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Love My Tender

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An inflatable tender can make cruising more fun, but it’s important to choose the right one. Here are some tips.

Mike Smith | Soundings Magazine

Boating is often better with a tender, a jack-of-all-trades dinghy that serves as a gofer for the mothership. But there are dozens of high-quality dinghies from reputable manufacturers, so how do you choose the best one? I consulted several experts for advice. First thing they all asked was, “How are you going to use it?”

That’s easy: Everyone uses their tender in much the same way—to ferry guests and crew from anchor to beach or dock, to take the garbage ashore and bring groceries aboard, to explore a new harbor, to scrub the waterline, maybe just to ride around. Any tender must be able to handle these chores; finding the one that fits your boat the best can be complicated.

Do you want a hard dinghy, an inflatable, or a RIB? Traditionalists might choose a hard dinghy—they row better than inflatables, look more “boaty” and many can be fitted with a sailing rig. The classic hard dinghy is the Dyer Dhow. It’s 9-feet 1-inch long, weighs 104 pounds in the rowing version and can carry 650 pounds. Folks wanting a solid tender will be hard-pressed to find something better. However, hard dinghies don’t carry built-in fendering, they’re not as stable and don’t have the payload of a same-size inflatable. For instance, an 8-foot, 10-inch long Coastal Inflatable Model W-CBA 8.10, which is a few inches shorter than the Dhow, has a max capacity of 992 pounds, is almost impossible to capsize, can bounce against the mothership for hours with no damage, and can be rolled up for stowage. No davits are required.

Then there are RIBs—or Rigid Inflatable Boats—that combine inflatable side tubes with a fiberglass or aluminum V-bottom. The hard bottom provides steadier footing and a smoother ride and permits the use of a bigger outboard. There are often built-in stowage lockers for the gas tank, anchor and necessary gear. RIBs, however, can’t be rolled-up for stowage, and size for size they’re heavier than inflatables: For example, Highfield’s roll-up 320 KAM with an inflatable floor is 10-feet, 6-inches long and weighs 79 pounds, while the builder’s 10-foot, 3-inch Ultralight 310 aluminum RIB tips the scale at 110 pounds. Most skippers choosing RIB tenders have a mechanical means of handling them—davits, a boom or crane, maybe even a submersible stern platform—so the extra weight isn’t an issue. When it comes to tenders, RIBs are the first choice of many experienced cruisers.

How big should the tender be? According to the experts I consulted, the most popular tenders sold worldwide are between roughly 10 and 11 feet long; and they are primarily tiller-steered RIBs with either aluminum or fiberglass hulls. (Aluminum is lighter and more durable, but fiberglass is easier to repair.) Tiller steering is simple, inexpensive and leaves more room in the tender for people and gear. Consoles are fine in larger tenders, and kids have more fun racing around in them, but for utilitarian use many experts say to stick with the tiller. Zodiac’s aluminum-hulled 9-foot, 11-inch Cadet 300 RIB Alu, a very popular model, can handle five passengers, and weighs just 95 pounds.

STOW RATHER THAN TOW

How are you going to stow your tender? When you’re not using it, your tender has to live somewhere onboard your boat, either hanging on davits, resting in chocks, lashed down on deck or on the stern platform, slid into a garage or deflated and stowed below in its bag. Towing the tender everywhere isn’t a good plan; it’s okay for an afternoon of mooching around at low speed, but you need the means to bring it aboard. Before shopping for a tender, figure this out. If you’ll stow it on stern davits, measure your boat’s beam at the transom; the tender must be shorter than that, including the outboard. You don’t want any part sticking out beyond the boat’s beam. Consider the tender’s weight, too. This might be a good time to consult with an expert before buying the tender and the expensive gear to handle it.

Highfield Boats offers an FT option, a fold-in transom, for its Classic 310 and 340 aluminum RIBs that moves the tipped-up outboard farther into the tender, so the motor’s lower unit doesn’t extend beyond the RIB’s tubes. This doesn’t affect davit stowage, but boaters with aft garages will appreciate it as a tipped-up motor takes up valuable garage space, and removing the motor is a pain. Reducing length can help when keeping the boat in chocks on deck, too, or on the stern platform. With the FT option, just fold in the transom and the boat’s not any longer with the motor mounted than it is with it removed.

Frequently, the best tender is a roll-up model you can stow in a bag. Pick one with an inflatable “air floor” or a hard floor comprised of aluminum panels, and an inflatable keel that provides a more efficient underwater shape. Again, consider the weight: Zodiac’s air-floored 10-foot, 2-inch Cadet 310 Aero weighs 85 pounds while the 310 Alu, the same boat but with an aluminum floor, weighs 119 pounds. The Aero will be much easier to haul on board. Air floors are more comfortable to kneel on, but are susceptible to sharp objects, like a dinghy anchor. An aluminum-floor boat is stiffer than an air floor, important if you want to use a bigger motor.

WHAT MATERIAL IS BEST?

High-quality inflatables are built with either Hypalon or PVC tubes. Hypalon is a composite fabric consisting of a polyester base and a synthetic rubber exterior (CSM, or chlorosulfonated polyethylene), with a layer of neoprene in between. It’s manufactured by several companies. Orca is the choice of many builders. Hypalon/CSM is strong, durable and resistant to abrasion, chemicals, fuel and, most important for boats in the tropics, UV rays.

PVC is less expensive than Hypalon, more airtight and lighter, but susceptible to sun damage if not protected. However, it’s fine in northern climates without harsh UV rays. Seams should be welded, not glued—all quality PVC inflatables have welded seams, but some cheap models use glue. (Hypalon seams are always glued, however.) Lots of companies make PVC, but not all brands are created equal. Mehler Valmex PVC, made in Germany, is a good one. Generally, you can rely on the reputation of the bigger name manufacturers but check the PVC from a lesser-known company. A high-quality PVC inflatable will give many years of service in the right climate, weigh less than Hypalon and cost less, too.

Highfield has also teamed with Flux to build the Highfield/Flux 660, slated for introduction in June of this year. With a 100-hp equivalent electric outboard, it’ll run for an hour at top speed (about 30 mph), two hours or more at cruise (22 mph) and much longer at typical harbor speeds. It recharges overnight on 240-volt shore power, or in an hour with an optional DC fast charger. At 21 feet and 3,400 pounds the Highfield/Flux 660 is a big tender, but smaller RIBs with this technology are scheduled for 2025.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue.

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