May 18, 2017

The Off Center Crew

(Click on each boat name in the charts to get more details and photos)


It was a long winter around the boathouse, and this gave us time to bring up topics like: "What is the world's best dinghy?" When we got going on this topic, naturally we had our differences, and the discussion of tradeoffs and compromises lasted pretty much all evening. Or at least until the beer ran out.

Most of the time, dinghies are an afterthought and don't get the heavy thinking they deserve. And the variables are endless: fiberglass, traditional plank-on-frame, plywood, inflatable. Then there are other things like rowability, towability, and car-topability to consider. And it goes on-and-on.

We talked through all the best dinghy designs we knew about, and we wondered how many more good dinghies might be out there that were not on our radar. This last thought prompted an all-out search for boats that were regularly considered the very best dinghies, and we gathered information about them into one listing where each of their features could be considered.

If we could create a comprehensive list, we dreamed, it might be the perfect tool to help boaters everywhere quickly find the best dinghy for their own needs. Since Off Center Harbor does not accept advertising, we could create this valuable tool without the distraction of advertising or editorial bias from commercial interests.

We did not want to rely solely on our own opinions, so we called on the experience of OCH Guides. They're each writing a new Guide Post entitled "My Favorite Dinghy, and Why"

One thing we ALL agreed on is that rowability is kind of a big deal. As longtime cruisers we often get up early to row around the anchorage before the sea breeze kicks up. It's good exercise and it can silently carry us into the magic corners of coves and inlets that we go out to see in the first place. Over the years, we have also seen good rowing boats teach our children and grandchildren crucial lessons in seamanship and independent responsibility. Rowing around also keeps them busy before supper is on the table.

Rubber inflatable dinghies are for outboard motors, not oars, and nobody wanted to talk about them. So rubber inflatables were out, while everything else was fair game. It's our boathouse, after all.

The spreadsheets we had created for comparing features eventually turned into clickable tables that are sortable by a dinghy’s characteristics that matter most. We divided the boats into four categories depending on what they’re made of, and included eight to ten boats in each. Meanwhile, our loose opinions narrowed into a more thoughtful rating system. We have not yet tested every boat, but erred on the side of having a comprehensive list to explore, rather than a handful of boats we had tested. The entire affair, we admit, is not yet perfect and holds some bias, so that's where you come in.

This Dinghy Guide is a work-in-process, and there may be good boats we missed. We expect to hear about these from OCH members. There may be other members who have had deep experience with boats already on our list. Their comments will help fine tune our ratings and commentary. In fact, we hope the comments section at the bottom of each dinghy’s page will turn out to be more valuable than what we have initially written. So please, do weigh in with your comments.

We have carefully stayed away from "winners" and "losers", or even an overall rating. The criteria for "best" is just way too use-oriented and personal for such final conclusions. After all, a "dinghy" can range from a capacious tender for an 80-foot yacht to a small boat for a family on a tight budget, so how can one dinghy ever be the overall “best”?

That said, we couldn't resist conveying our own sensibilities to the tactile and aesthetic experiences that come from owning, rowing and sailing a small boat. For us, it goes way beyond the purely practical: we should enjoy looking at it, running our hand over it, and even building or maintaining it. And we've learned that nice-looking boats tend to gather people around for good conversation. Surely that must be ranked as an essential element of a good dinghy. In short, how much do we at OCH love this boat on all these levels? We called this a boat's "Off Center Factor."

This Dinghy Guide is designed to provide a bread-crumb trail that Off Center Harbor members can use to go from a spark of inspiration, to actually purchasing a boat, to a real experience on the water in whatever boat you decide is best for you. We hope you become totally immersed in the pleasure of deciding.. Sometimes dreaming about boats can be almost as good as rowing or sailing them.



