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Preventing your dinghy and outboard from being stolen

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What is the issue?
Yachtsmen tend to have good, and often new, equipment and look after it. In the case of tenders and outboards this unfortunately tends to make them prime targets for theft, to which they are very vulnerable.

Why address this?
For yachtsmen a dinghy and an outboard are as essential as a car is to a family that lives in a rural area. Even if the dinghy is recovered afterwards and only the engine is lost, its utility is limited as inflatable dinghies do not row well and you will require power to get out to a distant vessel. Even at the best of times, in home waters, you want to avoid the cost of replacement or associated insurance premiums.

How to address this?
Sadly, if a thief is determined enough to steal your dinghy and tender and outboard, there is very little you can do to stop it. But there is a lot to reduce your vulnerability to almost zero.

Let us just start off with a few broad principals. Thiefs are generally not interested in the inflatables. It is broadly the outboard engines they are after with larger models being generally more desirable than smaller ones. When a dinghy and outboard has been stolen the inflatables are typically found slashed, sunk or half sunk not far from where the theft took place. Thieves also come in a few different guises.

There are the opportunist thieves who just see an easy mark and make off with it in the moment. There are the organised thieves who lift the engines for resale and are looking for valuable highly tradable items. Or, you could fall victim to a poor fisherman who doesn't have the financial ability to buy a good outboard or the money to replace one that has finally given up the ghost on him. Don't get me wrong, almost all fishermen you will meet are honest hard working people, but there is always the one that feels a desperate situation calls for a desperate answer and, as in all strata of society, there is always the occasional bad apple that thinks yachtsmen are super wealthy and would not miss it.

So, as the spoils of thievery can wind up in a wide range of different situations there is no silver bullet that will remove all use cases. But, if we start out with this in mind you have two broad areas to work upon to reduce the likelihood of having your dinghy and outboard stolen. Reducing the desirability of the equipment and/or increasing how difficult it is to steal it.


If you have not already purchased the outboard you have a massive advantage. Ring around the dealers or the service shops and find out what are the top selling products such as the Honda 20 HP or Yamaha 15 HP which are particularly popular. Then simply steer clear of these as they are wanted, and parts are readily available such as engine cowlings, etc. Try to go for an offbeat brand, or at least a less popular model that is known for its reliability, the service shops will be well geared up to advise. An example of this is a man I met who used an ultralight Torqeedo Travel 503/1003, the electric motor of which was entirely alien and so light that he could just carry it away with him.

Then, if the outboard is to stay with you for its serviceable life, that is to say, that you do not expect to be trading it in or selling it later, you should reduce the outboards appearance of value by uglifying it and making it look old and tatty.

OK, this is a difficult and painful choice for a yachtsman and never more so than when looking at a brand new tender and outboard. At heart, we all have ship shape and Bristol fashion ingrained within us and take great pride in turning out our vessels and tenders in good order. But this is the only place where that works against us, where ‘pride precedes the fall’. For in doing such we are only presenting the dinghy and outboard’s value to people of weaker morals. The cherished shininess needs to be replaced by new descriptors such as blemish, blot, botch, deface, deform, disfigure, mar, ruin, spoil, in short uglify the outboard engine as follows:

  • Peel off and remove [lesp] all smart new branding markings to completely anonymise the engine.

  • • Scuff the plastic cover with a steel brush to make it look old.

  • • Bolt on personalised items such as a convenient customised lifting handle taken from a car, presented above on the header image, and additional straps securing the cover to the leg.

  • • Uglyfy by spraying on several shades of black primer, not just the cowling that can be replaced easily, followed by further light distressing with a steel brush and piece of chain. Remember simply painting it florescent yellow is not much of a deterrent for a fisherman looking for a replacement of the same engine model that has given up the ghost.

  • • Mark the outboard with the yachts name in such a fashion that they cannot easily be removed such as by a spray marking template Experience.

  • • Add additional seagull droppings as required and dab light matt grey paint all about the lower casing to appear like alloy corrosion.

Likewise, it is just as important to uglify the dinghy making it appear just as haggard and tatty. The dinghy itself is not usually of any real interest to a prospective thief but, if it is an easy mark, an opportunist might just swipe it even if it doesn’t have a motor. Most of all it has to be entirely in keeping with the distressed looking outboard engine, if not more so because it is far more visible from a distance and first impressions count. So get to work uglyfying and here are some suggestions:

  • • Put a lot of ill-sorted patches around it. They don't have to be well stuck on perfectly, the off hanging corner here and there is ideal. The patches make it look old by default and no one wants an unreliable dinghy.

