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Dinghy Safety And Etiquette

A dinghy boat securely tied up Photo credit: Mat Reding

Is there anything better than relaxing in your favourite anchorage? That is until someone drives their dinghy through the mooring field, throwing up a huge wake and rocking every boat in their path. Although there are no white lines to stay between, there’s still standardised rules regarding safe-conduct and etiquette when driving your dinghy.

Whether you’re going on a snorkeling adventure, loading up with provisions at the dock or visiting another yacht in the anchorage here are a few tips to ensure you have a safe and trouble-free time away from the mothership.

Safety Equipment For Dinghy Sailing

Many boaters are not aware that the US Coast Guard requires boats under 16 feet to be registered and must display the registration numbers on the hull. The Coast Guard also requires small vessels to carry essential safety equipment including a USCG approved life jacket for each passenger, flares, a fire extinguisher and a sound-producing device such as a horn or a whistle.

when running between sunset and sunrise dinghies that can travel at speeds of 7kts or more are required to display an all-round white light and red-and-green sidelights. Essential equipment, such as a bailer and a pair of oars, is not considered compulsory. However, most sailors will probably agree that these two safety items get used the most in a typical cruising dinghy.

If you use your dinghy for long-distance adventures, you should also consider carrying some extra safety gear. A compass or a handheld GPS, a small medical kit, a couple of bottles of water and an anchor are a good start. A VHF radio is often more useful than a cellular phone as it will work offshore or if you’re tucked in behind an island and out of sight of a cell tower.

If you are going to be covering some miles in your dinghy, it is a good idea to check the local weather forecast before heading out. It is also good practice to top up your fuel tank before setting out for the day or to carry an extra tank with you. As is recommended when heading out on any voyage, let someone know where you are headed and when you expect to be back.

Carrying a small tool kit that includes a spark plug and any special tools needed for your outboard brand will ensure you are covered in case of a breakdown. If there is any chance of being out after dark, throw a headlamp in the bag. This will not only make untying and getting into the dinghy is safer and more manageable, but it can also be used as a running light, allowing other vessels to see your dinghy while underway easily.

Regulations and requirements vary from state to state, so be sure to check local guidelines where you boat. When sailing in foreign countries, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the local safe boating requirements and laws for big and small vessels. Just like renting a car, you must respect the road rules in the country you are driving in.

How To Avoid Fatalities On A Dinghy

The kill switch, also known as the key for the outboard, is perhaps the most critical piece of safety equipment in the dinghy. Unfortunately, it is also the most overlooked.

Every outboard manufacturer varies the size and shape of their kill switch, but they all perform the same task. Typically attached to a bright red lanyard, the kill switch is designed to easily pull free from the outboard when the driver moves further away from the motor than the lanyard allows, i.e. If they fall overboard. Removing the kill switch immediately stops the engine, preventing both the dinghy from motoring away at top speed and anyone in the water from getting hurt by the still spinning propeller.

Every year in the United States hundreds of people are injured in boating-related accidents. Falling overboard and becoming stuck on the propeller leads to fatalities. These accidents can be prevented by using the kill switch lanyard as it is designed to be used.

Wearing the “pretty red bracelet” every time you are in the dinghy is a practice that should be adopted, regardless of how far you are going. Make a point to put the lanyard on before you start the engine. Although modern outboards shouldn’t start in gear, they can catch you off guard if they malfunction.

Some people complain that wearing the lanyard on the wrist inhibits their movement. If you find this true, try attaching it to your belt or wearing it around your ankle. You might not win any fashion awards, but you could save a life.

Good Practice On A Dinghy Boat

As we all know a busy anchorage with dinghies going to and from shore all day can make life onboard feel like you’re inside a washing machine. Respect the “No wake” rule to preserve peace in the anchorage, both in the anchorage and near shore.

It is often argued that a boat up on plane creates less wake, but few dinghies have a big enough engine to get up on plane within a few seconds. As such, the pressure wave created before the plane is reached is quite large. Add to that the huge stern wave that occurs when the dinghy suddenly comes off of the plane, and it hardly seems worth the fuel. Not to mention how quickly a few unnecessary dinghy wakes can turn a tranquil bay into a confused and uncomfortable anchorage. Travelling at a no-wake speed may mean it takes a few extra minutes to get where you are going.

If you need to anchor the dinghy while out exploring be mindful where you throw the hook. Look for patches of sand to set the anchor and be sure to avoid letting the rode or chain drape over delicate coral beds. Since a dinghy is usually anchored in shallow water, it is easy to look over the side to ensure your anchor is safely and adequately set.

