Trailer-sailers can be stored at home, may not need a motor and can provide cosy accommodation with clever use of a boat tent

Increasing numbers of boat owners are seeing the merits of dinghy cruising and day sailing, if the continued growth in membership of the Dinghy Cruising Association (DCA) is anything to go by.

The same is happening in Normandy and Brittany with the beautifully designed François Vivier sail and oar boats leading the charge.

In fact the sail and oar movement is growing all across Europe and across the pond in the USA too.

Cruising dinghies offer certain advantages over heavier boats.

They can be towed to different coastal and inland waters, they can be kept in good condition at home avoiding marina charges, they may not need a motor and with the clever use of boat tents they can offer cosy accommodation for a night or two.

A cruising dinghy with a red sail

John Keogh’s Drascombe Dabber heads down Lough Ree during the 2012 Lakelands & Inland Waterways Ireland Sailing Raid. Credit: Nic Compton/Alamy

Perhaps more importantly to me they look nice and are of a size where I can enjoy fettling and keeping things shipshape.

It all depends what you intend to use the boat for.

If you intend to go regular Channel hopping or further then you’ll be better off with a cruiser.

But if you like messing around the coast, beaching here and there, visiting pubs and avoiding marinas or using tenders then there is a lot to be said for a good cruising dinghy.

Benefits of cruising dinghies

The DCA means different things to different people.

Frank Dye was an early member (number four) and he famously sailed his Wayfarer dinghy from Scotland to Norway and Iceland. He also sailed her along the East Coast of North America.

But that’s not for me. I saw enough of the North Atlantic with Canadian Pacific Steamships to last a lifetime so I’m content and more than happy with an epic voyage from Itchenor to East Head at Chichester.

In fact I like a pub to be no more than two hours away.

A Smack's boat with a white hull and white sails

Clive’s first Smack’s boat

My sailing chum Maurice introduced me to the DCA and I’ve been to a few of their rallies.

They are always well-organised events where members do their own thing and take full responsibility for themselves, coming together now and then or in the evening for a natter and a meal.

But for most of the year members just sail outside of any events.

There is much innovation within the association with members building craft that are just not available to purchase new.

There’s one UK member who built and sails a US-designed Paradox with cabin and deck and another who has modified a Mirror dinghy and regularly sails her from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, pulling up on any convenient creek.

Dinghy discrepancy

Dinghy is a loose term when it comes to size. My largest dinghy was a Drascombe Lugger at 18.75ft (5.72m) and my smallest is an Emsworth Lugger at just 9ft 3in (2.82m). Both are very seaworthy boats.

The Drascombe Longboat is 21ft 9in (6.63m). These are open boats and one tends to think of dinghies as open boats but not all are.

The word dinghy is derived from the Bombay ‘dinghey’ which was a small boat propelled by paddles and sail. It was a name also given to the small boats used on the Hoogly.

The term was adopted to describe a small extra boat carried on a British ship. I suppose a ship’s lifeboat is a type of big dinghy.

Certainly the old sail and oar type were just large versions of my Smack’s boat.

Which reminds me of a reason why I’m not so keen on the North Atlantic (see photo below).

Continues below…

Intended use

What makes a good cruising dinghy is largely down to its intended use. I’m now lightweight and when I sail alone my little Emsworth Lugger is fine.

She’s a superb little sea boat that copes with a fair amount of chop for her size and tends to look after herself whatever I do.

Just a few weeks ago when on a run from Hayling Island I got too relaxed and let the balanced lug sail get forward of the mast.

Over she started to go to the gunwales until I just let everything go and she immediately sorted herself out and saved me from a dunking.

It’s attributes like this that make a good cruising dinghy.

A Wayfarer sailing upriver to Wareham from Poole. Credit: Sailpics/Alamy

A Wayfarer sailing upriver to Wareham from Poole. Credit: Sailpics/Alamy

If I want to take a passenger then I’d use the Smack’s Boat or something larger like a Drascombe Dabber or Lugger.

You really need a dry boat for dinghy cruising and for this reason I avoid scows.

I’ve owned three of these lovely boats but in a chop they have an annoying habit of scooping water over the lee side gunwale so I personally don’t see them as ideal cruising dinghies.

The weight of the crew has some significance when choosing a dinghy for cruising because you might use it as human ballast.

A light person will not be able to keep a more powerful boat under control or get the best out of her.

But this is not so important when sailing in the larger scale boats such as the Drascombe Dabbers and Luggers where the location of human ballast is not so critical.

The wreck of a lifeboat on the Canadian Pacific cargo liner Beaverash. We had two such lifeboats. A large wave crushed the port boat in its davits and also shot down the funnel, soaking the engineers. Of course the ship’s boat would probably have been fine if it was afloat – maybe just capsized

The wreck of a lifeboat on the Canadian Pacific cargo liner Beaverash. We had two such lifeboats. A large wave crushed the port boat in its davits and also shot down the funnel, soaking the engineers. Of course the ship’s boat would probably have been fine if it was afloat – maybe just capsized

The rig of a cruising dinghy needs to be simple because they’re towed to different grounds and you don’t want to spend much time on rigging the boat.

Also, it helps if the mast and spars fit inside the hull.

The Smack’s boat and Emsworth Lugger only take a few minutes to rig – a simple balanced lug sail and a mast with no shrouds or forestay.

The Drascombe Dabber and Lugger are also easy to rig although two masts, bumpkin, bowsprit and shrouds/forestay on the main mast take a little time.

I found my excellent Cornish Cormorant a little difficult to rig since the mast is fairly heavy and needs to be balanced as it is raised high to get it into a hole through the foredeck.

Also, the gaff rig requires both peak and throat halyards.

Another excellent boat is the 12ft Tideway. But this took time to rig with its halyards, shrouds and forestays.

It was great when I was able to leave her rigged for a few days. Stepping a long mast on a Wayfarer can be a struggle.

Dinghy cruising: manoeuvrability

Finally, trailing, launching and recovering needs to be easy.

Combination trolley/trailers are great for keeping road bearings dry and I use one on my lighter boats. They can be used on the beach or a slipway.

But for heavier boats I use a road trailer with a swing back or swinging cradle and launch from slipways only.

There’s no point in skimping on the trailer. I’ve done so in the past and spent many hours at the roadside as a consequence.

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