  1. Thomas Dilworth says:

    I assembled an Eastport pram from a CLC kit, and cut it into two parts. Unlike the nesting version, mine is a six foot section and a two foot section which bolt together beautifully. The main section mounts upside down on the foredeck, and leaves plenty of room for anchor handling and other foredeck work. The smaller bow section fits neatly in a cockpit locker. The two sections are bolted together sitting athwartship the bow pulpit/lifelines. It’s quick, stable, and easy to do- much faster than blowing up an inflatable, and far more fun. My boat is a 1967 Ericson 30, and in 3 years of cruising California and Mexico, I’ve never thought about changing anything.

  2. Kenny Cooper says:

    Thanks so much for the reviews of so many dinghy designs. I was particularly interested in those of plywood construction. My first build was a Glen-L 14 which I completed in 2009. It has proved to be a wonderful sailing vessel for small lakes and coastal waters. For a number of years I participated in the annual Gathering of Glen-L Builders. At the 2012 gathering on Nickajack Lake in Tennessee I was asked to participate in a video interview of my build and the boat. Should you have any interest in viewing it, I have included the link below. On my bucket list is to bring it to Maine for the Small Reach Regatta.

    I have really enjoyed all the fine videos of boats and building techniques you offer at OCH. Keep up the good work!

  3. Andy Oldman says:

    Hi Steve

    I have a couple of important additions for you.

    First: the RD Culler wherry yawl boat You can find a photo online or I can send you a photo of mine. This is a heavy and difficult boat to construct . Has phenomenal carrying capacity and rows very well both fwd and aft due to keel
    Rocker design. The shell back rig is plug and play in this one. Centerboard is a true rotating centerboard. Tows well aft a traditional sailing vessel . Can be landed anywhere. Must weigh 175 lbs at least

    The other is Herreshoff Columbia Lifeboar tender. Plans were published in a little book by Mystic seaport. This is also a difficult build. However, it is a phenomenal al rowing about. Only a single shell rows is better. I have towed mine up and down The Grand Manan channel. Rows great. It’s a delicate boat not made for running ashore on even a fine beach carry it up or set a portable outhaul mooring. No small tender rows better than this .1895 design. I think Joel’s Whites Catspaw was directly inspired by the CLT. Best regards. Andy Oldman. Capt “Patience B”

  4. Kurt Lorenz says:

    Check out the Chameleon by Danny Green of Bermuda. I played with one in Mexico and thought it was great. 10′ assembled. About 5’6″ when nested. Plans are available from Danny. Look on line.

  5. nick hanbury says:

    Maybe you guys have hardly heard of the British designer – Andrew Wolstenholm? He designed me “Swallow” – one of the finest estuary boats I have ever sailed. I have sailed this dinghy on the Salcombe estuary in Devon for the past 18 years in all conditions. Stable, fast, light and of traditional appearance in clinker ply. Also rows with ease. Length 14.5ft beam 5ft 6 inches. Featured in Small Boats Magazine and in the WoodenBoat – Small Boats 2020 Annual Magazine. Check it out. Nick Hanbury Devon UK

  6. Conbert Benneck says:

    If you have a sailing dinghy that has a dagger board, IT HAS TO HAVE A SCREW DOWN COVER FOR THE DAGGER BOARD SLOT to keep water out of the boat.
    I learned this one sunny day sailing down the English Channel. Our 29′ Tripp-Lentsch was towing a Dutch 9′ dinghy with an open dagger board slot. Our T-L came to a slow but dead stop. We were dead in the water. Why? We hadn’t run aground on the sandbanks. We had lots of water under the keel. Why aren’t we moving? My Admirable looked astern at the dinghy, and it was totally filled with water – acting as a big sea anchor.
    Towing the dinghy in a seaway without a cover over the dagger board slot allowed squirts of water to slowly fill the dinghy. Luckily the weather was good, but I spent the next hour or two bailing out a 9′ bathtub full of water with a very small bucket. Never tow a dingy at sea without a gasketed cover over the dagger board slot, and held in place with wing nuts. See Dyer Dinghy 7′-9″ for how the cover should be made, and secured.

