellington boots I would be a bit anxious that these could make it hard to swim should that become necessary. If you want full height rubber boots for sailing then I think you would be better off with the lighter and more flexible 'yachtie boots' even though they cost a little more. The off-road tread and thick soles on agricultural style wellingtons are quite unnecessary for sailing. Calf length sailing boots. Comments are as for the knee length sailing boots, except that they are not so bulky in the boat but on the other hand you will probably get them full of water that much sooner! A wayfarer sailing dinghy runs aground in about 8 inches of water, this type of boot is only marginally high enough for that depth even in absolutely calm water. This type of boot often has lacing at the side with a thin rubber sealing flap. This makes them easier to get on and off than the knee length boots but my experience is that the sealing flaps can start to leak after a while. Neoprene boots These are often worn by windsurfers and they are also an option for dinghy sailing. They don't do anything much to keep your feet dry but they do quite a lot to keep them warm since the cellular neoprene material of the boot insulates even when wet. Some are available very cheaply (say £5 to £10) but these may be of rather thin neoprene and may have poor soles, the better ones do cost a bit more than that. They can be found in specialist windsurfing shops or possibly in diving shops. I have also seen cellular neoprene socks which can be worn inside the boots for extra insulation. How well you get on with this kind of footwear probably depends on how much you mind your feet being wet for long periods - after a while you may feel that your feet are starting to dissolve away but perhaps that is better than having them frozen solid, a matter of opinion though. Waterproof and breathable socks I tried a pair of these recently and from experience to date I am not sure that I can particularly recommend them. The material is Goretex or some comparable 'breathable' material. They are warm and comfy when dry but although the material is waterproof water soon came in over the top and after that had happened they seemed to take a very long time to dry out again. The manufacturer recommends washing them in fresh water after each use and that is not really practical when dinghy cruising.

So altogether there are a lot of options for dinghy cruising footwear none of which is perfect in all situations. For arduous conditions the best answer is probably to wear a drysuit with integral feet (rather than just ankle seals). If you wear warm socks inside the drysuit your feet should stay dry and at least fairly warm and you then just need some kind of outer foot wear to protect the drysuit foot material which is easily damaged. You can use yachting boots for this provided that they are a generous fit, although plastic shoes or even an old pair of trainers also seems to work well.



Most would agree that a reliable water proof torch (flashlight in the USA) should be kept aboard any cruising dinghy, even for what is intended only to be a day trip. Most dinghy cruisers do not intentionally sail at night but you can be delayed for all kinds of reasons and end up sailing in the dark, or at least fumbling to moor your boat or to put up a tent in the dark.

Navigation lights

Extract from the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at sea, Rule 25d.:

<font=-1>A sailing vessel of less than 7 metres in length shall, if practicable, exhibit the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) or (b) of this Rule, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.

A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this Rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.

Cruising dinghies are generally well under 7m length and I think most people would consider fixed navigation lights to be impracticable on this size and type of boat hence it is legal for a cruising dinghy to just carry a torch which can be used to draw attention to the presence of the dinghy if there is a risk of collision in the dark. If this is necessary I imagine that the best way would be to shine the beam straight at the boat which is on a collision course. (I have never had to do this myself) Shining the beam at your sails might be less likely to initially attract attention but could be used to make it clear that you are a small sailing boat once you have gained attention. In practice you can normally avoid getting into this situation since you can see larger vessels more easily than they can see you and hence you should be able to keep out of the way. I suppose the exception would be in fog when a large vessel may see you by radar when you cannot see it. The modern type of torch which has LEDs instead of a filiament bulb has much longer battery life than old style torches, but I am not sure that an LED torch would be as good as a filiament bulb torch if you ever need to shine a beam towards a ship to attract attention. LEDs do seem to give a rather more diffuse light than a filiament bulb combined with a good quality parabolic reflector.

Some dinghies do carry navigation lights although they are not legally required to do so. I imagine that it must be quite a complication and expense to fit lights, wiring and power supply and any such system is likely to be unreliable unless very well engineered.

Tent lights

A torch (flashlight in the US) with either LEDs or filiament bulb is not a very good way to light your tent for any length of time, you need something which has a less directional beam. For many years I used an old fashioned non-pressurised oil lamp for tent lighting. One filling of lamp oil lasts many hours and costs very little, much less than batteries for an electric lantern with filament bulb or gas cylinders for a gas lamp. You can buy lamp oil in some supermarkets and it is better than parafin since it is almost odourless.  You can buy aluminium screw top containers which will hold enough oil to last out an extended cruise. The light is not very bright but is just about adequate and better than a candle lantern which is another low tech. possibility. Oil lamps are pretty reliable but those made from 'tin plate' will fall apart from corrosion after a few years. You can get brass ones which last much longer, they come in two or three sizes and I chose the smallest size to save on stowage space. I used to hang this oil lamp from a fitting on the boom, sometimes it would swing about a bit but the important thing is that it cannot fall over.

I recently (2008) purchased an inexpensive electric lantern with LEDs from a camping shop and having used this for a few weekends and one week long holiday I dont think I will ever go back to using the oil light, even though I prefer the homely yellow glow you get from an oil lamp to the bluish light you get from the current 'white' LEDs. A small LED lantern drains its batteries much less than a lantern with a filiament bulb, the original batteries that came with my one are still fine after several weekends camping. The great advantage is that there is no oil to spill and it is robust enough to just be bundled in with all the other gear. Also no hunting around to find matches in the pitch dark, or wasting match after match trying to light an oil lamp in a breeze.

VHF Radio

I have deleted the section here on VHF radios because it has been pointed out to me that having been written in year 2000 it was out dated and could be misleading. I don't own a VHF radio myself, so I am not the best person to write about them. If/when I can get some advice from someone who knows about these matters I will re-instate this section.

Reefing Pegs

These are quite useful for general purpose tying up of loose objects as well as for reefing. For example they can be used to tie down spars to a trailer mast support or car roof rack or as sail ties. They are safer than the elasticised type of sail ties which have in the past caused serious eye injury. I don't think they are still manufactured so I think it is reasonable to include the diagram below for the benefit of anyone who wants them enough to be prepared to make their own using drill, saw and files. The material used for the original manufactured ones was a strong slightly bendy plastic about four millimetre (3/16") thickness. The bendyness helps when tieing round a small cylindrical object but a stiff material like Tufnol or even aluminium would probably also be suitable. Stockists of engineering grades of plastic may have off cuts.


The dimensions on the above diagram are in mm. All the edges of both the perimeter and the holes are rounded off. When you have made it thread a length of 5mm (or possibly 6mm) plaited polyester cord through the round hole and tie a stopper knot in one end, or carefully melt the end into a lump with a flame. To use the device you pass the cord one or more times round the objects you want to tie together, then tension it through the tapered hole before securing by making a twisted loop round the tapered end in the same way that you would take a locking turn on a mooring cleat. It will not come undone on its own but can be released more easily than a conventional knot.


I often find a pair of pliers useful on a dinghy. Pliers enormously augment the gripping power of the human hand and can be useful for all kinds of jobs such as freeing shackles or badly jammed up knots in ropes. A screw driver may be useful both for tightening screws and as a general purpose levering device. A sail makers needle and sailmakers thread together with a pair of scissors may be useful for maintenance of sails and tent. The needle can be stored in a small sealed container such as an old film canister, together with a little oil for preservation. I don't normally bother with other tools but some dinghy cruisers do take a much more comprehensive repair kit. I remember a DCA rally where one of the boats was holed in more than one place by drying out on a lumpy bit of foreshore. Spare pieces of plywood, screws, woodworking tools and a tube of mastic appeared and within an hour or so the boat was sailing again - very impressive but this kind of damage is pretty rare, or at least it should be.

Trailers and associated problems

When trailing your boat you probably should have a few trailer spares and tools in the car boot. Boat trailers are notoriously unreliable, amazingly so considering how simple they are compared to a car. The usual tyres used on boat trailers seem to last only a fraction of the mileage of car tyres and are prone to punctures so it is essential to carry a spare wheel for the trailer and a wrench to fit the wheel nuts. Your car jack may not work with the trailer in which case you need a second jack which could probably be a lightweight scissors jack. Trailer wheel bearings often fail, especially if they go in the sea when launching the boat, so you need a spare set of bearings or a complete spare hub unit which may not cost much more than just the bearings. I find some sea water gets into the outer end of the bearing housings each time the boat is launched and I drain this out straight away and add a bit of fresh water resistant grease, otherwise I doubt the bearings would last another journey. There are spring loaded grease reservoirs which fit onto the hubs to preserve the bearings and I have heard that these work well but I don't think they are available to suit the hubs on my trailer. Trailer lights are also prone to failure, on a couple of occasions I have made arrangements to meet up with other dinghy cruisers and when they have not appeared as expected it has turned out to be due to trailer lights failing. The last set of lights I purchased for my trailer was defective as supplied, some of the wires were simply not connected to internal screw terminals! Vibration combined with a bit of corrosion can cause wires to break close to terminations. I have also had trouble with poor connections at the standard plug and socket assembly between car and trailer. The most recent problem at this point was that a slight corrosion increased friction at the contacts such that the action of pushing the connectors together forced some of the brass contact sockets to slide back out of position, they being only weakly retained in a plastic moulding. This caused an intermittent fault which you could do without on a dark wet night. It seems that you need to be prepared to replace the trailer electrical components, the wheels and tyres and the tow hitch mechanism on a regular basis, perhaps every three years. The only good thing is that all these are fairly cheap items to replace, but I would like a bit better quality even if it costs a bit more.

My own equipment for trailing and launching is not ideal, although I have found ways round most of the problems. I don't have a launching trolley or a trailer winch so I immerse the trailer in the sea each time I launch the boat. I don't like getting the car too close to the water, especially on a soft foreshore, so I quite often use a 10mm dia anchor rope to link the trailer to the car for towing the boat out of the water. Even a small car can pull a lot harder than a human provided that the drive wheels are on firm ground. The jockey wheel on the trailer is very useful for this operation and means that with care the boat can be hauled out by one person driving the car, although it does make it easier to have a second person guiding the front end of the trailer. I have made small 'docking arms' to guide the boat onto the trailer and this is a big help especially in a cross current. I have also made aluminium mudguards to replace the manufactured steel ones which fell off due to corrosion. I am sure that a trailer with integral launch trolley would be better and would have saved some of the problems I have had with corrosion. But one feature of my trailer is quite handy and that is that the frame is a 'T' shape rather than an 'A' shape. That means that for parking the car after launching the boat the car and trailer will both fit into one standard car park space, the T shape of the trailer fitting along side the car with one trailer wheel near the middle of the car rear bumper. That can be useful in crowded waterside car parks. Maybe the ideal trailer would be T shaped with integral launch trolley, jockey wheel on the launch trolley and low level cross member between the wheels so that you can get it under the boat in shallow water.

Airbed Pumps

I have tried quite a variety of air bed pumps over the years, using them both for airbeds, for dinghy buoyancy bags and for small inflatable dinghies which can be useful as a tender for a cruising dinghy. Inflating these various articles is always a chore so I am always on the lookout for a faster pump. The pumps which are made as a moulded rubber dome seem to be about the slowest and those which look like a small concertina are not much better. The 'clamshell' type, like a miniature blacksmiths bellows seem to be a bit quicker. I had a large and small one of these and found the smaller one was the quickest since the large one had too weak a return spring hence the return stroke limited the speed. Eventually the clamshell pump fell apart because it had some components made from plated steel which corroded. I now have a double acting pump having a piston in a plastic cylinder and this is the fastest pump I have found so far. It was not particularly expensive (<£10) and takes up less storage space than the larger of the two clamshell pumps. The only slight problem was that although it was supplied with a couple of different nozzles they didn't fit both the air bed and dinghy but if you have a lath or know someone who does then you can make a custom nozzle quite easily. Indeed, years ago before I had a metal turning lath I did some crude turning using files on wood or plastic parts held on a bolt in an electric drill, some of the pulley block sheaves on my boat were made that way and it should work reasonably well for something like an airbed pump nozzle. Try to avoid the pump nozzle being a bottleneck in the system, i.e. a small nozzle should have the largest possible hole through. Here ends my treatise on air bed pumps!


This is definitely a non-essential, just a toy for the fun of it. However, I would point out that dinghy sailors and yachtsmen often refer to wind strengths using the Beaufort scale and I suspect that they often don't know what these numbers really mean out on the water. They think they know because they heard another yachtsman quote similar numbers in what seemed like similar conditions, and that other yachtsman heard another and so on - without some calibrated instrument somewhere along the line no one can really be sure and also does not the wind seem stronger on a cold day. Hence I purchased an anemometer so now I don't have to guess. It may be that after using the anemometer for a while I will be able to judge the wind well enough not to need it anymore. I looked at several hand held electronic anemometers in a chandlers shop and picked one with a watertight casing and which worked in a low wind speed, this can be checked by holding it while walking slowly and seeing how well the instrument responds.


Most dinghy cruisers sail within harbours and estuaries or within half a mile or so from the shore so do not need to plot a course on a chart or fix a position with multiple compass bearings, even if these were practical things to do on a small open boat. Most dinghy navigation is based on observation of ones surroundings and is perhaps better described as pilotage rather than navigation. For example you find that it quite often helps to be on the windward side of a river, then if the river turns towards the wind you may escape having to put in a tack, also if you run aground it will be easier to get free. You learn that when you turn a corner into a tributary creek you may hit a spit of mud that has formed where the water flows merge. A book which includes a lot of hints and amusing anecdotes relevant to this kind of navigation is 'Sailing Just for Fun' by Charles Stock. Over several decades Charles has covered many tens of thousands of miles of sailing mostly on the coastline of Essex, Suffolk and Kent, which is home waters for the HSC. Anyone who has done any amount of sailing in this area is likely to have come accross Charles Stock with his engineless green painted gaff rigged sloop which has a hull about the size of a Wayfarer, although it is a completely different kind of boat being much heavier and having a cabin. I believe that some years Charles has been out sailing in this boat every weekend, winter and summer. It is unlikely that anyone else alive would know these waters as well as he does. I can recall one Charles Stock anecdote myself. A few years ago Josephine and myself were crew members on a hired cruising yacht proceeding under power up the River Thurne in Norfolk under the command of a rather bossy female skipper. We were sitting on the foredeck to keep as far as possible from the yacht's command centre. As we rounded a bend we spotted Charles Stock in his little green boat tacking up the river ahead of us, so we waved to him but he did not seem to recognise us. Our yacht carried on under power then when we were right up to him we slowed down and followed breathing down his neck so to speak. I could see that Charles was getting quite annoyed because we were neither speeding up to pass him nor slowing down to fall back and give him space to tack freely. Our skipper was getting impatient too, and eventually she opened the throttle wide and went for it as Ellen MacArthur would say. We would have got past safely but then Charles tacked and our skipper panicked and put the engine astern again. A collision was imminent but Charles managed to avoid it by immediately tacking again, but now he had lost steerage way and his boat went straight into the reed beds along the river bank. Our engine gunned again and off we went up the river, leaving Charles stuck in the reeds and shouting something not very polite about people who hire sailing boats then drive them around under power. Josephine and myself were no longer waving but rather trying to duck down out of sight.

Although dinghy navigation is something you will mainly learn by doing rather than by reading there are a just a few things that you really should know before you go afloat in any boat, on saltwater at least. These include the rules of the road (ie who has right of way when boats are on a collision course), the basic IALA system of navigation marks and, in case you get caught out after dark, the basic lights shown by different vessels. These topics are well covered by books available from public libraries and of course plenty of sailing schools, adult education colleges and sailing clubs offer navigation courses following the RYA sylabus. The RYA approved courses cover more than is needed for dinghy cruising but I would not want to discourage anyone from taking such a course, apart from anything else I believe that they can be good social occasions for the winter months. But if you do not have time to take a course do not be discouraged, the essentials require only an hour or so reading.

For the kind of navigation we are discussing here, you don't need any expensive instruments but a small magnetic compass of the type used by hill walkers is so compact and inexpensive that it is worth having one aboard, then you will have some idea of the direction to head back to land if you get lost in fog or just heat haze.

Although some sailors may think this is heresy I would say that I find ordnance survey maps more useful than charts for most coastal and estuary dinghy cruising. Maps show all sorts of interesting and even useful information which is not on charts, e.g. location of pubs, phone boxes, footpaths, lanes and places of interest for exploring ashore. Much dinghy navigation is based on observation of the shore and good maps show details of the shoreline and adjacent landmarks more clearly than most charts. A good map will show tiny creeks and inlets where a dinghy may find shelter, these may not be quite so clear on charts which are produced with larger vessels in mind. Unfortunately maps do not give much information about the depth of water but this is less important for a dinghy than for a keel boat. It is also unfortunate that even large scale ordnance survey maps do not show navigation marks such as buoys but that does not mean that you cannot make use of such marks, the IALA buoyage system is standardised so that you can tell where a channel runs or which side to pass a danger point without needing to identify the marks on a chart. I suppose you really should have a full set of both charts and large scale shore maps but they are expensive and rightly or wrongly it is the charts rather than the maps which I tend to do without, not everyone would agree with this.

