How to Tow a Dinghy Behind a Sailboat

Avoiding Common Problems Which Can Become Emergencies

Dinghy in tow.

 Tom Lochhaas/ThoughtCo.

How best to tow a dinghy behind a sailboat is a classic dilemma around which sailors have built many different opinions. The best method often depends on the type and size of the dinghy, the type and size of the sailboat, and wind and sea conditions. Usually, there is no one best answer. The best advice is to consider all your options at the time and remain flexible to make changes once underway.

The Essentials of Towing a Dinghy

  • With a hard dinghy, which usually tracks well in calm water, attach the painter (tow line) at the bow, preferably 6 inches or more below the stem to ensure the bow rides high.
  • With an inflatable, use a towing bridle that connects to two points on either side of the bow, to help ensure the dinghy is pulled straight.
  • Use a floating line for the painter to ensure the line does not droop underwater and foul the towing boat's prop or rudder. (This crucial issue is often overlooked and has led to many emergency situations.)
  • Unless you are absolutely sure the water will remain flat for the duration, move the dinghy outboard engine to a rail mount. (Dinghies are frequently overturned by waves, and outboards lost or ruined by immersion.)

When Conditions Get Rough

Several problems can occur with a towed dinghy due to wind, waves, and currents. Here are common issues and some solutions:

Following waves cause the dinghy to surf forward, possibly striking the boat. This is happening in the photo above. The dinghy may also be spun around such that the outboard strikes the stern, causing damage. Possible solutions:

  • Lengthen the painter so that the dinghy is towed further away, allowing it to recover from each wave and fall back before striking the boat.
  • Pull an inflatable dinghy in very close to the stern and rig a line from each towing eye out to the stern quarters of the sailboat. When these lines are pulled tight, the dinghy snubs against the stern and cannot twist around. Some sailors always tow their inflatable this way, even with the bow lifted somewhat from the water.
  • Note: neither of these solutions prevents the dingy from being blown or thrown by a wave sideways and possibly capsizing (unless the dinghy bow is snubbed tight and high out of the water).

A strong wind or waves from the side threatens to overturn or fill the dinghy. This can be a serious situation. Ironically, with a lightweight inflatable, removing the outboard makes the dinghy more susceptible to being flipped.

  • If the risk for a lightweight inflatable flipping is due to the wind rather than waves, splashing some water into the dinghy with a bailing bucket (to add weight low) can help stabilize it.
  • An inflatable can be brought alongside the boat on the lee side to be protected from both wind and waves. Move the painter attachment point well forward of the beam so that the dinghy nestles up against the side hull. This can be done also with a hard dinghy if it has a permanently installed fender system along its side.

The dinghy capsizes and fills or goes underwater. This creates an enormous drag that may do damage almost immediately. The tension may snap the painter or rip out the tow eye(s). At the least, the dinghy becomes a sea anchor slowing or stopping the sailboat.

  • To recover the dinghy, slow the sailboat and bring the painter forward on the leeward side of the boat. Once the dinghy is beside the boat protected from wind and waves, it can usually be hoisted, cleared of water, and righted. You can usually manage an inflatable by hand, but with a hard dinghy, you may have to lower the mainsail, swing the boom over, and use a block to raise the dinghy with a winch.

Other Dinghy Options

The traditional method for traveling with a dinghy is to lash it upside-down on the foredeck. While this is generally the safest thing to do with a dinghy in all conditions, it can be inconvenient and difficult or even dangerous when shorthanded. Still, short of deflating an inflatable and stowing it away for an ocean passage, this is generally the best option when sailing in unprotected (or unpredictable) waters.

With a larger sailboat, if cost is no object, davits installed on the stern for raising and lowering the dinghy are a popular contemporary solution. While the dinghy thus exposed to wind and rain may seem at risk, fewer cruisers report any problems in settled weather up to gales.