  7. Benoit Talbot says:

    I just sailed trough your beautiful GUIDE TO FINDING THE WORLD’S BEST DINGHY. Good job. Very interesting. May I suggest another variable? I would call it The boarding factor. How easy, or crew friendly, it is to transfer from the dinghy to the mother boat. And back to the dinghy at the end of the day. And by the way, do you have a video on this? Or a guide post? We are not so bad, but we need to improve our method. Thank you.

    • Steve Stone says:

      Hi Benoit. Good thought. We should have explained that the quality you’re wishing for is already there. We just labeled it “initial stability”. But that’s what we had in mind — is she gonna hold firm when you step into her or is she going to rare up and dart for the hills?

  8. John Buchbinder says:

    I know that I am somewhat late to the party, but I have to put my toe in the water. I nominate the Herreshoff Columbia DInghy. She tows wonderfully, without tacking back and forth, nor careening down the face of a wave in a following sea and crashing into the transom of the mothership. She rows easily with 8′ S&T oars, and tracks well, turns on a dime and is total pleasure to own, to say nothing of the admiring looks from all who see her. And when I have the time, I love to sail her, as she is easily driven in a light air.
    Joel Whites “Catspaw” was inspired by the Columbia Dingy, but I not sure that one can improve on perfection.

  9. David Tew says:

    Years ago we were driving along a side road in Rockport. ME and spied a lovely rowboat on the side of the road with a ‘For Sale’ sign. It looked like a close relative of a Spurling skiff, but stoutly built of fiberglass: The older woman who came out to greet us was grateful to see it go, so we threw it in the back of the truck and have used it since for landing on Maine’s rocky shorelines with never a worry. On occasion we’ve seen others from the same mold here and there along the coast, but have never learned who built them. They would probably be in the ‘class’ of the Newman skiff on your chart. Now we’ve reached the age where the boat is a bit heavy for hauling ashore and launching so we got the rowing version of the Dyer Midget at a local auction. We’ll fix it up this winter so she’ll be ready for us (with our arthritic hands) to lift ashore and back more easily next year. Time passes, needs change, so it goes. But I’m off for a sunny, windy row in the old skiff before the first cold Nor-easter of the year sets in!

  10. Ben Fuller says:

    I kind of like a dinghy that is a pleasure to row. Currently using a 10′ Chaisson dory skiff which is easily pulled at better than 3 knots, fine for two, max load 3. Like all pointy ended boats she is a bit tricky to board off a float but is stable in a seaway and easy to board alongside a boat. She is lively around an anchorage, can be spun with a pull on the oar. She has sacrificial boards on the bottom at the chine and on the keel for beaching,

  11. Keith Smith says:

    This is an older thread, but I thought I would comment anyway. Nobody mentioned a canoe? We have been towing our canoe for years now and never had a problem with it. It is heavy for a canoe, just shy of 100 lbs, a plastic Oldtown discovery 169, but still lighter than some of the dingys listed. I would prefer a lighter design, but it is what I have. Mine is 16′-9″ long, so long for a dingy, but my boat is not big enough to put any kind of dingy on board the boat, so what ever I have needs to be towed. Our boat is not likely to go out in the ocean, but we have been cruising for years in the San Juans, Gulf Islands, and North Idaho Lakes, and I have always towed the canoe without issue. The only time I have had to change things is sailing straight down wind when the wind is blowing pretty hard and then the canoe will turn sideways and surf the waves sideways, but it has never flipped. In that case we put fenders out and pull it along side the boat. I’ve made a minor modification, I epoxied a piece of plastic pipe through the stem to tow a little bit lower and from the center. I often carry crab traps in the canoe, on longer trips I have put flotation bags in it, but never needed them. We canoe to shore with our chocolate lab and two people and it is easy to paddle to shore. I find it easier to come along side the mother ship with paddles instead of oars. We tie a karabiner to the shrouds and clip the bow line through the carabiner and then take it aft so I can control the bow and stern of the canoe by myself from the rear seat while my wife and dog get out. It is easier to get into and out of than a kayak. I can check crab traps in it and deploy and anchor from it, carry there people. It is fast and fun to have along. I sometimes stitch pool noodles to the gunnels for fenders. I’m thinking of building a skin on frame canoe to make it easier to get on the roof of the truck.

