Cruising with water toys is the key to furthering the adventure from bikes to SUPs to dinghies.
July a few years ago I tasted the sweet life while cruising for eight incredible months, departing from Seattle and sailing as far south as Puerto Vallarta on my 32-foot Gulf Pilothouse sailboat, Mariah. The experience was all the better because I cruised with my favorite toys. Mariah could jokingly have been considered Ken’s Ark, because it carried two of each of the following toys: solid sit-on-top kayaks, inflatable paddleboards, surfboards, full-size folding mountain bikes, snorkel gear, fishing poles — plus one folding RIB with a 9.9 hp outboard. All of these items, except the kayaks and outboard, were carefully stored belowdecks for passages, and we still had room for a crew of four on a relatively small cruising sailboat.
During the voyage south, thanks to this armada of toys, I was able to bike the Golden Gate Bridge, paddleboard on the California Delta, kayak through surf in Baja, snorkel within earshot of whales in Banderas Bay, dine on tuna and dorado I caught off the western Baja coast and take the Zodiac to access surfing spots along Punta Mita. Did I mention I lived the sweet life? Not only was it all fun, but at the age of 45 I was in the best physical condition of my life due to the numerous outdoor activities.
Face it, every cruising boat, power or sail, is basically a big and expensive adult toy (unless you live aboard full time, at which point it becomes a home). Personally, I consider a dinghy for shore access, and snorkel gear, for underwater repairs, required equipment. Beyond that, the toys we choose basically depend on personal preference, cruising location, rough passage considerations, and below- vs. abovedecks room for storage.
For example, I would choose an inflatable kayak stored belowdecks over a rigid one for a Pacific Ocean crossing; however, a rigid kayak stored on deck is nice for coastal cruising. A sit-on-top kayak would be preferred for the tropics compared to an enclosed kayak for the northern latitudes.
Boat size and configuration will dictate which toys are feasible. Both power- and sailboats have unique storage challenges. Even so, I prefer two of every toy, so I can share with family and friends. Maintenance and security are also considerations. Toy cost is not so important, because as big kids, we are willing to spend money on the toys we love, whether we purchase them new or used. And the physical and mental benefits are worth it.
Dinghy: Required or Toy?
While I consider a dinghy a required piece of equipment, it can also be considered an extremely versatile toy. The discussion regarding the perfect dinghy, however, is endless — rigid vs. inflatable, row vs. power, stowable vs. fixed vs. nesting — and is best left for its own story.
Dinghy use and stowage are major considerations. Depending on a boat’s configuration, dinghies can be stored on davits, on a deck or a rooftop, or rolled up belowdecks.
For example, Mariah’s nine-foot rigid fiberglass Minto dinghy is perfect for cruising the Northwest. It is stored on davits, used for short rows to shore, can be sailed around an anchorage for fun and doesn’t need an outboard. Easy. For cruising Mexico, however, I enjoyed using a nine-foot inflatable dinghy with a 9.9 hp outboard. It was also stored on davits but could be deflated and rolled up to store belowdecks for passages. Power inflatables are also very stable, can carry more passengers and gear, and are great for distant exploration. The downside is that outboards require maintenance and constant vigilance against theft.
Currently, my dream dinghy for distance cruising would be a folding rigid inflatable boat that can be stored as a flat package on deck for passages and used as a sailing dinghy and a backup life raft.
Dinghy choices are hugely variable depending on one’s preferences and needs. In considering dinghy options, boat owners should first determine their cruising dinghy needs and stowage possibilities and then look at what fits those parameters.
After dinghies, kayaks are likely the most common cruising toy. Kayaks can serve as a useful dinghy for shore access as well as a vessel for exploration. However, like dinghy choices, kayak varieties are numerous: inflatable vs. rigid, sit on top vs. enclosed, stable and slower vs. sleek and fast, single vs. multiple passenger. Kayak lengths generally range from eight to 16 feet, and some even have sail and foot-pedal options.
Sit on top or Enclosed
Sit-on-top kayaks are great for kids and adults, warmer climates and small surf play. They make a great snorkeling platform and are generally self-bailing, but occupants generally end up with a wet butt. Sit-on-top kayaks tend to be shorter, which can help with storage. Think “wet paddling” with a sit-on-top kayak.
Enclosed kayaks are best suited to cooler climates and rougher conditions, and they tend to track better and propel faster than sit-on-top kayaks. They are good for overnight excursions. Enclosed kayaks tend to be longer, which can make storage more challenging. Think “dry paddling” with an enclosed kayak. I did recently see a rigid plastic kayak that can convert from a sit-on-top arrangement to enclosed with a removable coaming.
Single vs. Double
Cruisers with kayaks tend to have two single kayaks. Some kayaks can convert between single or double, which is versatile. Double kayaks are obviously longer and have larger storage requirements, and they come in inflatable and rigid configurations.
Both rigid and inflatable kayaks can be stored on stanchion mounts, decks or cabin tops. Inflatable kayaks are great for belowdecks storage on smaller boats or for serious ocean passages.
Inflatable vs. Rigid
Inflatable kayaks are great for storage on smaller boats but take more effort to inflate and then wash, dry and deflate; and they generally provide lower performance and durability compared to rigid kayaks. Rigid kayaks are basically made of plastic or fiberglass, must be stored abovedecks or on rail mounts, need less maintenance, and generally deliver higher performance and durability compared to inflatable kayaks. Plastic kayaks are generally cheaper and more forgiving when dropped, but fiberglass kayaks can be lighter and perform better.
The choice of kayaks depends on preferred use, cruising grounds, passages and storage options. I have two nine-foot single sit-on-top plastic kayaks, which are great for warm-weather cruising, kids and adults, and fit nicely on Mariah’s flush deck. They are relatively inexpensive, require very little maintenance and are very stable. However, on Mariah I would opt for an inflatable kayak stowed below for a serious ocean passage. I also own two 16-foot rigid ocean kayaks, but they don’t fit Mariah’s configuration.
Probably the next most common cruising toys are standup paddleboards (SUPs), which are quite the craze these days — I have fallen victim to the hype. They are great for core strengthening, balance training, underwater sightseeing, and even yoga and surfing. They are a simple way to connect with the water. Years ago a small whale swam within full view under my SUP while I paddled along the beach in Westport, Wash. I realized I would have missed this visual experience if I was sitting in a kayak or on a surfboard, due to my angle of vision. What a special memory. SUPs also come in a variety of options and are rated for user weight limits.
Inflatable vs. Rigid
For cruising, the major SUP consideration is inflatable vs. rigid. Like inflatable kayaks, inflatable SUPs store well belowdecks but take more effort to inflate and wash, dry, and deflate, and generally deliver lower performance compared to a rigid SUPs. However, they are resistant to scratches and dings and are more gentle on boat decks and body parts, because they are basically a large fender. It is worth buying the dedicated 12v SUP air pump with a programmable air pressure limit, to save the time and effort of using a manual pump. Inflatable SUPs should not be stored at full pressure, especially in the sun. I have also found that standard inflatable SUPs generally do not perform well for surfing, because of their shape and flexibility, but they can be carried as baggage on airplanes. There are special inflatable SUPs designed specifically windsurfing and surfing.
Rigid SUPs need to be stored abovedecks or on stanchion brackets. They generally perform better compared to inflatable SUPs, because they don’t flex and have a more efficient shape. Rigid SUPs range from cheaper foam boards to more expensive epoxy boards. They are usually designed for stability or for speed, not both. Specialized rigid SUPs can be used for windsurfing and surfing.
Mariah carries two inflatable SUPs that store in a quarter berth and fit nicely on deck when inflated. One is designed more for speed and the other is a more basic design. They both came with a manual air pump, but I finally splurged on an electric SUP air pump, which was worth the money. If I had room for storage and money to burn, I would prefer one rigid SUP for speed and another rigid SUP for casual paddling and surfing.
While cruising provides the freedom to explore on the water, that freedom is limited on land. Bicycling is a great way to explore on land and run errands, and it is terrific exercise. The choices for cruising bicycles is narrower than our previous topics (unless there is an inflatable bicycle that I am unaware of).
Bicycles really need to be stored belowdecks, to minimize corrosion. All bicycles can generally be categorized as mountain bikes, road bikes and hybrids. Owners of a large yacht with room for full-size bicycles can use their favorite bicycle from home. Remove both wheels from the frame and wrap everything in a blanket, to create a smaller package. However, folding bikes tend to be the norm with cruisers. I recommend full-size folding bikes to anyone with the space. If storage space is tight, it’s probably best to select a more compact folding bicycle. They typically have 16- or 20-inch wheels and fold into the smallest package but provide the least performance. Again, all these bicycles are geared toward either comfort, speed or off-road ability. Prices and quality vary tremendously.
Mariah has two full-size folding mountain bikes that take up half of the V-berth. I use a wax-based chain lubricant to avoid a greasy mess. Stored with these bikes are helmets, rain fenders, rear racks and tire repair kits.
As I indicated earlier, Mariah is stocked with snorkel gear, short and full wetsuits, fishing gear and spear guns. My wish list includes a 12v compressor with dive hoses for two (snuba), to facilitate hull maintenance and underwater exploring.
Other crazy cruising toys I have seen include kiteboards, a paraglider, a mini submarine, a helicopter and even a commercially available zodiac that flies!
How cool is that? I have also read about mega-yachts that have their own dedicated “shadow yacht” to carry exotic cars, speed boats and other outrageous toys. To each his own, I guess.