Gear Tests

The Search for a Suitable Sailing Tender

One of the all time favourite pursuits of a sea-going child is messing about in a boat. But not the big boat. No, if your seafaring youngster is under the age of twelve then handling the mothership will probably hold little allure for him; he (or she) simply won’t have the strength to manage the genoa or the patience to helm for more than half an hour on the same heading. Big boat sailing is actually quite boring for little children, which is why they need to find other amusements while you are on passage. But messing around in a kiddy-sized vessel is another matter. For the smallest sprats a rowing dinghy is all that is needed, but a sea-thing of six years or over is missing out in a big way if he doesn’t have his very own sailing ship.

Of course, children are not the only ones who enjoy pootling around the anchorage in a dinghy. We older salts like it too. A run ashore under sail is always far more satisfying than a quick buzz under outboard –  indeed, I feel that it is even therapeutic – and so this article also deals with the requirements of bigger folk. Essentially, we just need a bit more leg-room than the youngsters.

So far as liveaboard families are concerned, the most important criteria for a sailing dinghy is size. If the boat won’t fit on the deck, then it is absolutely useless. Cost, weight, and whether the thing will actually sail are completely irrelevant in the initial stage of our search. Thus, the first thing for a would-be dinghy-toter to do is to get “up top” and measure the available space.

Generally speaking, the maximum length for your dinghy will be equal to the distance between the main mast and the sprayhood, but don’t just leave it at that; you also need to know how beamy your boat can be. Having established that a Topper would fit between our mast and our companion hatch we duly acquired one – only to find that it overlapped the cabin hatches on either side. Likewise, if we only take into account the fore and aft measurement then we have enough room for a Mirror – and a Mirror is an ideal first command for a child – but it, too, would obstruct the hatches.

Dinghies don’t come much smaller than the Optimist, and this is certainly one of the most suitable boats for a cruising kid. Let us not be predjudiced by the fact that it looks like a shoe-box. It is easy to handle, seldom capsizes, and since it is ubiquitous throughout the world there is a good chance that your infant will have the opportunity to pit his wits against other small sailors. It is light, and so can be launched without too much hassle, and it also rows very well. Since any ship-board dinghy will also be required to serve as tender, this is an important consideration.
On the debit side, an Oppie is not the ideal craft for an adult – unless you like to sit huddled up with your nose near your knees.

The Topper is the best-known modern contender for the Optimist’s role as junior training boat. As we have seen, it is not really boat-topable, being slightly too big even for the decks of a 50 footer, and nor can it be rowed.

There is now a newer sail-training dinghy which might fit both your child’s requirements and your cabin roof.
Bearing in mind the performance of the rest of their fleet one would expect any vessel from the RS yard to be fairly racy – and the RS Tera Sport lives up to this expectation. When he saw the boat lying athwartships on our friends’ yacht, Caesar was quite excited. A real racing boat to play with, at last!

Unfortunately, this particular RS is not the boat for a hulking great 18 year old – and nor is it meant to be; it is only intended for sailors of up to 50 kilos in weight. The fact that it stows across the deck of our friends’ 50 foot yacht gives a pretty clear indication of its size – it is almost two feet shorter than the Topper – but although it is just a baby it shares at least one of the characteristics of its big sisters: it jolly well goes!

Well, actually, with Caesar aboard it didn’t really go very well… but the boat’s two young owners rocketed around the place and made the Oppies look fairly silly. Fin and Sam are only six and four years old, but already the older boy handles this boat very well and with the greatest of confidence. As a training vessel for small children the Tera therefore rates very highly. All concerned reckoned it much better than either the Optimist or the Topper.

As an all rounder, however, the Tera is pretty useless. It does come fitted with rowlock holes, and I am told that it rows quite well, but it does not look like the sort of craft which would accommodate a family of four plus a fortnight’s worth of shopping. Still, Fin and Sam’s mum and dad don’t mind; for trips ashore they use the rubber duck.