  12. John Sutherland says:

    I would also like to see how the B&B Spindrift line stacks up.

  13. Henry Kloman says:

    While I doubt that there is anything such as the “perfect” dinghy, I’ve have the pleasure of owning two that come close, at least for me. The first is a 16′ double-ended wooden Gloucester Gull rowing dory, built by the immortal Harold “Dynamite” Payson for me in 1971. Named “Lobelia” for a flower (my wife is an avid gardener), she rows as a single or a double. She still waits for me mournfully each winter in Tenants Harbor, Maine. Most seaworthy!

    The second, “Heronbill” (also after a flower) is a 7’11” Dyer Midget who joined us in 1998 to serve as the transport to and from a Dyer 29 powerboat. Great for one crew; OK for two, and tows beautifully. She also has a mast, boom, rudder, and sail! Not “perfect” but great!

  14. Leigh Besson says:

    My two friends and I built 3 of the Harold Pason “Nymph” (sp?). 8′ stitch and glue, seat down the center. Able to carry 4 people out to my mooring, very light weight, easy to build, (we clamped and screwed three sheets of plywood together to cut all the pieces for 3 boats) inexpensive. Nicest dingy I have ever been in.

  15. Mark Cole says:

    Thanks OCH for opening this can of worms. This is an important discussion that I bet will go on a long time. I would like to nominate John Brooks’ Ellen for addition to the Plywood/Epoxy list. She is a 12′ rowing/sailing dingy and finished at the top of my list for a tender to our 32′ sailboat. On top of the tasks of people and cargo mover, I love to row and sail the tender when anchored in a quiet cove so these last two qualities drove my decision. I also want to build the boat myself, and the plans (which I got last Christmas) are excellent. Since I’m a first-time builder, I got a copy of John’s “How to Build Glued-Lapstrake Wooden Boats” which uses Ellen as the example for glued-lapstrake construction. All this made Ellen the perfect choice (for me…).

  16. Edward Truslow says:

    Great topic. Weight, rowing ability, appearance, in that order! The classic Dyer Dow works on all fronts. No motor or sails. Just basic, light rowing transportation that is easily towed or hauled on deck or the dock. Works for me.

  17. Royal Declerck says:

    Any thing Ned Trewartha (Hobart Tasmania) builds would be welcome, the only thing is they are so beautiful, you don`t want to get them wet. !!
    (You did a video on him not so long ago)
    Great subject, Royal.

  18. Steve Twitty says:

    Does anyone have experience with a Walker Bay 7? This is an injection molded (polypropylene) plastic. I am familiar with the characteristics of polyprop in other applications. My goal is a sturdy tender that is less than 100 pounds, 7 to 8 feet in length.

    • Kurt Lorenz says:

      Yes. I had a Walker Bay 7, or maybe it was 8′? It was a bitch to row and wore out the rower. The transom is a big drag. Towing it in a brisk 8 knot downwind it flipped coming off a wave and tried to be a submarine until the rope snapped. The conditions were hairy and I didn’t go back and get it. I hope some child in Mexico loves it now.

  19. Al Voskian says:

    What a great initiative! I am surprised, though, that one of the most common uses of a dinghy is as a tender for cruising boat, you did not include “towing” (in water, not highway!). I have a Puffin which is adequate for rowing and small motor around the harbor, but tows like a slug. Would be great to see an additional column for towing manners (drag & tracking).

  20. Conbert Benneck says:

    A most interesting discussion, but there are all sorts of considerations that go into selecting the “perfect” dinghy. Let’s start with the basics: where do you use it and under what types of conditions? … lake? harbor? does it have to be easily car-top-able? For how many people? Row and sail? Carry on mother ship or tow? Do you need it to row out an anchor under deteriorating conditions? Do you have size or weight limitations?
    Let’s keep the discussion to hard shell, seaworthy dinghies, and not the inflatable bathtub toys that are impossible to row, and that can only function with an outboard. If the outboard quits, then what? Ever tried to row one of these abortions against the wind with four people on board, using their children sand shovels as oars? Lots of luck.

