Two intrepid cruisers set out to protect their precious dinghy from bumps, scrapes, and damaging UV rays. Here's how they did it.
So, your inflatable dinghy is looking tired, old, and worn, but it's still a good dinghy and not ready to be put out to pasture. Or maybe you've just bought a new dinghy and want it to last as long as possible. After all, it's the "family car." With regular maintenance and upkeep and many protective covers over the years, friends of ours have managed to keep their trusty inflatable for 27 years.
Although our inflatable was only five years old, scratches, nicks, patches, and unsightly glue were beginning to present a not-so-pretty appearance. A dinghy cover was in order. Obviously you can buy a premade cover, but Tom and I derive real satisfaction from the DIY process and try to do most boat jobs ourselves.
Feel Free, our 46-year-old Spencer 51, was on the hard in Guaymas, Mexico. With internet available to search "how to make your own dinghy cover," our trusty Singer sewing machine, and a bunch of other necessary tools, we gave it a try. We bought about 28 feet of 42-inch-wide gray outdoor fabric for our 10-foot dinghy with 42-inch beam to go with our newly painted gray boat. This was more than needed, but I wanted to make other items for the mothership, too. An amount twice the length of your dinghy is likely plenty, with some left over.
Difficulty: Moderate to advanced, depending on your sewing skills.
- Outdoor fabric that measures twice the length of your dinghy
- Large paper or other material (like old charts) for making a pattern
- Masking or duct tape
- Seam binding
- Heavy-duty UV-resistant thread
- 3/16-inch polyester or double-braided nylon line (2.5- to 3 feet of line for each foot length of dinghy)
- Sewing machine
- #18 heavy-duty machine needle
- Straight pins
- Fabric scissors
Time: It took us about 22 hours total.
Cost: Less than $200.
Step 1. Make a pattern
The first thing I learned was making a pattern or template exactly the size and shape you want the cover to be saves a lot of time in the end. You'll use the pattern to cut the fabric.
Any number of materials, such as old newspapers, brown wrapping paper, or a discarded or used plastic tarp, can be employed for the purpose. But Tom came up with the idea of using old nautical charts. (Sacrilege, I know.) The paper is sturdy, doesn’t tear easily, and molds well to the curves and shape of the dinghy.
As you mold the paper around the curves of your dinghy, use masking tape or duct tape to hold it in place. I made cutouts for the handholds and other openings exactly where they should be placed. Where the paper crossed the transom, I made a slit so it continued to drape over the tube, but I left the last bit of cone to work on later.
Step 2. Work in sections.
Once I was satisfied with the pattern, I divided it into five manageable sections using a marking pen, labeling each section carefully: bow, starboard 1, starboard 2, port 1, port 2, as well as "inside" and "outside" for each piece, and arrows where the pieces join together to help us to match them up later. This saved confusion when we were cutting the final pattern pieces.
Step 3. Lay the pattern on the fabric.
After removing the patterns from the dinghy, we turned them over and taped the reverse sides of the joints to ensure nothing shifted as we worked. With the individual pattern pieces laid out on a flat surface, we cut along the lines that we'd made earlier.Then, with the fabric laid out on the floor, we placed the patterns on top, being sure to lay them lengthwise or widthwise on the fabric and not diagonally, to avoid the stretch of the bias and leave room between pieces for seam allowances.
Tyvek paper, available from home stores, is perfect for making patterns. It's super strong and easy to cut with scissors and won't tear, even with rough handling.
Pins are the typical way to attach a pattern to material, but I found it much easier to use masking tape instead, around all the edges. Once the pattern pieces were firmly attached to the fabric, I added seam allowances along all edges — about 1/2 inch for seams and about 2 inches along outside and inside edges. I used a ruler and a pencil and drew them directly onto the fabric. Thus, each pattern piece was enlarged to allow for seams, hems, and drawstring pockets. The drawstring follows the outline of the inflatable – 25- to 30 feet is recommended for a 10-foot inflatable as there needs to be enough excess to allow for installation and tying to the transom. We used a 3/16-inch polyester line, but double braided nylon would work, too. Our inflatable has a protruding gunwale around the outer edge of the dinghy, providing a natural place for the drawstring.
Step 4. Cut the fabric.
To avoid confusion about which piece of material joins what, I used a pencil to lightly label each piece of fabric on the underside. At this stage, I didn't cut out the holes for handles and other fittings, as I wanted to trial fit first.
Step 5. Sew together.
Next, I sewed the sections together using heavy duty, UV-resistant thread and a heavyweight needle, size 18. When completed, I laid the cover on the dinghy for a preliminary fitting. If doing this solo, you'll need to determine how wide you want to make your inside hem and the outside hem that will be the drawstring pocket. For the outside hem, I found it much easier to sew the drawstring into the hem as I went along rather than threading it through later. With the majority of the sewing completed, I had another fitting to make sure all was well.
Step 6. Handles and D-rings
When everything was lined up, I marked the locations of all the openings for handles, D-rings, and so on, and made slits to pull them through. I used a pencil and ruler to mark the exact size and shape of each opening, and then I made the cuts.
I edged the openings with seam binding. I found the inside edge of the cover didn't quite fit the contour of the inflatable, requiring cuts to be made in the fabric on both the port and starboard sides. I then sewed gussets into those areas.
Step 7. Finishing touches.
Finally, I made a paper pattern for the two outer rounded cones, placed it on the fabric, and cut it in the same manner as I did for the cover. I added darts to make the fabric fit the compound shape of the cones. Finally, I sewed white webbing to the edges for a finishing touch.
To allow the inside of the cover to be tightened down and secured to small D-rings on the inside edge of the inflatable, I placed three grommets along the white webbing on both sides.
Once the cover was in place, Tom drilled a small hole into each side of the transom so the drawstring could be cinched tight and then pulled through the holes and secured on a small cleat on the inside of the transom.
Step 8. The finished project.
After a couple of days of work, our custom dinghy cover was done!