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Choosing a Tender

If you have a keelboat or any larger boat you have most likely come to the conclusion that you also need a tender. Deciding what kind of tender to get is not a simple choice and many factors need to be considered. If you can answer these questions then you will have a good idea of the perfect tender for you.

What is the MAIN use of your Tender? What are the secondary functions?

No boat can do everything perfectly. The best you can do is decide what the main job of the tender is and compromise on the secondary uses.

My tender's main purpose is to get me and my mostly day sailing stuff safely from shore to my moored keelboat in relatively protected water. Wind and waves can build up some though.

I might have one or two passengers and I might be carrying some supplies. A secondary use for the tender will definitely be to toodle around the boat club just for fun.

Where is your tender going to live?

People keep tenders and dinghies in many places. My club has a tender rack where the boats stand on end and are taken out when required. We use a dolly to bring the tender to the water. Some tenders have small wheels. The image shows a wide range of boat styles, from wood prams to fiberglass dinghies and inflatables.

Many tenders are kept tied to a dock or moored near shore with a line to pull it to shore. In these cases the tender needs to be protected form rubbing or from constantly being in the water.

inflatable tender deflated and folded.

Some tenders are folding or inflatable that can be compressed and stored in the trunk of a car or a locker, or in a boat.

Although compact a folded inflatable is by no means necessarily light (some are quite heavy) and quick to deploy.

Some tenders live on deck of their big boats, or are suspended from the stern or side by davits.

Where your tender will be kept has implications on best weight, ease of launch, toughness and theft appeal.

UV degradation can be a serious problem for some materials. PVC boats are sensitive to UV as is epoxy and uncovered wood. Polyester fiberglass and polyethylene are very resistant.

How do you get your tender to the water.

wheels on a tender

Most tenders will live on land and have to be moved to the water each time. This means that the dinghy has to be light enough to be dragged, or put on a boat dolly usually by one person. Many tenders have built-in wheels as the home-made pram to the left. Over the years there have been a few models where the oars make handles and the wheel allows the dinghy to be used as a wheelbarrow. The Barrow Boat Co. in the UK is an example

If the surface is hard then wheels can be quite small. If the surface is sandy then the wheels need to be more balloon like.

Weight (including any attached motor, gas, or battery) is a factor if you have to move your boat long distances.

Are kids going to be launching the dinghy?

If the tender is to be kept on board then how is it going to be launched safely? Since a live aboard tender will possibly double as an emergency boat, then ease of launch under difficult conditions is important.

How is the tender going to be powered?

Traditionally most tenders have been capable of being moved by oar. Inflatables are not much fun to row and often are fitted with a smallish engine or an electric trolling motor.

Tenders often have small sailing rigs which allows them to double as a sailing dinghy.

If you plan to use your dinghy mainly with oars then choose a boat that is comfortable rowing, with enough space for your legs, and wide and high enough to allow the hands to move properly without bumping on your knees. If the width is too narrow then rowing is not comfortable or pleasant. This is often a problem with boats that have several rowing positions to allow for more passengers. The rowing seat becomes so narrow as it moves to the front or back of the boat that balancing the oars is impossible and hands have to be crossed to row. Prams with their wide sides have an advantage over double ended boats.

If your boat is to be used in areas of high wind or current then sufficient power needs to be available. Or the boat needs to be good under oar.

Inflatables are notoriously poor rowboats and are often fitted with terrible little short oars that makes it even harder to use.

If you plan to row your tender then it should track well and a small skeg is helpful.

If you plan to power the tender then care should be taken to select a boat that can handle a motor. Often motorboats have wider sterns to support the motor, gas can, battery and the person driving it. They also often have a smooth bottom with little keel or skeg. Powers better but does not row or tow very well.

Will your tender be towed behind your big boat?

apple pie tender being towed.

If your tender is to be towed then special care should be taken. The boat needs to track well and follow the big boat easily without bumping and weaving around. It should have a small skeg at the back. It's not helpful to have a keel at the front because this will catch waves and make the bow unpredictable.

Here is a link to my apple pie launch. It has a video of it being rowed and one of it being towed under power.

You don't want a boat that goes nose under as soon as it hits a wave. This can happen to flat nosed prams. If you want to tow a pram then make sure it has enough rocker to keep the bow high and not allow it to plow under. My apple pie is a pram but it is stellar under tow. She keeps her nose high, tracks beautifully and does not take in water.

A bow that is not too sharp helps prevent a dinghy from catching a wave, while a stern with a skeg helps the tender to track properly. It is also helpful to have some flat on the bottom if you are going to tow because it helps it plane.

If you plan to tow your tender make sure the attachment of the towline is solid and won't pull out. It is surprising that the attachment height of the ring is not all that critical. As soon as the boat starts mooving it will often point its nose upwards if it has enough line.

If you tow a tender you will notice a small decrease in speed. Some tenders are easier to tow than others. This is not only a function of the weight but of how well behaved a tender is. I have found that inflatables are a bit heavier on the tow than similar weight dinghies with better shape. Since inflatables don't usually have much of a keel or skeg they tend to wander back and forth when towed.

If you plan to tow a dinghy which has a daggerboard slot, water will sometimes come in through the slot at higher speeds. A plug might be required.

Does the tender moonlight as all purpose boat?

Tenders are often asked to take on the duties of sailing dinghy, exploring rowboat, maintenance platform, fishing boat or swimming toy. Whatever you ask make sure the dinghy is suitable. Larger dinghies are more versatile and often safer than tiny boats.

The usual safety rules apply to a tender if it's going to be used as a sailboat in its spare time.

What conditions will the tender be used in?

Factors such as wind, strong current, chop, big waves, crowded harbours, cement ramps, sand beaches, rocky shores, freezing weather, will all have to be recognized.

Large waves mean that the boat might need more freeboard. More freeboard means better capacity but at the cost of more windage. Big waves mean that the dinghy will be bouncing around more and there should be padding along the gunwales to prevent damage to the tender and to the mother-ship.

If conditions will be potentially difficult then safety becomes more critical flotation compartments are not a luxury.

If conditions are often difficult then the tender should be chosen to make it easy to step in and out onto a moving boat or high dock. My tender has a daggerboard case that has turned out to be quite useless for sailing BUT superb for stepping on to get into my quite high keelboat.

If your tender is also to be a lifeboat, special care should be taken to make sure it is suitable and properly set up to be a useful emergency craft. Will it be easy to haul up on board when not in use.

Because tenders are small, balance is often critical and getting in and out can be difficult. This is one reason that the ever so stable inflatable is so popular. Prams with their wide flattish bottoms are also often more stable.

User's physical condition, and skill.

A style of tender can be a perfect boat for one person and be a disaster for another. Personal strength, comfort level, endurance, and skills are all important. The weight, size or flexibility of the user is also to be considered.

If your sweety is terrified of getting into your tender because it is small and tippy, you are not likely to get her (or him) out sailing with you.

Have you had an injury that stops you from happily rowing? Are you strong enough to wrangle a tender from a rack and drag it to the water and launch it? Put yourself in the equation when you evaluate a boat. At the end of a sailing day, will you have the strength to get back to shore in wind or current?

Are the kids going to be using it?

Will you be able to maintain your tender? If not who will?

What is your preference in tenders.

Maybe this should be the first question. Do you love inflatables. Is the Cousteau Zodiak look the in thing at your club? Are you a wooden boat fanatic? Do you have a 300 year unbroken tradition of using Scandinavian prams? Do you want to build your tender? Does it have to be drop dead gorgeous, or is price paramount?

Do you despise the yearly maintenance of boats and demand low maintenance? Do you love plastic and fiberglass?

Does having a special tender make a difference to you. Are you a boat snob? is your partner? Will you be selling it eventually? Does your club demand a certain standard. These are all considerations that could shape your decision.

What are the Choices.

In the next page I describe and compare different styles of tenders and look at some of the choices.

email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine