Over the years, the classic yacht tenders have often been associated with one of two highly polarised ideas. While some have tended to envision prosaic little inflatable boats with finger-trap slats and portable outboards, others bring to mind the polished wood and catwalk glitter of classical Italian runabouts. But the tender market is now far more diverse and sophisticated than that.
Over the last three decades, developments in building materials and construction technologies have seen a burgeoning market for luxury yachts, superyachts and megayachts. We’re even now seeing the phrase ‘gigayacht’ bandied about in yacht design circles by high-end designers, all of whom agree that the quest for ‘bigger and better’ is inexorable. Yachts well in excess of 100 metres in length are no longer the rarity they once were and, as you would expect, the tender market has responded with a calibre and diversity of yacht tender options that has never existed before.
There are plenty of benefits to the compact inflatable tender. Aside from being relatively cheap to buy and easy to store, they provide lots of buoyancy for heavy loads, plenty of reassuring stability for ferrying passengers from ship to shore and modest demands in terms of outboard power.
When discerning which type is best for you, the key issues revolve around fabric, floor structure and size. If you want a portable boat that you can tuck in a locker and wheel out for occasional use, a lightweight PVC model is a fine option; but if your inflatable is likely to be used every day or towed behind your boat, a heavier, harder-wearing Hypalon model, with its greater resistance to sun, heat and humidity, is the better bet.
As regards floor structure, a high-pressure air floor is best for a soft ride, quick assembly and easier portability; while the increased strength and rigidity of a slatted plywood or aluminium deck is better suited to frequent use and higher speeds.
Other things to look out for include multiple air chambers for extra safety, an inflatable thwart for extra strength and an inflatable keel to improve directional stability. And if you plan on using a conventional outboard rather than a lightweight electric model, an extended tiller can also be a very useful option.
For those with more space or the capacity to carry the tender in davits or on the swim platform, a RIB combines payload capacity, stability and practicality with a more dynamic and efficient rigid hull. In so doing, it brings the pleasures of fast powerboating to the mix, as well as the capacity to access remote moorings. Even so, those who prioritise pragmatism over style would do well to investigate one of the many aluminium models now available. Certainly, the welding process means they are not as cleanly finished as fibreglass; and the bending of plates rather than the moulding of angles means the pace and ride is never quite at the same level. But while the differences are very minor, the merits are glaring. As illustrated by its widespread use in the commercial world, aluminium is particularly resistant to the rigours of knockabout boating, offering first-class durability for load carrying, repeated pick-ups and drop-offs, shallow water work and even beaching.
The variety of superyacht tenders for sale on the modern market is astonishing. You can find everything from elegant classical launches to fast open motoryachts of 50 feet or more and radically styled outboard-powered RIBs with serious seagoing ability. The reason of course is that different people want different things from their tenders. While some want the kind of boat that can take them on long exposed sea passages, others want a luxury tender that will hold its own among the marina catwalks of Monaco. While some favour an active watersports platform that can provide diving, skiing and sightseeing tours, others want a small, robust tender with a shallow draft to access the kinds of inlet, cove and beach that other boats can’t reach.
However, one of the most popular forms of luxury yacht tender is the limousine. As the name suggests, these are highly opulent, purpose-built craft designed to take people from ship to shore in the utmost style, elegance and comfort. They tend to involve a long sunken cylinder of sheltered accommodation, with big seating capacity and sliding overhead panels to enable an open boating feel when privacy, shelter and discretion are no longer necessary. Helmed either from the aft cockpit or the bow deck, they generally provide full standing access at both ends and opulent leather-lined seating environments, replete with Champagne fridges, bar facilities, sophisticated climate control and high-end acoustic systems.
Of course, any serious manufacturer of superyacht tenders will embrace the semi-custom approach, with a vast range of customising options to help achieve a more individual style in line with that of the mothership. But if your budget allows, there is no shortage of superyacht management companies willing and able to oversee the design and construction of a fully bespoke one-off.
The propulsive choice is an interesting issue. While outboards free up plenty of internal space and electric solutions help reduce noise, jet drives have some natural benefits. They are often favoured for their easy manoeuvrability at close quarters, their ability to operate in shallow cruising grounds, their entertaining handling and the added safety of a prop-free back end. For watersports, driving fun, marina manoeuvres and intimate coastal exploration, that makes them a great choice. The fact that they operate indirectly (by pushing water against water) means that they are inherently less efficient than conventional props (which generate their thrust by virtue of direct contact with their medium). But for those in need of a versatile, mixed-use tender, jet drives remain a fine propulsive solution.
Whatever part of the market you’re looking at, the key practical considerations when sourcing a tender remain scale, weight, price and payload. It needs to fit on the mothership, be easy to deploy and recover and be capable of carrying its allotted quota of crew and equipment. But ideally, it also ought to be easy to embark and disembark, with safe, well-placed guardrails and a variety of stable stepping points. And it ought to be properly matched to your lifestyle, your cruising grounds and your sense of style.
But for the most part, whether you want a classic yacht tender, a modern luxury yacht tender, a fast RIB or a simple inflatable workhorse, it’s worth knowing that you don’t need to confine yourself to the recognised tender brands. On the contrary, a lot of boats that find regular service in the tender market as shuttle boats for cocktail parties also do a sterling job as standalone powerboats. And conversely, if a standard off-the-shelf leisure craft satisfies the key criteria outlined above, it often only takes a few minor modifications to bring it into sharp resolve as exactly the tender you need.