    • Conbert Benneck says:

      Additional thoughts: The dinghy should be as large as possible; for carrying capacity; for good rowing and sailing qualities; and to stay dry in a seaway; but, …. usually deck space on a small cruising boat is limited so the 7′-9″ solution may be a limiting factor. Of course, as the dinghy gets longer it weighs more. Trade-offs; trade-offs. For our 29 foot Tripp-Lentsch sailboat we had a 7′-9″ Dyer dinghy, but with four people on board, freeboard was low; motorboat wakes wet the back of the Admirable who sat in the bow; and she was unhappy. A baby carriage- like hood design I built, kept her back dry. Them’s the problems!

  21. Samuel M Allen says:

    I built a Nutshell pram 20 years ago and use it mostly for getting to and from our mooring. I also learned to sail in it. It’s very handsome, easy to maintain, easily carried by two people, and durable. Definitely should be on the list.

  22. William Bauer says:

    Another vote for the Mirror Dinghy. I built mine in 1972 and still sail it. In the 1970’s (and maybe still today) Mirrors were the largest one design racing class. – Facebook group “People Who Love Mirror Dinghies”.

    • Arthur Haberland says:

      I own and sail a close cousin to the Mirror, the GP14. While not as popular, they are still a popular class in most English speaking countries (except for here in the US) and a fine sailor with a good ability to row.

      I use mine for camp cruising and day sailing.

  23. Tony Vink says:

    I was thinking the Goat Island skiff too, though it might not fall within the scope of the dinghy guide’s variables. Perhaps that will come under the new list called: “The-if-I-ever-build-another-boat-design” AKA ‘The boast you SHOULD have built’ ;-)
    Thanks for a great list and even greater site.

  24. Steve Stone says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions and please keep them coming. Once the dust settles we will make some additions and revisions for a next round of this (work in process) Dinghy Guide.

  25. Andrew Yen says:

    You guys at OCH are brave – this list could become a monster! I love it.

    I have selected second hand Mirror dinghies for our scout troop based on their versatility, safety and ease of storage and transport. They make a perfect learn to sail or row boat for our 10-15 year old scouts but they are just as suitable for adults. Other designs that may justify making it to your list are the Brooks Compass Harbor Pram, the Bolger/Payson Cartopper and the Martens Goosens D4. I have read somewhere that the D4 is the most popular home constructed dinghy ever and the plans are free.


  26. Frank Shopen says:

    Hi, what a great idea, thanks for this!
    Where is the Steve Redmond Whisp, which has won rowing awards frequently apparently, or the Bolder nymph? The latter was my first build and I was surprised how well it did ro and sail. Building the Whisp now. A beautiful boat with a great building method.

  27. Jeff Gable says:

    35 years ago I was looking through LFH’s Sensible Cruising Designs. He drew up a little tender for his Neria design that is flat bottom with two lapping planks per side.It has finally become my grandsons sand box but I loved the little boat and its performance for over 30 years. I used 1/4 inch ply for the bottom and Sitka spruce for the planking and transoms and could carry it up side down like a backpack for long distances.I had two rowing stations with a forward preference when two were aboard.Dig out the old master work and check it out.and thanks for the site Jeff Gable Shaw Is. WA.

  28. James Turner says:

    I admit to having a bias for Phil Bolger/Dynamite Payson designs. I would have liked to have seen one of their boats, the Elegant Punt in particular mentioned in the Something Different category not only for its ease to build but for the fact that it is an excellent small dinghy as well.

  29. Gerry Kelly says:

    I believe other contenders might be : a Mirror Dingy. Large fleets of these around the world but especially in the UK; a Goat Island Skiff from Australia; and a Heron. But most worthy of all would be my pride and joy, a Northeaster Dory by CLC.

  30. Thom Loftus says:

    Have to agree that the new CLC tenderly is pretty sexy. I probably would have built that if I wasn’t already building an Eastport Pram. That said, as a California guy, I know too little about some of the older, more traditional dinghies that are so much more prevalent on the East Coast. So many boats, so little time. Thanks OCH for compiling the list and bringing so much boating joy to all of us. Keep up the good work!

