There's been a lot written about how to tow dinghies. But in my opinion it's best to not tow them if you can avoid it. Here are some reasons why.
Sometimes it's necessary to tow dinghies. This may have to do with the size of the mother ship and other factors. Sometimes the short distances involved, protected waters and calm weather mean that you will want to do this. If you must do it, the best method will depend on your rig and how and where you're traveling. Reading about the experiences of others and recommendations from manufacturers helps. But I always try to avoid it.
Your mother ship is often compromised in its ability to maneuver if you tow. For example, if you have to back up and hold position waiting for a bridge the dinghy will be in the way. It may even be pushed under water, or its rode could wrap around your prop. A floating line helps, but this isn't foolproof given the suction that may be present as your prop turns and you maneuver. If you need to dock, towing a dinghy can drag you to the side because of wind or current, it can hinder your reverse capabilities. Also, it can blow between you and the dock if the wind is astern, possibly damaging the dinghy and creating havoc in general. There are many problems with maneuvering when you tow.
Strain On Inflatable Dinghies
Most inflatable dinghies have a towing ring glued to the bow. While this connection can be pretty tough in well-made inflatables, it takes a lot of abuse during towing and may fail. Some inflatable dinghies have towing rings glued to the sides just aft the bow. This enables you to rig a harness with a line from each ring, meeting another line going to your boat. The harness should be able to slip in the end of the rode to the boat in order to keep the strain on the lines somewhat equal and hopefully keep the tender behaving in line astern. But these two lines running from the rings on the side will often chafe against the dinghy sides. Even if they seem to have clearance away from the sides, a little bit of yaw back and forth can cause the lines(s) to chafe. All it takes is some wind on your beam to cause the dinghy to follow a little to one side or the other, really setting up chafe. Leading lines from eyes in the wood or plastic transom, to run under the tender and out through the nose ring can cause chafe on the bottom of the tender. Also, these lines can suddenly become loose, for example, during rough wave action or a wake, and jump out over the dinghy, entrapping it, causing capsize or causing other problems.
Problems With Hard Dinghies
Typically a hard dinghy will have a (hopefully) robust towing ring, fastened well, in its bow. This can avoid chafe on that dinghy, but the problems of maneuvering are just as severe if not more so. A hard dinghy crunching into your stern or another part of the mother ship during maneuvering can do a lot of damage both to it and the mother ship. But you may not even need to be maneuvering to have a collision with your dinghy.
Many times we've seen both inflatables and hard dinghies, while being towed in following seas and winds, surf down the waves and actually overtake the towing vessel. Frequently when this happens they collide violently with that vessel. Sometimes the collisions are even more violent when the towing line snaps tight. The line may be "shortened" by its drag through the water as the dinghy is pulling ahead of the mother ship. Then the dinghy may be pulled into the side of the towing vessel. Obviously an inflatable will probably cause less damage, but it can still cause some. A hard dinghy can really cause harm. One might say that a long towing line is needed for this situation, and usually long towing lines in open waters are helpful. But even long lines may not prevent this from becoming a problem if the following seas and wind are strong enough.
Towing a dinghy of any kind is asking for water to come aboard. It can do this from boarding seas, from your wake or other wakes and from rain. At roughly 8 pounds per gallon, it doesn't take much for water to add a huge weight in that dinghy. This can break a towing line, pull towing rings or eyes from the dinghy and even possibly damage the cleats on your boat. Perhaps even worse, it can cause the dinghy to become unstable, possibly broaching or flipping. We all know that weather is famous for changing its mind, and this can be disastrous for your towed dinghy. Some prefer to leave the transom drain plug out in inflatables, knowing that they're not going to be sinking from incoming water. This leaves an escape for water coming aboard as long as you're under way at sufficient speed. But it also leads to other problems, like forgetting to put the plug back in or losing it overboard.
Maybe you wouldn't expect to have your dinghy affected much by wind. After all, it's very low in the water. But it's also relatively light compared to the mother ship. It's far more likely to become propelled by waves into partial flight and then picked up or strongly buffeted by wind ... particularly as it's being towed. You'll see this fairly often in squalls and severe storms. Dinghies can even be flipped in strong winds. Imagine having this happen when you're out in open water, or even in inshore waters. Depending on the circumstances, you may have to cut it loose or leave it there, hoping for the best, which is usually the worst. I once looked in amazement at one of my small dinghies, being towed far back on its rode in a storm. It left the water altogether, streaming out astern on the end of its line, and begin turning like a propeller behind my boat, twisting and twisting the rode. It finally landed back in the water ... upside down, of course. There was nothing I could do during the storm to deal with the situation. I was very lucky I didn't lose the dinghy.
Whenever you tow your dinghy it's very important to keep an eye on it, the more the better. But there are times when this isn't possible. The first is, as you'd expect, at night. Sure, you can shine a light back there and although this is better than nothing, it this isn't going to show a lot of what could be going on. And often on night passages it's a risk and a hassle going out on deck where you may need to be to do that. We've heard many a call from boats on passage, saying that their dinghy went missing during the night. The odds of finding it are very slim and there are many things that could cause this, the most likely being a parted line. When you've suddenly lost your dinghy your life has changed. You can't get ashore — not even to buy a new one — unless you're at a marina where you may have to pay handsomely.
Another time that you can lose sight of the tender is during bad weather. This can be fog, rain and whiteouts. The latter is extremely hard rain that essentially blinds you. Usually it's driven by very strong winds which make matters worse, not only for your vision but also for that dinghy struggling back there, perhaps turning flips in the wind. Of course you're probably not going to be able to help or recover a dinghy in these conditions, but you might be able to do something if you could see.
From visible dinghies we go to highly visible dinghies. I call them trolling bait dinghies. I don't mean that we fish from them. What I mean is that if your yacht comes cruising into a harbor with that nice dinghy astern ... particularly if there's an outboard motor aboard, it's prime bait to attract all the sharks ashore. In many harbors, indeed I should say most, there are people are waiting to snatch your dinghy. Often they'll leave the dinghy on the shore and cut the motor off. It's easier to sell the motor. So they're enjoying the view of the water and making their choices. The el-primo dinghies are harder to see stored somewhere on board.
But When You Must...
So I've said a lot here about why it's better to not tow your dinghy. However sometimes we simply must. Also sometimes the conditions are such that most of what I've said is moot. A short tow across a protected harbor in good weather is but one example. We've towed our dinghy on many occasions and we have inflatables and a hard aluminum dinghy. There are even special rigs for towing a dinghy. These can be helpful on boats that don't have the room or equipment to bring them aboard. The idea here is not that you simply can't do it. And there are plenty of articles written on the best ways to do it. But in my view, it's better to avoid it if you can.
Tom's Tips About Dinghy Towing
- If you need or want to do it, consider buying equipment especially made for the job. You can find some of this by googling "boat dinghy towing" and similar terms.
- West Marine sells equipment for this. Be sure these products are well made, well designed and strong enough.
- But also be sure your dinghy is up to the job. Towing can be much more stressful on it that just running along with an outboard.