Monday, December 31, 2018

Cholamark dinghy covers--the best ever

Our brand new dinghy and cover
Like all cruisers, our dinghy is really important to us.  Having just replaced our dinghy under warranty, we wanted to get a cover at the same time to help protect it from the brutal tropical sun. And some added protection from our kids (who refuse to stop eating and continue to grow at an alarming rate) would be nice as well.

Several years back, shortly after arriving in French Polynesia, we ran into a boat that had the best looking dinghy cover we had ever seen.  It wasn't baggy, saggy or floppy. Some dinghy covers end up looking (in the words of our friend Mark) like 'A skinny man in a fat man's clothes'. Honestly, it's hard to make flat cloth fit onto something rounded like an inflatable boat. But this cover was as near to perfect as you could get. It fully covered and protected the tubes yet gave access to all the handles and bits and bobs that came off the tubes. It didn't detract from the look of the dinghy. In fact, you barely even knew it was a cover until getting up close.

After talking to the owner of the dink (who would become good friends), I was a bit disappointed to learn that the dinghy cover had been made in Phuket, Thailand, as that was a destination several years off into the future.

Could we have one made and sent to us? Nope, we learned. The cover maker needed the boat on site for measurements and construction.  Maybe someone else was building a cover just as nice, perhaps in New Zealand where we'd be in a few short months?  Perhaps, said our friend, but he was just nearing the end of his multi-year circumnavigation and he had yet to see anything close. Just wait until Phuket, he said, you won't be sorry. I snapped a quick photo of the manufacturer's info sewn onto the back of the cover for future reference and we continued west.

Fast forward 3-1/2 years and we're now in Phuket, having just taken delivery of our own brand new dinghy cover from Cholamark. It looks even better than the one I remember from French Polynesia.   We ordered it in a boring but (hopefully) dirt-hiding grey that is similar to the color of the tubes. From ten feet away, it looks just like an uncovered dinghy. To say that the cover "fits like a glove" is a gross understatement. A friend commented that a better analogy would be that it "fits like a stocking."

Why does this dinghy cover look so much better than any others? Why do almost all the local boats around Phuket seem to have covers made by Cholamark? Why am I asking all these rhetorical questions? It's all about the design and construction. And a bit about Hans.  

Hans is the owner of Cholamark Boats, whose main office is located just a few minutes walk from the Ao Chalong Pier in Phuket. Hans grew up in Germany but came to Thailand 30 years ago to start up a small boat-building business. His parents had run a business manufacturing rubber parts for inflatable boats, so the industry was in his blood.

Over the years Cholamark has grown and Hans expanded out of the showroom and built a large factory compound just outside of town. In addition to crafting an excellent cover, Cholamark also builds its own line of dinghies, is one of the top Highfield retailers in the world, and can repair almost anything relating to your small boat: new tubes, welding, fiberglass work, etc.

Stereotypes aside, Hans is the embodiment of planning, attention to detail and excellent engineering.  In talking to him over the course of several days, it was clear that he is a firm believer that if you are going to bother doing something, do it right. It's where something that seems ordinary--like a dinghy cover--becomes a work of art because no detail is too small.

Quality materials


Boring grey for us, but any color Suntek or Sunbrella is available.

All of the materials of the cover are selected for the harsh tropical marine environment they will be used in. Customers can choose from Sunbrella, Suntec or UV treated vinyl fabrics. We chose the Suntec as Hans has found that it stretches less and wears better than the Sunbrella in this application. The thread used to stitch the cover is also a proper heavy duty, UV resistant thread. The best cover in the world won't last long if the thread dissolves after just a year or two.

It's the good stuff....


Meticulous planning and preparation


Start of the template process.

Part of the reason that Hans requires the boat to be present for the cover construction is that he measures and creates templates for each boat from scratch.  I asked him why he doesn't just have a master template for our dinghy model (a Highfield CL 340, for which he has built numerous covers). I was surprised to learn that each set of dinghy tubes is slightly different, due in part to (1) very small differences in how the Orca Hypalon stretches from roll to roll of the material and (2) minor variations on where the handles and oarlocks are placed.

Marking the exact location of the rub rail.

None of these variations are noticeable when two of the exact same model dinghies are sitting side by side, but when you're building a cover with tolerances of a millimeter or two, it makes a difference.  The paper pattern is made by covering the tubes with large sheets, with smaller pieces of paper taped on to perfectly match the location of the handles, rub rails etc. Once the initial, taped-up pattern is made, it is transferred to a clean sheet of paper that will serve as the final pattern used in the construction of the cover.  The pattern is then catalogued and stored. A new cover can be built from the pattern, so if a few years down the line you want a new cover, Hans can make one and ship it to you anywhere in the world. Our friend had this done and shipped to French Polynesia--it was brilliant!


A clever design


Velcro along the full perimeter of the tubes, both inside and out
The reason many dinghy covers look a bit sloppy is the way they are attached to the boat. Some use clips, others a drawstring. Some use tie downs or straps mounted in various configurations. But invariably, these methods seem to pull too tight in some areas and not tight enough in others, resulting in a cover that moves around and just doesn't seem to fit right.

Hans showing the Velcro that holds his covers in place.

Close-up of the Velcro.  It's first
stitched to a Hypalon strip before being glued to the boat.
Hans pioneered his use of Velcro to hold the cover down years ago in a technique that has now been copied by many commercial cover makers. Since very few things can successfully be glued to Hypalon, it would be a waste of time to try and attach the Velcro directly to the dinghy. Instead, the Velcro is sewn onto a strip of Hypalon fabric, which is then glued onto the dinghy. This creates a Velcro strip that isn't going anywhere. When matched up to a full perimeter Velcro strip sewn into the underside of the cover, a taut and form-fitting cover results.  A similar technique (using different materials and glue) is used for PVC-constructed dinghies.

Totally form fitting

The fit around the handles is exact. Note the backing material that
adds more protection and keeps the handle hole from shifting.
The design also attempts to fully protect the dinghy from the harmful elements. Handle cut-outs have a nifty backing piece that is stitched and Velcroed into place. This added detail not only protects the underlying material, it also keeps the handle opening from deforming and ruining the fit of the cover.

Hans also was able to adapt the design to fit a particular need for us.  The way our dinghy sits on the davits results in an area where the tube near the bow sometimes rubs against the davit supports. Hans had no problem adding a extra "wear patch" to protect the cover and underlying tube.  If the top area ever wears through, we can simply unstitch it and put on another wear patch.


Proper construction 


Sew up room at work

The cover itself is crafted by a team of highly experienced seamstresses.  All of the edges are finished and the stress points double stitched.  The gluing of the Hypalon Velcro strip takes place in Cholamark's specially constructed, environmentally controlled, glue up room. Hypalon glue is very sensitive to high humidity and items glued up in high humidity conditions are prone to early failure.  That's why all of Cholamark's glue-up work (including new tube construction and tube repairs), happens in the large, sealed, air-conditioned workshop. 

Climate-controlled glue-up room


Competent team


Cholamark has grown to the point where Hans can't be everywhere at once. But his team of over 40 employees is highly skilled and many of them have worked for Hans for over 20 years.
Building a boat trailer from local hardwood and 

stainless bolts. Easier to repair and they last longer than the metal ones!

Building the hull on one of Cholamark's own line of dinghys.

Hans with his solar powered project boat: 3.5 knots under solar alone.

Using the onboard Lithium batteries gets you 13 knots.

Our new dinghy looks great with the Cholamark cover on it. In fact, our friends, who are whizzes with their Sailrite sewing machine had recently spent quite a bit of time carefully crafting  their own custom dinghy cover. It looked very nice and was probably better than most dinghy covers out there. But they took one look at ours and realized what was possible. The next day they ordered a new cover from Hans.

Full disclosure: We had already put in our order for a new cover when Hans and I got to talking about things and he must have seen our blog at some point.  He asked if we could take some photos and do a write up about how he builds his covers. He is a self-confessed 'terrible marketer' and admits he just doesn't have time to put together something about the dinghy cover construction process--a task he's been meaning to do for several years now.  I said 'sure' and Hans gave us a discount on the cover in exchange for coming out to his factory, photographing and documenting the process. So yes, we did receive something of value in return for this write-up, but it's all true and we wouldn't have it on our blog if we didn't believe in it.


  1. Hans should have a brochure made up with all your comments. Was he pleased?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Fascinating read, a real work of art,


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