  31. Richard Gewax says:

    “Or at least until the beer ran out.”
    That line has probably been responsible for the non-realization of innumerable marvelous maritime creations. Good topic OCH!
    When Commodore Franklin ‘Foolspeed’ Hickup was asked about the love of his life, he replied ‘She’s many things to me, some have said she’s batty and does not have both oars in the water, but to me, she’s just a little dingy!’

    I will now show myself to the door…..

  32. Albert Metz says:

    I just offered an addition to your dinghy survey, the Bauer 10. I met Chris Bauer at Saill Expo in NJ 23 years ago, fell in love with his display boat and ordered mine custom built with a “yacht package” (raised padded fabric edging) to protect “the mothership”, as well as sailing and rowing packages. Its 75 sq.ft. fractional rig (rainblow spectrum color!) and well-thought-out controls make it an enjoyable, responsive sailer, though surprisingly stable in brisk wind. The pivoting centerboard and rudder allow beaching. As important to me as performance, its beauty –dark green hull, accent stripe and name (“tender”) in gold, teak transom, seating, trim, and bronze oarlocks–contributes greatly to pride of ownership. Even after purchasing two larger sailboats, this Bauer 10 is very special and I’ll never part with it.

  33. John Florance says:

    I’m guessing it was probably too late in development for consideration. But yesterday I received an e-mail from CLC boats announcing their new “Tenderly” dinghy. The photos and video look very impressive. John Harris has designed a lovely-looking boat that I’d consider in a heart-beat, based on the specs. Maybe the comprehensive list can be a growing one?

  34. Bill Saunders says:

    I would be interested to see you rate John Brooks’ Compass Harbor Pram.

  35. Cassio Sousa says:

    Wow! That is awesome! You guys rock!

  36. Bruce Lyle says:

    I’m repainting a 1970’s Ontario home kit built sabot that we picked up in the winter for my girls to learn to sail on. It came with oars and oar locks, growing up racing them in Australia no one had oars was this a north American thing or just this boat?
    PS wish I had have known about OCH before I brought a zodiac last year, as stated above its a pig to row, we now have a couple of paddles instead of the useless oars it came with. They should not be sold without a motor.

  37. Frank Crumbaugh says:

    My am smitten with my Catspaw YANKEE DAHLIN’. When describing the rowing experience to friends, I use two images 1) I liken it to driving a Packard touring car; once she’s moving, she has a stately, sedate gliding motion in fair weather, and tracks as straight as a Courting Whitehall, and 2) in more challenging conditions, she’s as nimble as a polo pony- properly handled she can turn in her own length (something the Whitehall can’t do, or better stated, something I can’t get a Whitehall to do). I use S&T 8′ traditional oars in solid ring bronze oar locks.

    She is fun to sail, and is a splendid school boat for the young. I am contemplating the fabrication of a boom to convert the loose-fitted sprit rig to a more conventional gaff and boom arrangement, but hesitate, not wanting a haunting visit from Joel White (though I suspect he’d be glad for the personal invocations of Catspaw sailors). On a properly fitted trailer she tows well ashore, and reminds me of a duckling following its mother when towed afloat.

    Like I said….smitten.

  38. Kenneth Waldemar says:

    Rowing is a big deal! Sailing and even motoring are also. My Nut Shell, FRAM, that I built 45 years ago, does it all extremely well. She’s beautiful, sound and trustworthy. My wonderful Tashiba 36 is on the market, but I won’t even think about selling FRAM.

  39. Brian Laux says:

    I am disappointed that the B&B Yacht Designs Spindrift line of dinghies did not make your list. I suspect that there are as many of them as there are PT-11s and Shellbacks, etc. out there on the water. Their kits and builders’ support are of very high quality. They offer​ 9, 10, and 11′ models, all of which can be built as a nesting or non-nesting version. They are all designed to be rowed, sailed, or powered. Please reconsider.

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