At Bahia del Sol in El Salvador (pictured), we had a nice dinghy dock to work from and a usually calm estuary to dinghy across to the boat. In other places, we just pulled the dinghy up on the beach — and sometimes had to dinghy through white caps or occasionally a bit of surf.
If you anticipate ever having to transport provisions (or fresh laundry or electronics) by dinghy, I have just two words for you: dry bags.
Dry bags aren’t just glorified trash bags. They are truly waterproof. Mine are made from heavy-duty vinyl, with heat-sealed seams. The top folds over on itself at least three times and then latches to prevent water entry. An extra bonus of the top latch is that it forms a carrying handle and can be clipped onto an attachment point in the dinghy when rough conditions are anticipated.
We had dry bags from a number of canoe-camping trips we’d done prior to cruising. And in one spectacular whitewater canoe capsize, we learned that the dry bags really lived up to their name.
Anything that you really want to keep dry (say toilet paper, paper towels, flour, sugar . . . ) needs to be in a dry bag. Trash bags, used by a lot of cruisers, don’t do nearly as good a job: they get a hole or two almost immediately and then any water in the bottom of the dinghy gets into the bag — and big splashes also seem to make their way into the trash bags.
I was surprised that more cruisers didn’t carry dry bags with them — although several did bring them back from trips to the US or Canada after they saw ours. We actually had six large ones aboard — one for the ditch bag, one for the medical kit, and four for everyday use. We also had three smaller ones that we used for carrying papers, small electronics and wallets.
Depending on the location, we’d re-pack our purchases either outside the store or at the dinghy (whichever had a trash container and a reasonably clean place to work — we preferred a concrete sidewalk to a damp and sandy beach, for example).
We’d go through all our purchases and remove whatever packaging we could (to avoid bugs as well as keep down the trash on board), then sort things into three piles:
- Stay dry items were packed into the dry bags;
- Keep cold items were packed into a soft-sided cooler (with ice, if necessary for the outside temperature and likely time back to the boat); and
- Everything else was packed into as many heavy-duty reusable bags as we had, with the excess going in plastic bags that the store gave us. Be sure to tie up the handles on these bags so that things don’t fall out in a taxi or the dinghy!
Then it would all get loaded into the dinghy (somehow we always made it fit) and we’d take it back to Que Tal. We’d tie up, and one of us would be in the dinghy and one on deck and we’d get it all out of the dinghy, then transfer again to the cockpit, then again relay it down the companionway. Then I’d put it all away, often while Dave would make another run ashore to get gas and diesel in jerry cans.
Recommended Dry Bags
The three big names in dry bags are SealLine, NRS and Sea to Summit. I have several SealLine bags and one NRS; they all work well. The NRS material is a little stiffer than the SealLine but the primary reason for choosing between one brand and another, to me, is if one has a particular size you need. For us, the NRS bag was the only one long enough to fit our tent in (not likely to be a consideration when cruising)!
I’ve never used a Sea to Summit bag and don’t have personal experience. They’re made of a heavy waterproof nylon (I’m talking about their true “dry bags” and not their “lightweight” bags that are marketed as “splash resistant”). Some reviewers like them better as they are easier to slide into tight places. I wonder if they are equally waterproof . . . but I like the fact that it’s available in a 65-liter size, which might be really good for laundry (I found larger was better for putting clean laundry in without getting too many wrinkles in it).
For carrying provisions, the handiest size is 55 liters, and the smallest that’s usable is about 30 liters (unless you want one for papers, etc.). I found the 55-liter size was just right for my laptop in its case, too.
Some bags — particularly small ones that are marketed for cameras and cell phones — have Velcro or zipper-style closures. While these might be splash-proof, I’ve never had good luck with them being truly waterproof or lasting very long.
Outdoor Products also makes lightweight bags available at Wal-mart and other big box stores that are fairly small in size. While some advertising copy says they are “waterproof,” the labeling on the product itself says they are “weather resistant.” I have several of these and use them inside other bags for prescription drugs and so forth, but they should absolutely NOT be considered waterproof — even if you put one inside another.
High quality dry bags aren’t cheap, as a 55-liter bag is likely to run about $35. But think about the cost of a single load of provisions that might get wet if a trash bag tears . . . or the laundry that you just spent $15 to have washed getting soaked with salt water. I’ve never forked out the money for a Pelican box (which cost considerably more), instead using my dry bags to protect electronics.
My dry bags are now over 15 years old. They’ve been used a lot during that time and are still going strong (see photo). They’ve paid for themselves many, many times over.
- SealLine 55-liter dry bag (comes in various colors and sizes, all shown)
- SealLine see through bags (up to 30 liter size)
- SealLine small pouches (for small items)
- Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag (available in sizes up to 65 liter)
NOTE that many Sea to Summit bags are called “lightweight” and while good for many applications, aren’t truly waterproof (although the Big River Bags that I linked to say they are). On one hand, I don’t want to discourage their use — there are lots of good applications for them — but I don’t want anyone misled.