  • Uglifying our new Zodiac with white rubber paint
    Photo: Michael Harpur
    • Paint the dinghy with brightly coloured rubber paint. The added benefit of rubber paint is that it offers UV protection which extends the life of the dinghy. Rubber paint also starts to degrade and flake in time which looks worse which is exactly what you want. You may wish to recoat right over the flaking for the UV protection.

  • • Paint some slapdash images upon the rubber paint. As illustrated below, I add a rash of Irish shamrocks to make the overall effect distinctly awful.

  • • Clearly mark the dinghy with the yachts name and registration number in a section free from rubber paint with a paint that bites into the fabric and cannot be easily be removed.

If at the end of this process you have not reduced the appearance of the tender to feel humiliated by going up to the pontoon with it, you have not done it correctly. Go back and make it worse.

The end result, our very unattractive dinghy
Photo: Michael Harpur

This approach is heartbreaking but sadly totally effective. Remember, once complete you will find that although your excellent new outboard engine and dinghy has all its life to give to you and is in A1 condition, it looks worthless. Thieves walk on by looking for more desirable engines for themselves or ones that can be more easily resold.


If you reduce the desirability axis, the other axis you have to work with is 'difficulty'. A determined thief could cut every type of device, but the more difficult it is or appears to be, the less they’ll be inclined to try.

A heavy duty cycle lock doubles as a good anchor point for a chain and locks
then engine up

Image: Michael Harpur

  • • See if a high-end motorcycle lock can be deployed in such a fashion as to lock off, or up, the outboard engine so it cannot be used. Use this in conjunction with a stainless steel outboard lock that sits over the outboard thumb screws, or makeup one with some stainless pipe offcuts, to keep the boat and engine secured together. Then invest in a solid marine grade padlock with a stainless steel body, shackle and rust-free components, to secure it to another object.

  • • Place a sturdy eye bolt to a fixed part of the dingy and rivet down the heads so that a grinder will be required to release them.

  • Stainless Steel Marine Grade Padlock
    Photo: Courtesy of Diskus Padlocks
    • Get a good length of solid stainless-steel chain that can be run out through the eye bolt and the engine to a distant fixed point on the yacht or a pontoon or quay when ashore. Stainless steel chain is the most cut-resistant and, unfortunately, as organised outboard thieves typically come armed with cable cutters you need to increase the difficulty. The chain is very worthwhile as it can be doubled as the tender's anchor chain in normal operation.

  • • Use it everytime you go ashore and make certain to run the chain through the dinghy fuel tank to prevent would-be thieves from going down a line of dinghies at a dinghy dock and lifting several fuel cans at once.

  • • As a matter of course always remove the wrist safety-shutoff coil, perhaps even remove the fuel line - carry it with you in a plastic bag to avoid leakage. Although these can easily be substituted by an experienced thief they will probably see it as just being too hard.

  • • Most stolen dinghies and outboards disappear from anchorages late at night. So don't leave it hanging out on a painter like a bag of money, hoist it up and chain the dinghy, the outboard motor and fuel tank to a strong point on the yacht.

  • • Even when you’re just downstairs for a nap during the middle of the day, run up the chain and lock it anytime it will be out of your sight for a bit. Locking the dinghy avoids scams where people claim it was found adrift and demanding a return fee.

  • • Never ever leave the outboard sitting on the back rail advertising its availability. At the very least wrap a big chain around it to show it is secured, locking off the thumb screws is pointless as one touch with a cat's paw (nail puller or pry bar) and it comes right off. It is always best to stow it in a locker out of sight.

Sadly almost all of this does not prevent crime from happening, it just displaces it, so all of the above is really only helping you not to be a victim. I would also suggest that many reported "stolen" dinghies are really dinghies that have gotten loose from a boat. After all, it is a lot easier to protest the injustices of the world than to admit you were half asleep when making the bowline and that simple error has cost you a pretty penny!

The uglification approach is heartbreaking but was totally effective on our circumnavigation. We sailed around the world and no one ever took the remotest interest in our gear except to think we were truly a pitiful pair wherever we arrived. Remember though, keeping outboards scuffed up and painted over tatty is fine for the outside, but you still must keep everything beneath all that ugly well-maintained.

See also reducing boating related theft Experience.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur

A homemade stainless steel outboard motor lock (version 1)

A homemade stainless steel outboard motor lock (version 2)

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Add your review or comment:

Lee Gunter wrote this review on Dec 13th 2006:
I would add that smaller hp is far better as well. Besides being cheaper, 8-15 h.p. is most useful for small fishing boats in many parts of the world. A 2-4 h.p engine is only good for a dinghy and has the added benefit of being easy to mount on or off the dinghy when the dinghy is in the water. Lee Gunter, New World

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