Wednesday, October 24, 2012

 Making Dinghy Chaps!      September-October 2012

Ever since we got our new Zodiac dinghy through our friend Matt Bolt at the 2011 Annapolis Boat Show, we’ve noticed wear and tear from the weather and from the non-skid grit on the foredeck where it rides on sea passages. So I decided to make “Dinghy Chaps”, a fitted canvas cover, to protect them.

In Curacao we bought a used sailmaker's sewing machine from friends on SV Seafari, downloaded the guide for making dinghy chaps from Sailrite (, ordered materials from Sailrite as recommended in the guide, took a deep breath, and began.

First I made the pattern.  Since we were at anchor in a windy harbor, I found a ramp at the nearby sailing club, where they allowed us to haul the dinghy out and make the patterns necessary for cutting the material.   On another day, we took the material to a nearby waterfront restaurant early on a Sunday morning, where they told us it was OK to use their deck to spread out the material, pin and cut it.  It is much easier to do these operations while on terra firma rather than bouncing around in the water.

I did all the sewing in the cabin of our boat, with the sewing machine plugged into the inverter.  It draws a lot of energy, so it is best to get all ready to sew before turning on the inverter , and turn it off right after you finish a piece of sewing.

I sewed on the vinyl anti-chafing patches, and joined the sections.  I added seam binding around the cutouts for the handles, to stiffen them a bit so they would not flap in the wind.  The first cut-out for the handles was too big, so I made the next ones a bit smaller.  Toward the end, a South African sailor recommended that I use bungee cord rather than line for the drawstring securing the chaps to the dinghy.

The cost of the materials was about $200, the cost of the used Sailmakers machine was $325, and I put in at least 50 hours of painstaking work.  I have only basic sewing skills, and the last project I did that was more complicated than mending a hem was in 1978. 

The job requires you to climb in and out of the dinghy dragging your pinned lengths of canvas and fitting it over the dinghy in wavy conditions. You have to wrestle with the heavy canvas a lot and it is hard on your nails and hands, like handing a sail.  I had to tear out yards of errant seams, and we had to oil and adjust parts of the sewing machine periodically.

The only  ready-made dinghy chaps commercially available are for AB dinghies and sell for over $800.  Two professional marine seamstresses in Curacao would not even bid a job for sewing dinghy chaps.  I would undertake to sew a second dinghy cover for the low-low price of about $10,000.  It is a painstaking, frustrating, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, time consuming job.

Helpful Hints from Di:

1.      Think twice before you tackle this job.

2.      Make a lot of notes and match marks on your pattern. Use lots of colored sharpies to keep track of what your lines and notes stand for.

3.     I made the handle cutout about 3/4 inch wide of the handles on all sides. More than one inch was too wide for our purposes.

4.      Make oval cutouts rather than square ones, for easier sewing. Bungee cord for the exterior drawstring is a good idea.

5.      I original ordered one spool of  dacron thread, and needed two.

6.     Other useful aids to the job were electrical alligator clips  ( minimum of 6), heavy duty sewing pins ( a whole package) and  a pin cushion.  The seam tape recommended by Sailrite was a real work saver.  A seam ripper and needle threader were essential.

7.      Have your partner leave the area (or boat!) while you work.  You'll need the space, and your partner will be pleased to miss out on all the excitement. When I had everything all spread out, there was no room at all in the main salon for a second person. I cut in the galley and pieced and pinned on the settee. Materials were spread out all over the place.

8.     Try to schedule your sewing time without long gaps in between sewing days. It is easy to lose the stream of thought which makes the work easier, and lose your place.

8.      Learn German.  In German you can string together lots of bad words to create new ones, for when the old ones just aren’t adequate to express your frustration!

However, when you're done, it is a satisfying achievement and your dinghy will be protected and its lifespan will be extended by many years.  Our fellow cruisers and seamstress friends were very complimentary of the job--- all acknowledge that dinghy chaps are a really complex task!


  1. my my....alls I can do is laugh! Shall I commission you to make me a swimsuit that can double as fender covers! Haa..Haa.. Size Q maybe double Q!I'm sure Randy would love to help in the measuring department.(XOXO to my guy) Miss you both tons. Lou

  2. Hey Dianne it's Chris back at ICHD.

    Looks like the sailing life is treating you well.
    I was going through a folder in your old office and I found a folder with a bunch of pictures of you and your girls when the were young. I am going to hold onto them in the office until you come back to Michigan or one of your girls can swing by and pick them up.
    Take care