The RS Tera and the Optimist seem to cost about the same price new: around £1,000. Most liveaboard cruising folk are looking for something a little bit less costly, and whereas one can easily find a second-hand Oppie, the Tera is too new to be found at a bargain price.

Funnily enough, despite the obvious advantages, I have yet to come across a cruising yacht which carries a genuine Optimist. What one tends to see, on the cruising circuit, is tired old pram dinghies kitted out with an imitation Oppie rig. The boat in this next photo is even more rustic. Her spars are made from bamboo and she is steered with an oar. The jib, carried on a bamboo bowsprit, improves the boat’s handling. It even has a boom, so that the helmsman doesn’t have to play with the sheets when he tacks. This particular dinghy is not as stable as an Optimist – as Roxanne stepped aboard, to take the boat for a trial spin, her owner admitted that he had capsized on a couple of occasions. Mind you, although she goes well enough in a zephyr he prefers to take the boat out in a stiff breeze.

Other folks, with more time on their hands, sometimes like to build their own dinghy. The one shown in this next photo was constructed according to a set of plans which her owner downloaded, for free, from the internet. The blue sail looks remarkably like a cheap tarpaulin – and it is. It, too, was made according to a set of freebie plans.
I have sailed this boat and, to be honest, I was not terribly impressed with its performance. Whether it was the underwater shape which let her down, or whether the centreboard is too short or lacking in shape I cannot say, but the boat made a great deal of leeway. The local kids ran rings around me in their Oppies.
Still, a craft like this is very cheap to build, and its handling would not trouble an unspoilt child (ie. one who had not had the opportunity to play with something better). Certainly, it does not trouble our friend, Peter, who gets a lot of fun from his home-made toy.

When I was a small child, and my big brother wanted a boat of his own, my dad came up with a semi-DIY solution. Although perfectly capable of knocking up a dinghy, he apparently wasn’t in the mood at this time. Nor could he afford a Mirror or an Optimist – besides, he didn’t approve of those boxy boats. What he wanted, for his kids, was a Duckling.

A Duckling is a little hot-moulded dinghy with a bermudan main and jib. They were built by Fairey (who also built the Firefly, the Albacore, and various hot-moulded yachts). I doubt whether there are many Duckilngs still afloat today, and even in 1968 they were rare beasts. Unable to find one, Dad bought a slightly smaller hot-moulded dinghy, built by the same yard, and fitted her with a bermudan rig. My brother named her Dumpling.

Dumpling was easily cabin-topable. In fact she was specifically designed to fit on the deck of the Atalanta sailing yacht. 20 years on, we found that she also fitted snugly over the aft cabin roof of our 43ft ketch, Maamari, and thus she remained in the family until the day when she was swept from our decks in a Southern Ocean storm.

In the course of those 30 years of ownership we had a lot of fun with Dumpling – and so did the cruising kids who we happened to meet on our travels. That little boat was faster and much far more fun than an Oppie and she won every cruising-yotties’ sailing-tender regatta.
If anyone fancies the idea of going into production, and turning out a plastic version, drop me a line using the contact form. I still have the sails…

If space is the main criteria then the ideal sailing dinghy for a cruising yacht might be one which folds.
The folding boat most commonly seen aboard cruising yachts is made from thin white plastic and is known as a Banana. It stows along the guard rail, can be easily and very quickly assembled, and rows about as well as a scaled-up paper boat would row, with the sides continually flexing. Mind you, it’s so light that it still goes faster than a rubber dinghy. A similar version is known as the Porta-bote.

The manufacturers of the Banana sell a rather nice-looking lateen-style rig – reminiscent of the low-aspect lateen sail on a sunfish – but the only one which we have seen under sail was wearing a home made junk rig. All things considered – and bearing in mind that the boat’s only keel was a pair of diminutive leeboards – she went remarkably well.

A new Banana, complete with the rig, will set you back around £1600. Porta-botes are made in four sizes. The 10ft version costs around £1700 and the rig costs a further £900.

One thing to bear in mind if you are thinking of buying one of these origami boats is that it is well-nigh impossible to board them from the water. This makes them highly unsuitable for children, because when the water is warm children tend to spend as much time overboard as in their boat.
An exception might be the Stowaway K2. We have yet to meet one of these “in the flesh”, but the boat appears to be much more robust than the other folders; indeed, it looks rather like a Mirror. Unfortunately it also costs even more than a Mirror: a new K2 will set you back about £3000.

While we are thinking about folding boats we must not forget the world’s favourite inflatable sailing dinghies: the Tinker Tramp and the Tinker Traveller.
The Tramp is a nice little boat whose performance under oars is spoilt by its rowlocks. With a set of Avon rowlocks glued on in place of those silly little pin-type things it might actually go fairly well. The same, alas, cannot be said of the Traveller, which – in the humble opinion of both the Admiral and the Skipper – is an absolute dog to row. (The admiral is merely a wimp, but the skipper used to row for his school and has kept his rowing muscles in trim, so he has the right to broadcast this kind of opinion.)

Both boats sail surprisingly well – for a rubber duck. The Traveller is sufficiently big that it can accommodate three adults and two very small children under sail. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it can carry them in comfort, but we made a couple of fairly long journeys, hippo-hunting on the Rio Geba (in Guinea Bissau), with such a crew. It turns out that hippos have been known to attack and sink rubber dinghies… but fortunately we didn’t find any, so I cannot tell you whether the Traveller is up to that kind of treatment.
As for the Tinker Tramp – this is my mother’s all-time favourite sailing boat, being greatly preferred, by her, over Dad’s Wayfarer, 33ft Countess, Drascombe Longboat, Topper, etc, etc.

The Tramp is 9′ long and costs around £2900. The Traveller is 12′ and costs £3600. NOTE: Since the publication of this article Henshaw Marine have ceased production of both the Tinker and the Traveller – so second-hand dinghies will almost certainly now rocket in price…

As children get bigger they require more from their small command. A sixteen year old turns his nose up the idea of an Optimist, and one can see why. The average-sized sixteen year old looks pretty slly squatting under the boom in a kiddy’s boat. So, how can one provide a bigger, more suitable boat while the coachroof is still only ten foot long (or less)?
By cutting the boat in half!

The Mollymawks are now the proud owners of a Paul Johnson designed two-part dinghy. Since Johnson’s motherships are called Venus yachts I suppose that the baby of the family must be a cupid… but so far as I am aware their designer has not credited them with a name.

Our own “cupid” is called Tidely-Idely, and she stacks, with the bow snugged away inside the stern, under our main boom. We have been carrying her about with us for ten years but we have only just got round to fitting her with a centreboard, and we still have not found the time to make some suitable sails. With a lug main, a jib set on a bowsprit, and a mizzen to balance the jib, this little boat ought to go like the wind… but in the meantime we fool around with an old Mirror mainsail loosely tied to a windsurfer mast.

Eminently boat-topable, fast under oars and (if we get things right) under sail, too, this boat is big enough to carry the five of us (and the dog) in comfort. Moreover, she has great ultimate stability and, being constructed of foam, is virtually unsinkable.

Clearly, this big little boat deserves more than a passing reference, and we hope, in the very near future to tell you more about her design and her designer. In the meantime, we’ll just say that, even with her current insufficient rig, Tidely-Idely gets our vote as the best all-rounder in our search for the ideal liveaboard cruiser’s sailing dinghy.

Many thanks to Peter, Andre, Vincent, Fin and Sam, and the Las Palmas municipal sailing school for letting us loose in their dinghies.


  1. Very fun read…you took me back to memories of dingy sailing that I didn’t even know I had.

    The photo of Tidely-Idely coming in under sail laden with jerry cans is a good one! The utilitarian style makes me forget about some of the little sailing kayaks/outriggers that are just for fun. Faster to build too 😉

    I’m glad I found your site. Excellent content and a superior layout as well!