I started by making the point that most dinghy cruisers do not venture far from the shore but if you do make a passage out to sea, say across the English Channel, then you definitely do need charts. It is useful to include a chart with a small enough scale to show your whole passage without being unfolded to too huge a size. This will help you to see where you are in relation to your preferred destination point and also alternative destinations you may need to suit changing conditions. Plastic charts such as the Stanford series are excellent for use in an open boat. Water resistant ones, such as those from Imray, are better than normal paper but not nearly as good as plastic. If you only have paper charts consider covering them with clear adhesive film, they will then survive better but will not fold up neatly.

The Global Positioning System

The Global Positioning System has had a big impact on navigation by land, sea, and air. For a price starting at about uk £150 at the time of writing, you can buy a hand held waterproof unit which will reliably tell you your position to within something like 15 metres, or possibly better where various signal enhancements are available. In the context of sailboat navigation that means 'spot on'. A GPS unit usually offers functions additional to the basic position display, for example an accurate speed indication and a 'pointer' which can help you get from A to B a little more quickly by telling you the exact course to steer to counteract a cross current. A gps unit is particularly valuable in fog or darkness or if you sail out of sight of land but I would make the point that we used to manage fine without it, so if you don't want to get involved with this technology or can't afford it that does not mean you cannot go to sea.

I first purchased a GPS unit a little over a year ago. The unit I purchased is the Garmin 76 so my comments are based on this and since I have not used any other gps I cannot give advice on which is the best to buy. From what other people say they all provide the basic functions, so it is probably a matter of how much extra you want to pay for features such as a larger and clearer display (the Garmin 76 has a higher resolution display than the cheapest models), a built in magnetic compass, built in barometer etc. Also you can go for a unit which displays maps/charts, I can see that would be nice but it really puts the cost up a lot, not just for the instrument but also for the map data which you have to buy separately. I think I am right in saying that the basic accuracy is about the same for all models of GPS since this is ultimately dependant on the satellite system. One feature which I think is important for open boat use is that the instrument is fully waterproof but this does not narrow the choice much since most of the current hand held models do claim to be waterproof.

The Garmin 76 is totally waterproof and is thus be useable in conditions when a paper chart would probably be useless. The battery compartment is sealed from the inside of the unit but it is not fully sealed from outside. I think it needs to be that way since otherwise you could seal in water when changing the batteries. I often use rechargeable batteries and I have found that because the battery compartment is not sealed these get rusty when used in the Garmin gps, I don't know how rusty they can get before they don't work. If you use throw away batteries they would probably run down before they have time to rust. I have also had the unit stop operating because of poor contact between the batteries and the contact springs. This was a bit disconcerting the first time it happened but I have found that just rolling the batteries around in their compartment restore operation, I do wonder whether Garmin could do something to improve the reliability of these contacts though.

The Garmin 76 GPS is good ergonomically, the screen is high resolution and as large as you could reasonably expect on a hand held unit and you can operate all the buttons holding it in one hand, using the other hand to sail your boat. Garmin do make smaller GPS units than the 76 but for a marine application miniaturisation is probably less important than an easily read screen and easy to operate buttons. Although the 76 is reckoned to have better battery life than earlier units, if you run it continuously from the internal batteries on an extended cruise you would get through quite a few batteries so I normally switch on the GPS only as and when needed. The disadvantage of this is that you cannot then make use of some of the 'fun' functions such as the trip odometer, the calculation of average speed and the recording of a complete map of your route.

You can switch on a GPS at any time without any setting up in advance and after a wait of perhaps a minute or so you will get your position as a latitude and longitude, (or an alternative coordinate system such as the UK Ordnance Survey grid if you prefer). However, to get the most benefit from a GPS it is worthwhile using waypoints which does require a bit more advance thought. Waypoints are simply reference points which you enter into your gps so that the gps can tell you where you are relative to these points. Once you have waypoints set up the gps can tell you your position either numerically as a bearing and distance from any particular waypoint, or graphically as a map display showing your position together with nearby waypoints, or as a compass display telling you which way to steer to go to a particular waypoint. All this is much more immediately comprehensible information than long numbers representing latitude and longitude which are rather meaningless until you have plotted them on a chart, not an instant operation when steering a dinghy with the other hand! The waypoints you enter will often be points along a route you intend to follow but you can also set waypoints for alternative destinations, for hazards you particularly want to avoid or simply as reference points. It may be worth entering waypoints for the location of the compass rose(s) on your chart then you can read the bearing from this point on your GPS and plot your position relative to the chart compass rose.

If you are entering waypoints into a gps while actually afloat in a dinghy you will probably have to do it by estimating the positions from a paper chart and keying them into the GPS. This is the most tedious part of using a GPS and you need to do it a bit carefully since an error in one digit could send you astray. I certainly find it helps to have a chart with a reasonably spaced latitude and longitude grid  rather than just scales at the edges of the chart. Working from the scales at the edges of a chart is really awkward in an open boat since you will almost certainly need to work with the chart folded. If your chart only has scales at the edges, as is the case with the Stanfords charts I have, then I would recommend that you consider pencilling a grid onto the chart as part of your preparation for going cruising - it is much easier to do this on a large desk than working on the bottom boards of an open boat, I can say that having now done it in both situations.

Apart from keying in coordinates there are at least a couple of other ways to enter a waypoint into a gps. One is to press the 'Mark' button (it may have different names on different makes of GPS) which will cause your current position to become a new waypoint. It is always worth remembering to do this each time you leave a harbour entrance, then you immediately have that harbour entered as a waypoint should you need to go back to it for some reason. Another method to enter waypoints which is available on at least some units is to set the gps to the map display and use an on-screen cursor to set the waypoint position. This method can be used with the Garmin 76 but is really more appropriate to units which are capable of displaying a detailed chart.

Many modern gps units allow you to connect your computer to the gps and, amongst other things, this allows you to use your computer keyboard to type in waypoints prior to setting off cruising, or to back up the waypoint data stored in your gps. To do this you need an appropriate computer program  loaded on your computer and many such programs are available as free downloads from the internet. Some of these programs are amazingly complicated and, for example, allow you to scan paper maps into the computer then download your recent passage from the gps and display the map on screen with your passage superimposed. I had a go at this and I have to admit that I found it rather tedious and soon got fed up with it. If you just want to upload waypoints to your gps and download them to keep a backup I think you will find a simpler program less confusing to use, one such program is called 'Easy GPS' from TopoGrafix and it is freeware.

Modern GPS units usually do a little more than just tell you your position.  The extra functions usually include:

Speed. A GPS unit is also an excellent speedometer (ships log). Remember that it tells you speed relative to the earth and that if there is a tidal flow this is not the same as your speed through the surrounding water. Also note that the speed function of a GPS is not reliable while your course or speed is changing rapidly, so it wont give you a good speed indication while you are tacking or for a few seconds after you have tacked. The Garmin 76 allows the user to set an averaging time for the indicated speed, increasing this will improve the accuracy of the indicated speed when you are settled on a steady course but will also increase the time you have to wait for the speed reading to settle after any change in course or speed.

Speed made good. The Garmin 76 can tell you your speed made good in the direction from your present position to a pre-entered waypoint, generally the waypoint you are currently heading for. Remember that this is not the same information as speed made good to windward as indicated by sophisticated yacht instrument systems. Speed made good to windward would be a nice number to know but unfortunately a standard gps cannot tell you this number since it has no way to know the wind speed and direction. I did make one mildly interesting observation based on the speed made good figure from the gps. I was tacking against the tide down an estuary and I entered a waypoint positioned in the direction of the estuary mouth but a long way away, something like 100 miles distant. I then observed the speed made good to this waypoint as I tacked against the flooding tide, remembering that gps readings are rather meaningless for at least a few seconds after making each tack. It was quite clear that my speed was rising by about half a knot each time I headed into the shallow water at the edge of the estuary where the tidal flow was slacker and the gps did give me an idea of just how close I needed to sail to the shore to keep out of the worst of the foul tide.

Estimated time of arrival. I think that most modern gps units will give you an estimated time of arrival, based on the waypoint you have specified for the end of your passage and how fast you have been sailing since you left the waypoint you specified for the start of your passage. This is quite useful as long as you remember that it depends on your speed being consistent throughout the passage. For example, if the first part of your passage has been down tide and you know that the tide is going to turn against you need to make an appropriate, possibly large, correction to the ETA displayed by your gps. I do wonder just how the algorithm for estimating the ETA works. On one occasion we were making a fairly long passage at a steady speed and the gps was displaying a fail constant ETA, as one would expect. We then made a 360 degree turn to avoid another boat and that (perhaps justifiably) caused the gps to loose a lot of faith in our ability to steer a steady course with the result that it set back our ETA by what seemed like a rather disproportionate amount!

Tides The Garmin 76 has a function to display the state of the tide at your particular instantaneous position.  Although one can always estimate this information from tide tables it would be really nice to have the information available just by pressing a button. Unfortunately this function is disabled while you are in UK waters. Why is that? Apparently it is because the UK Hydrographic office claim copyright for UK tidal data and will not allow Garmin to program its gps units to display tide times for UK waters, hence uk taxpayers who fund the Hydrographic office will have to continue to work out tide times from soggy paper tide tables!

Clock. A GPS can display the time (usually as Greenwich Mean Time). The time displayed is based on data from one of the most accurate clocks ever made so you can certainly depend on it to set your watch.

Looking to the future, one can well imagine that GPS units with built in maps will improve and will become more affordable. It is likely that at some time, perhaps not far in the future, a hand held gps unit with a high clarity color display will become a viable replacement for paper charts and maps. This would be even more significant to open boat cruising than to yacht cruising since paper charts are more difficult to use on an open boat than on a yacht's chart table. It is not hard to imagine that an advanced gps unit could not only display a map but could also act as a pilot book giving textual and photographic information about harbours and other travel information such as bus and train timetables.

I did look at a couple of map equipped hand held gps units at a boat show and studied the map displays for the area of Essex which I know well. Based on these particular units, which may or may not have been equipped with the best available map data, I don't think that this technology is yet a substitute for detailed charts or ordnance survey maps. If say, you were sailing a yacht across the Thames estuary from Ramsgate to Burnham on Crouch the gps map of the whole Thames estuary would be quite adequate to guide you into the Whitaker channel and the entrance to the Crouch and the map on the gps would give you an immediate indication of your position relative to any nearby hazards such as sandbanks. If on the other hand you were exploring the Crouch and its tributary creeks in a sailing dinghy the map displayed on the gps would not help you much. For example, on the gps unit I looked at, the small creeks around Potton Island were shown all merged into one large lake.

If you do make long passages, say across the wide end of the English Channel, I think you will find GPS to be particularly useful. Indeed it works so well that it almost spoils the fun, it used to be quite interesting to find out how accurately, or inaccurately, you could find the way with just chart and compass. I even once had the excitement of landing on a foreign shore not knowing for certain where I was to within something like 20 or 30 miles either way, one could almost imagine being a real explorer. With GPS all that is in the past, navigation is no longer a matter of finding out where you are, it is simply a matter of deciding where you would like to go.

Cruise Planning

Here are a few notes on general strategy for planning a small boat cruise. All of this is fairly obvious, but perhaps worth saying even so.

Firstly it must be said that plans for dinghy cruising are more weather dependant than for almost any other kind of holiday or outdoor activity. For this reason there is an limit to how much advance planning is worthwhile. You can find out in advance about the area you intend to visit and if you like you can research options for places to go sightseeing but detailed planning has to be postponed until you have a reasonably dependable weather forecast, ie a day or so in advance at the most.

Although you can never be sure of the weather you can be sure about the tide. Tides are predictable years in advance so there is no reason not to look them up before you start your holiday and to note down the times of high and low water in a clear format that you will understand even when tired after a lot of sailing. If you have an internet connection, which presumably you must have if you are reading this, then this is the easiest and cheapest way to get tide data. There are web sites which give the tide data and also calculation programs which you can down load to your hard disc to predict this data. Some of these tidal prediction programs are available for download free of charge, others have a one off or an annual charge. Unfortunately, as of February 2002, none of the free of charge programs will give tidal predictions for the UK, although there appears to be coverage for most or all of the rest of the world. Free data for the UK was available prior to that date but it seems that the UK Hydrographic Office now considers that free of charge tidal prediction computer programs infringe their copyright and they have forced the providers of these programs to remove the UK data - what a nuisance! As far as I can tell, you now have to pay at least £10 per annum if you want a tidal prediction program. Alternatively you can download free data from the Hydrographic Office own website but only for 6 days ahead which is insufficient for longer term cruise planning. The other alternative are the published paper timetables which are generally available from chandlers shops on a year at a time basis.

As a general rule, the most suitable tide times for coastal dinghy cruising are when high water is in the morning and evening. This is because you usually want to sail up some estuary in the evening and to leave in the morning and it certainly helps to leave on the ebb and enter on the flood. Indeed, with any other than a good sailing breeze you may not be able to get in or out of some estuaries without a favourable tide. In our sailing area this is certainly true of the Ore and possibly also the Deben. Another strong point in favour of evening and morning high water times is that you can pick an overnight spot nearer to the high water mark and this will almost always mean less muddy access to the shore and the boat can dry out overnight. But because the tides get about forty minutes later each day you cannot have morning and evening tides for the whole of a weeks cruise. You need to make the best of the tides when the times are right and somehow work around them when they are not - this can mean sailing at 'unsociable hours'.

If you are sailing to explore an estuary in detail rather than to cover distance along the coast then the best tide times are generally the reverse of those needed for coastal cruising. For this purpose you need high water around mid day or perhaps early afternoon so that you have depth of water to get to the head of the creeks and can use the flood to get up river and the ebb back down.

People sometimes discuss whether it is better to plan a cruising holiday for a period of mainly neap tides or mainly spring tides. There are points in favour both ways so it probably doesn't mater a lot on balance. If you plan your sailing carefully you should have the benefit of favourable tidal stream for most of the distance you sail so if the tides are springs you will benefit from the tidal stream being up to about twice as fast as at neaps. On the other hand, if you have an unfavourable spring tide for even a small part of a passage and the wind is unfavourable or light your progress may well be completely stopped for a time whereas you might have been able to continue against the tide at neaps. The upper reaches of estuaries are often attractive places to visit and spring tides will give you more depth of water to get to the upper creeks and a bit more time to spend in some waterside pub at the head of an estuary. On the other hand spring tides mean sand banks extending further offshore at low water and more difficult conditions crossing a bar at the mouth of an estuary or passing through one of the several tide races around the UK coastline. Finally, if you are planning to camp on the shore rather than on board your boat then you may find that some of the spots you might choose to pitch a tent are actually underwater at high spring tide but not at high neap tide. You may then wake to find your airbed afloat inside your tent - don't laugh it has happened.

You may well feel that you would like to cover a good distance along the coast during a cruise of a week or more and if the weather happens to be good there is no harm in giving this a try. Assuming that you intend to sail back to your point of departure it makes sense to try to cover as much outward distance on the first day or two of a weeks cruise, then perhaps to have a day ashore for a change of scene before making a gradual return stopping off to explore some of the estuaries you skipped on the fast outward passage. The reason for this strategy is that there is usually some kind of deadline to get back so it is better to have time in hand towards the end of the trip and to achieve this it certainly helps to have made good progress earlier on. Of course the weather can easily mess up this kind of planning and if the worst comes to the worst you will need to leave the boat and return by public transport to the point where you left your trailer then pick up the boat. For a holiday beginning and ending at a weekend there is a good chance that this return by public transport will need to be on a final Sunday when public transport is not at its best. Do not underestimate the time it can take to travel say fifty miles or more by local Sunday buses across country, then drive back to where you left the boat, then get the boat onto the trailer and finally drive home. All this can make for a very exhausting last day to your holiday and is probably best spread over more than one day if you can foresee the need arising. Also, you need to make sure that you can actually tow your road trailer without a boat on it. Most boat trailer number plates and lights are fixed to the boat rather than the trailer so you need an alternative mounting on the trailer. This alternative mounting needs to be secure since vibration on an unloaded trailer is horrific, lashing the light board in place with string is probably not good enough - I know.

Assuming you are trailing your boat to a planned cruising area by road rather than starting with the boat at a permanent base it may make little difference to total driving time which end of your cruising area you launch at. In this situation it makes sense to pick the starting point which will give you a fair wind on the first day at least. For example, if you have decided to cruise between Poole and Portsmouth and the wind is in the South West on the first day of your holiday it would be pretty crazy to begin by road trailing your boat to Portsmouth. Starting from Poole will give you at least one day of fair wind, probably enough to get you to the west end of the Solent so you would be in more sheltered water if the weather the next day is not so favourable. Then who knows, maybe by the end of the week the wind will have had time to swing into the East.

Where to stop for the night

Unless you feel sure that the night will be calm it is best to find a really sheltered spot to anchor for sleeping aboard. If you anchor in an exposed position and the wind gets up you will probably get no sleep because the boat will be rocking about, the tent will probably be flapping and waves may be crashing against the hull. In an extreme situation your boat might even be capsized with the tent up and you inside which would not be very comfortable.

If you need to sleep on board the boat in a fairly large area of water such as a wide estuary or large lake then unless it is calm it is best to anchor near the windward shore, both for shelter from the wind and to reduce the distance (fetch) which is available for the waves to build up. It also helps to be in the lee of any shelter from the wind. Trees are particularly good in providing shelter and a tree lined creek will be comfortable in most weather conditions. It also helps to anchor where the boat will actually dry out for most or all of the night, that way you will not be disturbed by the motion of the boat. This is only possible when the tides are suitable, high tide in the morning and evening is ideal. Drying out overnight also needs a patch of sea bed free of rocks or anything else which might damage your boat. Prodding under the boat with an oar will reveal an obviously unsuitable seabed but could only too easily fail to detect a serious boat sinker such as an isolated boulder, an old anchor or mooring block etc.

For convenience and security it is hard to beat a marina berth. You get a sheltered place to tie up with walk on and off access to the shore and normally a floating pontoon so you don't need to think about the effect of tide on fenders and mooring lines. You also get the shoreside facilities of the marina which normally include showers and sometimes a launderette. For this reason alone you may like to stop at marinas at intervals during an extended cruise. Most marinas have a minimum charge which applies to a dinghy the same as to a small yacht. This is understandable since the same facilities are available to a dinghy as to a yacht. A few marinas have some cheap berths for small boats which don't mind drying out. If you are tied to a pontoon which dries at low tide check that your boat cannot be trapped under the edge of the pontoon when the tide rises again, this can happen to low freeboard dinghies. Marinas are not available in all areas (which is fortunate since much of our coastline is at risk from over development). Also, a marina does not always provide the most attractive views from your boat. It is more pleasant to wake up to a view of the sun rising over an estuary than the back end of a motor yacht in an adjacent berth. 

But what happens if your dinghy capsizes while you are cruising?

This is something we try to make sure will never happen but we do also need to think about what we would do if it did ever happen. The precautions which you can take to reduce the risk to a very low level include:

  • Plan your cruising with regard to the weather and weather forecasts. Obvious, but it does require some experience.

  • Reef early when the wind increases at sea and reef more than you would if you were in an estuary or river. Reefing can deal effectively with strong winds but unfortunately it does not reduce the height of the waves which those winds produce. A dinghy at sea is usually capsized by a combination of wind and waves rather than by the wind alone, hence reefing is not on its own a complete answer to the capsize problem.

  • Avoid areas where waves are steepening prior to breaking. Shallow waters at the bar of river mouths can be treacherous. Waves in these areas have capsized dinghies in weather conditions which would be no problem further out to sea where the waves may be higher but are also longer.

It is obvious from the above that weather forecasts are invaluable when dinghy cruising. Most cruising dinghies carry a simple portable radio receiver to get the forecast on radio 4. It is most unlikely that you will have a computer and internet connection on board your dinghy but the www is now an excellent way to check the forecast before leaving home. There are a number of web sites which display forecasts, meteorological maps and satellite pictures of weather systems.

If you are in a harbour or marina then you can usually read a weather forecast pinned up in the harbour master's office or the marina office. These days these are usually downloaded from the internet each morning and often include weather maps.

If you take up dinghy cruising it will not be long before you first encounter the dilemma as to whether or not to leave harbour in less than ideal conditions. As a rightly cautious newcomer you may feel that you should stay in harbour unless you are absolutely sure that the weather is fair and will stay that way. The problem is that you will then stay in harbour quite a lot and you will not learn much about the capabilities of yourself and your boat. You may well feel frustrated because you realise with hindsight that you could probably have sailed when you did not. You then get fed up because you have been stuck in the same harbour three nights in a row so the next morning you go out regardless and that could be the morning you really should have been ashore.

Perhaps the best suggestion is not to be overly timid about having a 'look outside' whilst being prepared to turn back without hesitation if conditions justify your anxiety. If testing the conditions in this way you need to think in advance about your possible early return. For example, will you be able to run back under jib or bare mast or could the return be more difficult than the departure? It may be hard to guess what conditions are like at sea whilst you are on a sheltered mooring up an estuary. It does no harm to reef and proceed cautiously towards the sea, getting the feel of how the boat handles as you progressively leave sheltered waters. But don't go any further than you know you can get back and if need be turn around at intervals to check what the conditions would be like going back - a beat is so different to a broad reach.