When diving is a popular tourist attraction in a location, it is polite to check with the local dive operators if any spots are off-limits to the public or if fees are charged for anchoring, diving and snorkelling. This also applies to reefs and passes that are near resorts, and to tribal property. Fail to comply with local customs, and one day you might surface to find your dinghy floating on the distant horizon if you can find it at all.

Traffic By The Dinghy Dock

Dinghy docks are busy spots, especially during happy hours. Sometimes just getting close enough to drop off crew can be difficult. To prevent a pile-up at the dock, follow these simple suggestions.

To eliminate having bodies and belongings on the dock’s busiest part, politely ask the driver to drop off passengers further up the wharf, then tie up the boat at the designated area. The same rules also apply when loading provisions into the dinghy to take home.

Before tying up your tender at a busy dinghy dock pay out as much of the painter, or the bowline, as possible. This will allow the dinghy to float far away from the dock, giving other boats easy access to the dock when they are coming ashore. A painter that sinks can easily get snagged around a propeller, so it is advisable to choose a painter that floats and is brightly coloured. Instead of using a piece of an old sheet, try a nylon or dyneema line, such as those used for watersports towlines.

Most dinghy docks supply cleats for tying up, but it rarely seems that there is enough room for everyone. As well, tying a traditional figure-8 around the cleat limits the amount of boats that can use the cleat to tie up. However, securing a simple bowline through the eye means one cleat can serve 4 or 5 dinghies. It also means that other boaters can tie and untie without disturbing your line.

If all the cleats are being used you can tie to the dock itself, make sure you connect to something secure. If it is necessary to move or untie someone else’s line when you depart the dinghy dock always make sure you tie it back up securely, preferably where and how they tied it. Also, always leave your outboard down, so your propeller doesn’t mistakenly damage or puncture another dinghy.

It is incredibly impolite to crawl over another dinghy to reach the shore, but sometimes it cannot be avoided at very busy docks. If you must crawl over someone else’s dinghy, take your shoes off and wash your feet. There is nothing more maddening than coming back to a dinghy with muddy shoe prints on the canvas.

Visiting other Yachts at the Marina

When visiting another yacht in the anchorage, it is good etiquette to standoff, say hello and wait to be invited onboard. If you choose to come alongside and knock on the hull, be polite and only knock once or twice. If there is no response, the crew is either busy or does not want to be disturbed. Don’t ever stand in your dinghy and peer into the ports. Not only is it an invasion of personal privacy, but there’s a good chance that you’ll see a side of your sailing buddy that you wish you hadn’t.

Many a dinghy has slipped away unnoticed during dinner because it was tied improperly. This is why many sailors like to secure their dinghy themselves when visiting another boat in the anchorage. If this is your preference, explain to your hosts that you’ll be more relaxed if you tie up your dinghy, but always ask what they prefer you to tie to. If someone is hosting a large gathering on board, consider buddy boating with another guest. Fewer dinghies mean fewer obstacles to manoeuvre around, which could be especially important at the end of the night.

If you are the boat who is hosting, be sure to turn on a deck light as people depart. It is polite to offer to hold the painter, allowing your guests to have both hands free as they manoeuvre down the boarding ladder into their dinghy. But, make sure to wait until after they have the outboard started to cast off, just if there are any unforeseen mechanical issues.

Many people do not realize that voices carry much easier over water. Be mindful of talking loudly to your boatmates above the hum of the outboard. This is especially important at night when it is calm, and there is less background noise. A candid chat on the way home might just let your neighbours hear all your late-night secrets!

Sailors often refer to the dinghy as the family car, but many of us forget that they must drive responsibly. A sailboat with an outboard is considered a motorized vehicle. In most countries, including the US, allowable blood alcohol limits that apply to drivers on land also apply to boaters. BUI, or Boating Under the Influence, is a Federal Offence in the USA and carries the same penalties. Never let someone dinghy home drunk.

The high seas may seem like a wild place, but there are still laws that apply. When it comes to dinghy safety and etiquette, common sense is all you need. Being considerate of other boaters doesn’t take much extra time, but it will win you, friends, at the dock and in your favourite anchorage. Always wearing a kill switch lanyard, carrying some essential safety gear and displaying lights when running at night doesn’t take much extra effort, but it may save a life.

Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada and has lived and worked on boats worldwide. She has spent many hours in dinghies and finds the white-noise of an outboard rather relaxing. For the last decade she has been sailing onboard Kate, a Newport 41, she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought in California. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind, and you can follow their adventures at

Written by Heather Francis

Written by: Heather Francis

Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada. She has worked and lived on boats throughout the world since 2002. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought Kate, their Newport 41, in California and have been sailing her fulltime since. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind and you can follow their adventures at


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