A Tender Subject

Getting By In The Caribbean Without A Dinghy

Have you ever dropped out the bottom of your car? As in, have you at one moment been pulling up outside your home and the next found yourself sitting on the road beneath? Albeit still in the drivers seat and within the realms of the vehicle, but having fallen through the bottom nonetheless? I have. Only the car was an inflatable dinghy and home a small sailing boat anchored off the Grenadine island of Bequia.

Of course, in my scenario I ended up in the water. Having stood up at the bow of our little tender to tie us on to Blue Eye – our Nicholson 32 we’ve brought all the way over from England – the soft flooring came all too easily apart from the inflated tubes, and it was only an instinctive pirouette that prevented me dropping right the way through in a Jack Sparrow-esque escape.

There is never a good time to fall through the bottom of your dinghy. Especially not for frugal sailors like ourselves who will go to great lengths to avoid marina fees, stubbornly anchoring in all manner of wind and swell. As such, a dinghy is our only way of accessing the exotic lands we are sitting along the coast of. At least the only dry way.

They are, however, astoundingly expensive new, and painfully rare second-hand. Having been suspicious the days of our 2.6 metre Bombard were numbered, we had long been keeping an eye out for a replacement on our way through the Canary Islands, the Cape Verdes and the Eastern Caribbean. Repeatedly, however, we found ourselves one step behind, always meeting cruisers who had just sold one on the cheap or, to our dismay, even given one away. When I went through the floor it appeared our luck had fallen through too.

However, it so happened that several weeks of fortuitous events lay ahead in which we managed – in one way or another – to get by without our own means of reaching the shore.

Mainly, we came to rely on our nautical network to help us. We had a friend in Union Island who owned a boat and happily fetched us from the anchorage each day, and another in Grenada who was so generous as to lend us his tender for the time we were there. Come Bonaire, we got lucky again as we moored next to friends we had made in Antigua, who could kindly shuttle us around too. In fact, we were becoming quite accustomed to the taxied lifestyle.

That is not to say we hadn’t been making efforts to find a replacement for the pathetic pile of PVC that now sat dejected on Blue Eye’s foredeck. Fixing it, we had decided, was beyond us. In fact it was ‘fixing it’ that had led to this situation in the first place, as we had ourselves ripped off the entire floor in order to re-glue the PVC together, thus putting a stop to what was at the time only a modest water intake. It so happened that the morning ride ashore to clear customs and immigration in Bequia, which falls under St. Vincent sovereignty, was the first run out for our newly ‘fixed’ tender, and, as we know now, also it’s last. Another $90 for some pricey PVC adhesive and a day of toil and sweat was not in the least appealing, especially when the likeliest outcome would be more wet-footed pirouetting the next time I stood up at the bow. The heat and humidity of the Caribbean, by the way, have been convenient scapegoats for our lack of success.

In Union Island, then, we heard rumours a man called Lambie had a second-hand one for sale, and so we went in search of him. Lambie, it transpired, was a very large West Indian man with an ability to simultaneously shovel an entire flock of deep-fried chickens into his mouth, all the while scolding potential customers for trying to negotiate a price.

The dinghy – incidentally in far from good shape itself – had allegedly been shipped down from Miami and customs had charged him a fee of such immensity that violins could be heard playing in the background. Given this, his asking price of 1800 Eastern Caribbean Dollars (about £575) was very reasonable, so he insisted, as bits of chicken sprayed everywhere.

But Union is just a stones throw away from the postcard-perfect Tobago Cays, where many a dinghy has been known to go ‘missing’ overnight. Harbouring doubts about his narrative, and uninterested in an inflated price for an inflated dinghy that was unlikely to have ever seen the likes of Miami, we continued on. Admittedly, though, none of this was expressed out loud for fear of meeting the same grisly fate as the chickens on his plate.

Still dinghy-less, at times we had to resort to hailing water taxis if they were available, and on one occasion I swam over to a neighbouring yacht to ask for a ride ashore, if he happened to be heading in and wouldn’t mind. The man was German and so therefore naked, but the conversation breezed over this, and later he kindly came by to pick us up. Clothed, forgivingly.

On one particular day, in the absence of both water taxis and naked Germans, we set about launching the dinghy into the water without any flooring at all. It was just two tubes with James on one side and myself on the other, clad in only swim shorts and dangling our legs into the turquoise water below. Our hefty Seagull outboard engine weighing down on the stern.

Chuffed with our resourcefulness, we headed over to a neighbouring sailboat flying a British Ensign and the Cornish flag. Blue Eye hailed from that area of the world and, as they had called to us when they motored by to anchor, we felt it rude not to take the opportunity to test out the ad hoc tender set up. We were thrilled to find it worked flawlessly (pun intended).

Aboard the Cornish boat was an excitable Englishman named John. He was greatly enthused by our travels on Blue Eye, as it turned out he had once nearly bought her himself, after she was decommissioned from her Navy training role some years before. We nodded along and answered all his questions about where we’d been, where we’d go next, and how sturdy we had found Blue Eye to be, but waited in distracted hope that he might comment on the improvised method of transportation that we bobbed about on.

To our disappointment, having found it so amusing ourselves, by the time it came to say our goodbyes and cast off from their boat the gaping hole had remained largely unnoticed. Then, right on cue, John’s wife appeared from the cabin below and – in a voice far more posh and shrill than I imagine she hoped for – exclaimed “Why Jonathan, it’s got no bottom!”

We laughed all the wet way home, but decided against venturing off in a bottomless dinghy again. Not only would it entail wearing swimming shorts everywhere we went, the drag created by the stern board was a sure way to go through a tank of fuel a day.

It was with some relief then, that in Aruba we at last came upon a second-hand-but-barely-used dinghy for sale, and a cheap one at that. Then again, at just two metres long it was cosy with two of us, and the trimming around the tubes succumbed to the scorching sun in a matter of days, so we wouldn’t have wanted to pay any more than we did.It is also probably the smallest inflatable thing that we could mount our ‘mighty’ Seagull, as we refer to it as. Upon approaching a dinghy dock the Seagull alone has turned many heads, roaring away loudly and gathering levels of attention that she’s become used to in her 35 years of reliable action. Now, as people sip their morning coffees at the marina bars and turn to find the culprit disturbing the peace, they will find James and I perched precariously upon a very tiny tender, with a very heavy outboard, propelling us along at a speed far slower than the noise levels would suggest.

Alas, at least we have a floor.

One thought on “A Tender Subject


  1. Another fascinating insight to your amazing adventure – that leak appeared no bigger than my toe! Stay safe.

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