Handbook for Caribbean Cruising

Volume 1: Eastern Caribbean

Dinghies & Dinghy Docks

Dinghies and Dinghy Docks

Your dinghy is your car.  This is the only means you have available to explore the beautiful places you visit, meet fellow cruisers, bring groceries, water and fuel to your vessel and to get ashore.  Think of a dinghy as your lifeline to the world.  If you get into that mindset then you will understand that you need to make a significant investment in your dinghy.  Significant investment?  What does that mean?

That means that you must purchase a dinghy that can adequately transport your groceries as well as yourself and crew in one trip from shore back to your boat in windy and choppy conditions.  Roll-away dinghies, fold up dinghies, and small sailing dinghies are not good investments for transportation.  You need to purchase a rigid bottom inflatable dinghy with a powerful engine.  The most common dinghy in the Caribbean is a Caribe, AB or Avon of 9-10 feet in length, hard bottom, with a 15 HP two stroke Yamaha engine.  Buy one of these and you will be a happy and safe sailor.

I know, back in the states the greenies are screaming about pollution and the two stroke engines.  Here in the Caribbean a four stroke engine is like a lunar probe – very rare indeed, except on a Mega Yacht or for an under 8 HP engine.  The four stroke engines are not cruiser friendly because of their excessive weight.  Just try to put one on your rail and if your back survives your rail won’t!  Service of four stroke engines in the Caribbean is non-existent.  You will have to stick to the tried and true two stroke engine if you want to survive down here.

The debate on a favorite brand of dinghy is endless.  Just make sure you get a dinghy that is 9-10 feet in length and is made of hypathlon.  Only hypathlon can survive in the Caribbean climate.

When fitting out your dinghy make sure to include oars, a stout dinghy anchor with plenty of chain and rode and a robust locking system.  Stories abound in the Caribbean of the sailors whose engine suddenly dies and they are found drifting days later far out at sea because they had neither anchor nor oars.  Don’t let that happen to you! 

The best locking system is either a 5/16” stainless steel chain or a kryptonite cable with a good lock.  The chain or cable needs to secure the engine, gas tank and dinghy together so that none are left unsecured.  Make sure to have plenty of length with the chain or cable to attach to the dock.

Lights on your dinghy are also essential when operating after sunset.  A simple flashlight is minimal equipment but at least it is something.  Never operate your dinghy without a light after dark.  The consequences are often fatal.  A true example is the 59 year old charterer and his wife who were motoring to the dock aboard their dinghy in Gustavia Harbor, St. Barths in February 2006.  A Mega Yacht tender that was operating at excessive speed in the harbor hit this unlit dinghy head-on, after dark.  The cruiser died instantly from the collision and his wife received serious injuries and was evacuated to the hospital in St. Martin.  Use your lights!

Dinghy security is a significant problem in the Caribbean.  The tropical airwaves abound with tales of stolen or lost dinghies.  When you go ashore in the Caribbean with your dinghy, Lock It Or Lose It!  Locking your dinghy is mandatory so get used to it.  Never leave your dinghy unlocked at a dock or at night.  NEVER.  At night you must haul your dinghy out of the water or lock it to your boat.  Don’t become a topic of the cruiser’s net the next morning by losing your dinghy!

Dinghy Docks

The search for a dinghy dock is endless in the Caribbean.  When you stumble upon a good one is it akin to finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  That is how important a dinghy dock is to a cruiser.  There are only a handful of good dinghy docks down here.  Most of the time, as a cruiser, you are relegated to tie your dinghy to some dilapidated rusting relic they call a dock.  This is unfortunate.  A good dinghy dock brings business to the community.  All you have to do is look at the best dinghy docks and you will see this.

The St. Maarten Yacht Club’s Spinnaker Bar has a great dinghy dock right at their doorstep.  They also have the most popular happy hour for cruisers on the island because of this!  It is not rocket science that this occurs.

The best dinghy dock in the Caribbean is in Falmouth Harbor at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina.  The dock is reached by going under a walkway into a totally protected rectangular area that has beautiful places to tie and secure your dinghy.  The gentle step onto the dock from your dinghy is well crafted and designed.  Because you must go under a walkway to enter the dinghy dock area, most Mega Yacht tenders are excluded because they cannot fit.  This makes the docking area even more spectacular!  All types of shops and restaurants border the dinghy dock area and are a convenient few steps away.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

The worst dinghy dock in the Caribbean?  There is not one but several.  Martin’s Marina in Grenada is the most unfriendly dinghy dock in the entire Caribbean because they prohibit you from even touching their dock to land a dinghy (why is it even there?).  The commercial dock in Portsmouth, Dominica where you must tie up to clear customs is a dirty, horrible place to leave a dinghy.  The dinghy place (it cannot even be called a dinghy dock because it is so bad) at Woburn in Grenada is not even suitable for landing a dinghy but that is where access to the local bus is located.  I will leave it up to you to add to this very long list!