  2. Margaretha Burnett

    Very fun article, indeed your whole website is a great read. However, what’s the point of a gear test, if there is no way to access the recommended gear? I assume these are no longer made? If they are still made, have you been able to find a link/ cost?

    1. Hullo Margaretha,

      There are links, throughout the article, to all of the production dinghies mentioned; so I guess you must be talking about our two-part dinghy, Tidely-Idely.
      At the time when we wrote the article we hoped to persuade Johnson to make the plans available – via this website, if necessary – but he’s a funny old stick. (I can say that without fear of offending him, partly because he knows he is, and partly because he still resides in the pre-chip era and resolutely refuses to learn how to surf the net.)

      Since the plans for this particular dinghy are not available there didn’t seem much point in writing the in-depth review which was promised at the end of the Sailing Tender feature. However, Johnson’s dinghy is not unique – so there is still hope!
      In the course of the past year we have come across two home-made two-part dinghies. One was a very unstable creature with a superficial resemblance to Tidely-Idely, and the other was a standard pram which had been sawn in two. All you need to do, if you want to follow this course, is to ensure in advance that one half of the dinghy will fit neatly over the other. Not only must it be bigger; it must also be completely empty. The dagger-board case, the mast step and any buoyancy tank will all have to go in the slightly smaller half.

      If the idea of sawing a dinghy in half does not appeal, then you might be interested in this link:
      Please note that this is not a recommendation – we have absolutely no experience of these boats – but they all look lovely, and when it comes to dinghies, what looks right usually is right.

      The pram looks as if she would sail or row really nicely – but she isn’t cheap: prices seem to start at £1,250 for the basic GRP hull, without a centrboard box fitted. If you want a foam-core hull (like Tidely‘s) add another £850. If you want to sail her then, for the daggerboard and the complete lugs’l rig, you need to add a further £1,120, it seems.

      The three part dinghy is particularly neat, but I think I would certainly want to try one out before I parted with £2,450. Again, that’s just the price of the hull. The rig, together with the lee-boards will set you back another £1,350.
      I can’t find any mention of how she gets along undersail; and I would guess that, without a proper centrboard, she makes a lot of leeway.

      So far as I can discover, the manufacturers don’t sell plans for the pram, but you can build your own three-part dinghy (or Trio, as it is called) :
      If you like the idea of building a Trio yourself, there is also the option to buy the plans for construction in cedar strip – plans are £57 plus postage.

      Perhaps this would be your best option, Margaretha, as the cost of shipping a completed hull from England to Canada doesn’t bear thinking about.

      This three-part boat is actually the same length as our two-part Tidely Idely – which has inspired us to dream of one day building an even bigger three-part boat…………


      The latest record for load carrying in Tidely-Idely is three crew, one medium-sized dog, two tubs containing eight freshly washed diving wetsuits, and 325 litres / kilos / over a quarter of a ton of fresh water (in 13 jerrycans). Freeboard was reduced to 5cm / 2″ – so this is definitely NOT RECOMMENDED!

  3. Please take a few minutes and look at the we build a beautiful sailing tender in 7,8 and 9′ models. The Fatty Knees is strong, stable and a kick to sail. She has great load carring abilities and on top of all that is easy on the eye.

    1. Ditto on Dave’s comment. I just bought a 7′ Fatty Knees with the sail rig. It’s easy to hoist onto the foredeck by myself (using the jib halyard and a boat hook) and I’m sure will be the perfect little boat to introduce my 1 1/2 year-old to sailing …maybe in a few more months.

      A lot of people seem to want to go super cheap when they buy the one thing that they use the most (a dinghy) and end up stacking some ugly unwieldy box (or multiple boxes) on the cabin top. I had a 8′ Livingston that carried a lot of load and is really stable but …no sail and it’s super heavy so my wife could not drag it up anywhere by herself. The Fatty Knees is perfect: rows well, glides along easily when sailing, is very light and looks more pretty than any of my neighbor’s tenders. 🙂

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