When coastal cruising it is good to always have in mind a plan to get back into sheltered water should conditions start to become difficult. This plan needs to be mentally updated as you progress along the coast. At any point the easiest harbour to reach is not necessarily the closest, it may be best to run downwind and/or down tide to shelter, perhaps under jib or even bare mast. When approaching a stretch of coast without shelter you specially need to think about whether or not to continue. An example from our Essex and Suffolk home waters is the stretch of coast between the Coln and Walton Backwaters, a distance of around 15 miles (depending on tide state). This stretch of coastline is mostly quite steep beaches frequented by holiday makers during the summer. It is not nearly as inhospitable as a rocky shoreline but it is certainly not an area to choose for an overnight stop. In windy weather the breakers on these beaches are likely to at least damage your boat. We know this for a fact since some years ago one of our Wayfarer dinghies was broken up by these breakers in the vicinity of Clacton. Hence on leaving the Coln astern heading North we pass a 'point of no return' somewhere around Clacton and then have to be prepared to sail the whole way to Walton at least. If the tide will be low on arrival at Walton then there is extra distance to sail to round the Pyfleet buoy marking the north east extremity of the shoals extending from Stone Point. In this case it may well be as easy to sail on another few miles to Harwich harbour.

There are several boat modifications that might be considered to improve the prospects for righting a boat after it has capsized, although most people do prefer to concentrate on prevention rather than cure. Many cruising Wayfarer dinghies now have a sheet of buoyant closed cell foam fitted into a pocket in the head of the mainsail to reduce the risk of complete inversion, it being much easier to right a boat from the 90 degree heel position than from completely upside down. This kind of sail buoyancy is beginning to spread to other makes of dinghy and I expect that most sailmakers could incorporate it in a custom sail if required to do so. One limitation of this approach is that it is only fully effective when the sail is not reefed. The conditions under which capsize is most likely to be a serious problem are just those conditions which may require the mainsail to be very deeply reefed, perhaps with the head of the sail well below the hounds or even lowered altogether for running under bare pole(s). But sail buoyancy is fairly inexpensive and could be useful in some capsize situations so perhaps we should consider it the next time we order new sails for our club owned Wayfarers. Another possibility is to have buoyancy fixed to the mast head. I have already mentioned the airship shaped buoyant shapes now seen on some small multihulls and just possibly these could also be relevant to single hulled dinghies. I don't know of anyone trying this, the problem may be that a single hulled dinghy is more sensitive to the addition of weight to the top of the mast than is a multihull since it has much lower initial stability. This is probably the reason that wing masts are not used on single hull dinghies. Another possibility is an inflatable masthead float which inflates automatically on contact with the sea. These are now manufactured by a German company, I think it is called Secumar. I understand that the mechanism is similar to that used on automatically inflating life jackets and it includes a small capsule of pressurised gas which is as used in refillable soda siphons. If the boat capsizes a fairly large air cushion rapidly inflates and will provide a high degree of resistance to turning completely upside down. I am not sure practical it is to deflate and 'rearm' the device while sailing. I think that after righting from a capsize you have the choice of either sailing on with the windage of a large balloon at the masthead or lowering it on a halyard in which case you are vulnerable until you can reset it and hoist it back again.

Another approach to capsize resistance is to add ballast, effectively converting the boat into a keelboat or at least a compromise somewhere between dinghy and keelboat. If starting with an existing dinghy rather than designing a new boat there may be rather limited possibilities for the addition of ballast in a low enough position to make much odds. The usual approach is to change from a wooden centreboard to one cut from steel plate and a few Wayfarers and similar boats have been modified in this way. But you cannot convert a boat like a Wayfarer into a proper keel boat just by fitting a metal plate. The weight of a metal plate thin enough to fit the standard centreboard slot is very much less than the keel weight of a typical small keelboat such as, for example, the Squib design. I realise that the Squib is a rather larger boat to start with, keel boats do tend to be larger than dinghies and there are fundamental reasons for this. Also the tapered shape of most dinghy centre plates means that the weight of the metal plate would be fairly high and less effective than the equivalent weight in a typical keelboat keel. Add to this the need for an effective centreboard lifting tackle and the problem of preventing the heavy plate crashing down into the hull should the boat be rolled beyond 90 degrees and you start to wonder whether the heavy plate is worth the trouble. It will certainly make the boat heavier to handle on shore and slightly impede performance in light winds. I do have a heavy lead ballasted centreboard in my own boat but the boat was designed to incorporate this from the start, it did add considerable complication and cost to the construction.

If despite all care being taken you do capsize then there is one rule which everyone seems to agree on - STAY WITH THE BOAT. Even if you cannot get the boat sailing again it is still recommended to keep with the boat in almost any conceivable circumstances since a person holding onto a capsized boat is far more visible to potential rescuers than an isolated person swimming in the sea.

To ensure compliance with the 'stay with the boat' rule some people advocate tying oneself to the boat with either a length of line or a purpose made safety harness. This does seem quite sensible for difficult conditions. Supposing for example you are helming and you slip overboard for some reason, for example the toe straps break or the boat rolls violently towards you. The boat may continue sailing for at least a few yards and then capsize leaving you separated from the boat. You are only yards from the boat but the boat will be drifting downwind and your swimming speed will be greatly restricted if you are wearing heavy clothing, hence you could be in serious trouble. In this situation a line linking you to the boat could be most useful. The only point against the use of such a line is the possibility that it could get tangled so restricting your maneuverability or even holding you underwater when the boat capsizes. The later possibility is horrific but it seems very unlikely and if you have a quick release hook on the line you should be able to get free.

One of the HSC dinghies did once capsize a couple of miles from shore. The crew made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to right it by which time they were too cold and too exhausted to do any more. They were not in a state to go diving under the boat to try to find the distress flares. Fortunately they were picked up by a passing yacht. The boat was eventually recovered as well. This dinghy was not easy to right after capsize and is no longer in the HSC fleet. I would like to think that this accident would not have happened to a Wayfarer which has better stability and is easier to recover after a capsize, but one cannot be too sure of this.