You’ve bought the boat. You have the float plan. But unless you’re planning to overnight in a marina every night of your cruise, you’d be wise to give some serious attention to how you’re going to get from that postcard anchorage to the deserted beach you’ve dreamed about for years.
Choosing the right conveyance to get you to and from your boat can induce clinical-grade anxiety. With a bewildering variety of tender types and brands on the market, the decision you make today can spell the difference between a dream cruise and a major nightmare. Where do you start?
As with your primary boat, first you need to consider where and how you want to use the tender. You also need to consider how many people, and how much gear and supplies, you may want to carry. Then, you’ll need to consider whether you have the crew, skills and equipment to manage the model you want.
Tenders of old, made entirely of wood or fiberglass, have largely been supplanted by either fully inflatable or hybrid inflatables that are commonly referred to as RIBs (rigid inflatable boats). Within those categories are a wide variety of “rigged” boats or “open” boats. Each have advantages and disadvantages for individual cruisers.
Rigged boats typically have a hard, composite or aluminum bottom, and inflatable side tubes made of PVC or Hypalon. The outboards that power most models generally are fixed to a composite transom and meant to be permanently installed. Today’s tenders can accommodate higher-horsepower motors and, with their planing hulls, are capable of achieving greater speeds than their open counterparts. They can be equipped with a broad array of equipment and accessories, including helm consoles, running lights, lifting harnesses, ski-towing gear, Bimini tops, navigation instruments, underwater lighting and more. Some are powered by inboard diesels with waterjet drives.
Naturally, these tenders generally are much heavier than open boats, and—if not intended to be towed behind the primary boat—require mechanical systems for lifting them aboard. Those systems can include hydraulic swim platforms, davits or cranes. Typically, though, modern inflatable tenders are safer and more stable than their old-school predecessors.
Open boats are lighter, more portable and less expensive, with less-robust handling gear required to get them on and off the main boat. Open boats come in a variety of configurations with varying degrees of performance.
“Roll-up” models can be deflated, bagged and stowed in a locker. They have aluminum or fiberglass floor panels that will provide rigidity, stability and protection from sharp objects. Others have high-pressure, inflatable V-bottoms or hard V-bottoms that offer varying degrees of improved planing and handling. These boats are generally made for lower-horsepower, tiller-steered motors that can be removed and re-installed.
How Do You Choose What’s Right For You?
“It’s a lot easier than most people think,” says Jorge L. Cupertino, general manager at Zodiac of Lauderdale/Lauderdale Inflatables.
According to Cupertino, no matter what you buy, size and weight are your limiting factors.
“The tender you can carry is dictated by the boat that you bought, not necessarily what you want,” he says.
For starters, if you’re planning to carry a tender right side up on a swim platform, then its length overall should be no more than 2 feet shorter than the width of the platform, Cupertino suggests. This sizing will allow for walkaround access and will prevent the tender from carrying away if a quartering sea breaks over the platform.
If it’s a hard-bottom tender, you’ll also need chocks installed on the platform that fit the specific tender model, to ensure a super-snug fit. A tender dealer or chock manufacturer can help you get that part right.
The next consideration is weight. A rigged tender can weigh hundreds of pounds. You need to make sure your hydraulic platform can lift it. The same goes for your davits if you don’t have a platform or if you plan to hoist the boat out of the water when it’s not in use. If you intend to carry the tender on a platform that’s not hydraulic, there are manual-assist systems on the market.
If your boat is not equipped with mechanical lifting gear, or if you don’t have a need for speed or seating for more than two people and some supplies, then chances are you’ll be looking for an open boat. They pose challenges of their own. If you’re planning to lift a small tender onto a platform or into the cockpit, remember: You still may need to mount and dismount the outboard. A 10-hp outboard can weigh 80 pounds, an amount of weight that can be problematic for less-agile cruisers, especially on a rocking boat. A boom can serve to lift a lighter boat or the outboard into the cockpit or into chocks on the cabin top.
If loading the tender on and off the mothership with each use doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always the option to tow. But towing also comes with considerations. Generally speaking, a RIB is easier to tow at higher speeds. An open boat can be towable, but generally not over 7 or 8 knots. Towing any tender can get complicated in anchorages or when docking in a marina, but it is doable with practice.
Caveats: Some manufacturer warranties are voided if a boat is towed above a designated speed. And flat-bottom tenders generally should not be towed.
The inflatable parts of inflatable tenders generally are made of a woven cloth covered in PVC or Hypalon. Both materials have advantages and disadvantages that depend, in part, on where you plan to cruise. According to Cupertino, Hypalon does well in the tropics; PVC, not so much with extended exposure to the sun.
Boats of either material benefit from covers or chaps when not in use. PVC seams are generally heat-welded versus glued. Glued PVC seams may not last as long as glued Hypalon, but heat-welding can sometimes hold air better. Color matters as well. Dark tubes and floors can become hot griddles in the sun.
Tenders span a broad range of prices depending on size, style, brand and amenities. A 10-foot rigged RIB with a 25-hp outboard and electric start, trim and tilt can be had for about $20,000. A 10-foot aluminum-hulled open RIB with Hypalon tubes and a 10-hp outboard can be found for just over $8,000. The same package in PVC would go for about $5,550. A 10-foot open Hypalon boat with an air floor, an inflatable keel and a 10-hp outboard will be in the neighborhood of $6,300. A basic 9-foot, flat-bottom, PVC, non-planing rollup boat with a 4-hp outboard will run about $3,300.
The outboard market is hot these days, especially at the upper end, where supply is limited because of high demand. Prices are changing constantly and moving in one predictable direction: up.
Extensive breakouts on the subject can be found on websites such as westmarine.com or defender.com. Both companies sell multiple brands, although working directly with a dealer can have some advantages. It also doesn’t hurt to look around your marina and talk to other cruisers about what works and doesn’t work for them. And, depending on where you plan to cruise, researching dealers or yards that are certified to do warranty work on various tender brands and outboards should play into your decision about what brand of each to buy.
Last, any tender you select should be certified by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which sets engineering standards for boats, trailers, personal watercraft and more.
Most major gasoline outboard brands are reliable and are available in broad horsepower ranges. A few have released electric models or are developing them. But a growing number of new electric outboard brands are making inroads into the market, particularly in the lower-horsepower ranges.
Electric outboards have many attractive attributes for tenders. They are much quieter than their internal combustion cousins, they have fewer moving parts, require little or no maintenance, are lighter, have much greater torque and don’t produce smelly exhaust. If you have a diesel cruising boat, they eliminate the need to carry another type of—more volatile—fuel. But they also have their limitations. Speed isn’t so much the issue, but cost is. Electrics generally cost more up front than gas, but without the cost of fuel and lower maintenance costs over time, a break-even point exists somewhere on the horizon. Range—particularly at higher speeds—is a major challenge too. Battery charging can present some challenges as well.
As the technology advances, higher-horsepower options are appearing that may be suitable for larger tenders. Choosing an electric motor for your tender depends on many of the same considerations as their gasoline-powered siblings, such as the size and type of boat it is, its intended use and the speed you desire. Here are some examples of tender-friendly electric outboards.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue.