March 16, 2010

When it comes to choosing a dinghy, try one made in Maine

— Ask a hundred boaters what they would consider the ideal dinghy, and you'll probably hear a hundred answers. The beauty, utility and fun factor of a dinghy are clearly in the eye of the beholder.

A dinghy, or tender, is a vital piece of equipment for cruising Maine's coast. Since most coastal cruising boats hang on moorings or anchors instead of sitting in marina slips, a dinghy provides that all-important link to shore or to other boats. It's also fun to take a harbor tour or sail around the anchorage.

Most boaters have a pretty good idea of what they look for in a dinghy. Everyone has a preference on stability, weight, durability, propulsion method, capacity for passengers and gear, stowability, ease of towing and/or aesthetics.

But is there really one ideal dinghy? Can one small boat actually do it all, and do it well? The answer depends on who you talk to, but one thing is certain: In these parts, we are blessed with a broad range of dinghies to choose from.

There are a number of companies right here in Maine that build small boats suitable as tenders; each has its own qualities and followers. Here are a couple of examples from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Bay of Maine Boats in Kennebunk (www.bayofmaine

boats.com) offers four small craft: the 8-foot Kennebunkport Pram, the 10-foot Kittery Point Tender, the 12-foot Arundel Yacht Tender, and the 14-foot Piscataqua Wherry. Sandy Severance describes their offerings succinctly.

''They're, beautiful, stable boats with traditional lines but many modern features,'' she says. ''They're easy to carry and can take lots of cargo, but have the classic look that many people find appealing.''

All four models have fiberglass hulls, hand-laid by experienced Maine craftsmen, with flotation sealed into compartments in the bow and stern. Bronze oarlocks, spruce oars, and solid wood seats and gunwales complement the boats' traditional lines.

The Arundel Yacht Tender, the newest of the four, is rated for a 7.5-horsepower outboard motor, while the other three are rated for 2 horsepower. I've seen a few of these tenders around Casco Bay and am hard-pressed to find a better combination of beauty and utility.

Prices for Bay of Maine basic rowboats start at $3,960 for the Kennebunkport Pram to $6,243 for the Piscataqua Wherry. Sailing versions of the same boats run from $6,125 to $8,881.

While words like ''beautiful and traditional'' are often used to describe the Bay of Maine boats, another Maine-built boat is more aptly described as ''cute and funky.'' The Portland Pudgy (www.portlandpudgy.com) is better known for its utility than its looks.

''It's a fun boat that could save your life,'' says Portland Pudgy Founder and President Dave Hulbert.

The Pudgy, made of rugged polyethylene, is impact- and puncture-resistant. Its high buoyancy makes it unsinkable, and even if it does overturn (which Hulbert says takes lots of effort) the Pudgy will float on its side. Once righted, the self-bailing cockpit is empty. The Pudgy can be propelled with oars, a sail or an outboard.

It also comes with a canopy, so it can be used as a lifeboat. Hulbert notes that some Alaskan fishermen are using the Pudgy for that very purpose.

''There's no better compliment than to have the Coast Guard in Alaska approve it for use as a lifeboat,'' he says. ''There's no water more wicked than what you see in Alaska.''

Standard features on the Pudgy include a compass, towing bridle, five storage/access hatches with gaskets, collapsible oars, and double roller wheels for moving it around on land. The Portland Pudgy is just under 8 feet long, 53 inches wide, and is U.S. Coast Guard-approved for four occupants.

It comes in four colors -- from the more sedate warm white or dark green to more vibrant hues of red or sunset yellow.

The price tag on the Pudgy is $2,195 for the basic boat. The sailing package is an additional $895, and a broad range of other accessories are available.

Along with the boats described above, there's a broad range of both hard-shell tenders (from companies like Dyer, Puffin, Walker Bay) and inflatables (built by Avon, Caribe and Zodiac, among others) to choose from.

Our first tender was a little 8-foot fiberglass lapstrake rowboat. While she scored a 10 for beauty, her stability and cargo capacity were less than optimal and we gave her up. Today, Rita P can be seen with any of three dinghies: a Boston Whaler Squall, a Grub Tub sailing dinghy, or a Zodiac inflatable. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, but none can do it all.

Perhaps we just haven't yet found the perfect dinghy, or maybe we simply can't make up our minds about which features we like best.

Gail Rice of Freeport and her husband, Randy, race and cruise their Pearson 30 sloop on Casco Bay. Reach her at:

gnrice@yahoo.com

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