Buyer's guide: inflatable boats
Interested in buying a new inflatable boat but don’t know where to start? Having trouble navigating the minefield of options? Don’t fret, the Trade-a-Boat buyer's guide to inflatable boats has everything you need to know.
Bear Grylls crossed the North Atlantic in one, and as tenders and runabouts they are overwhelmingly popular with the notoriously tight-fisted cruising yacht set thanks no doubt to their versatility, portability and value for money. There’s a plethora of sizes and great variation in quality, so understanding your own needs will dictate your budget and final choices.
In chatting with Zodiac Marine’s national sales manager, Dino Tantaro, we agreed that despite their growing popularity, there’s still a bit of a stigma regarding inflatables — some believe they just can’t cut it with "real" boats. This has always been a mystery to me — I originally hail from the southern tip of South Africa and inflatables are an institution among that region’s fishing and boating fraternity.
There, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, the resulting turmoil devours ships and their crews with alarming regularity. These seas also teem with fish and offer the spectacular backdrop of a stunning coastline, so they’re constantly daring recreational boaties and fishos to rise to the challenge.
There weak boats and weak stomachs need not apply and inflatables rule. So if surviving nature’s washing machine is a measure of a real boat, I believe inflatables can lay claim to being "unreal". Can they cut it? They sure as hell can!
Buying an inflatable boat
To be brutally honest, until recently I hadn’t given much thought to inflatable boats, despite their sleek lines and obvious practicality. Then I reacquainted myself with the format by slipping behind the wheel of a 5.7m centre console RIB and later grasped the handle of a tiller-steered 2.4m boat-in-a-bag. After driving both hard through a fair chop, I was left speechless — which for anyone who knows me is a feat in itself.
In the months since I seem to have developed a rubber fetish. I’ve succumbed to the many qualities offered by these versatile craft, which often serve as frontline battlewagons in navies around the globe.
Today’s inflatables come in a wide range of flavours, with models to cater for all budgets and applications. From simple paddle-powered dinghies and kayaks that comfortably fit in the boot of a car, to ultra-sophisticated, hyper-powered, ocean-going military/rescue vessels, inflatables span a broad spectrum of styles and functions. In this guide I’ve focussed my attention on craft that are otherwise considered to be boats in their own right, and their tender abilities for the benefit of those who own boats bigger than my house. So what’s on offer? Here’s an insight into the wonderful world of inflatables.
The cruising boater or silver-haired grey navy sailor would be well served by what is commonly termed a boat-in-a-bag. This is about as simple as boating gets. Compact, durable and inexpensive, basic roll-ups sport an inflatable collar and flexible synthetic rubber floor, the latter often reinforced with timber or composite slats that facilitate folding and add rigidity. Most are supplied standard with paddles/oars and can be folded down into a carrier the size of a golf bag, while many have rigid transoms capable of supporting an outboard.
Capable of a substantial payload once inflated, a 2.4m Plastimo Raid P240SH inflatable, for example, is rated to 5hp, with a capacity of three adults and a maximum load of 350kg — all this in a boat that can hide in the lazarette and the boot of a car. They’re great as a cheap tender and just right for fishing in shallow and skinny waterways. Add a small 2hp engine, a couple of two-piece rods and a splash of fuel, and you’ve got a stealthy boat that can access backwaters and creeks where you’d never get a conventional 10ft tinnie.
The best part, you get all of that for just a couple of grand — including the rods and fuel.
Airdecks / inflatable hulls
Similar to their roll-up cousins, inflatable hulls (also known as airdecks) are pump-up boats with the added benefit of an inflatable floor/hull for added rigidity and ride quality. These lightweight speedsters boast a more conventional hull shape, with a sharper entry, moderate deadrise and longer hull flaps on some models, which assist planing by increasing the wetted hull length.
Capable of carrying 15hp or more on the 3m-plus models and with a svelte weight in the mid-30kg range (hull only), their power-to-weight ratio is incredible — and they squeeze into a bag just over a metre long. A flat floor also gives you the freedom to stand up to have a stretch or flick out your next cast.
Inflatable racing cats
These high-performance racing inflatables had their genesis in the South African surf-rescue scene, and they rapidly developed an international following among adrenalin junkies everywhere. Boasting a power-to-weight ratio to rival a sports car plus the strength of a Sherman tank, these boats have very limited recreational appeal, unless you’re a masochist who enjoys having your spine realigned after every outing. Want an alternative to a supercharged PWC that you can store in the garage of your boat? This could be your new toy.
RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) — also known as RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats) — are a fusion of a conventional-style, deep-vee boat hull with the safety and shock-absorbing qualities of inflatable tubes or collars. With hulls constructed in GRP, alloy and also rotomoulded plastic, RIBs represent the best of all worlds. They’re the boating equivalent of an SUV.
The moulded or welded hulls allow for easy customisation and present an incredibly versatile platform for fishing, cruising, diving, skiing and tender duties. Lighter yet tougher and softer riding than similar sized all-alloy or ’glass trailerables, they have a vastly greater payload and require no special skills to pilot. Despite their open layouts RIBs also have incredibly dry hulls, because those inflatable collars turn down errant spray.
In recent years you may have caught New Zealand’s unique Sealegs boats performing party tricks around the Aussie boat-show circuit, morphing from rock crawler to tender extraordinaire before your very eyes. Available with either a fibreglass or alloy hull, Sealegs is a category unto itself and this innovative craft did itself proud in the aftermath of last year’s Queensland floods.
The advantages of inflatable boats
One word… air! You can insert a hose into a flaccid rubbery tube and fill it with air, thereby magically transforming that limp cylinder into one helluva nice boat. Now that’s my kind of inflation! All the other benefits that follow are a bonus of utilising this free and abundant resource.
Or rather the lack of it means you can use less power for similar performance to a heavier boat with a larger motor, or use the same motor for greater performance. Less weight means it’s easier to handle and also to tow and stow. For instance, the substantial Brig E780 Eagle, which has an inflated dimension of 7.85m x 2.9m and the capacity to legally accommodate 16 people, has a weight of between 1.8 to 2 tonnes, whereas a similarly-sized alloy or ’glass boat would drag the scales down to around 3 to 4 tonnes.
The deflated size can save up to 50 per cent in beam, depending on tube diameter. This means that if you can deflate a 2.8m-wide boat down to just 2.4m or significantly less, your over-width load is freed of towing restrictions. The only inconvenience is an extra 10 minutes at the boat ramp to reinflate it. This same feature also makes it easier to store. So, in theory, you can own, tow and store a significantly larger rig than you could ever entertain if it was a conventional boat.
Let’s face it, when the excrement hits the spinning bladed thingy and airliners ditch into the ocean or a commercial passenger vessel morphs into a submarine, survivors are herded into — you guessed it — inflatable boats. Because they’re inflated, they’re incredibly buoyant and the utilisation of several separately sealed chambers makes them even safer.
Even if some air is lost in the panic, they can easily be re-inflated on the water using a foot or 12V electric pump. Inflatables are very soft riding, since the inflated tubes also act as shock absorbers and they have an incredible load-carrying capacity. On many inflatables you can comfortably sit on the sides underway if conditions allow. And should you accidentally run into the jetty, what could possibly be safer than being cocooned inside the equivalent of a giant airbag?
With generous curves in all the right places, inflatables are dockside and big-boat friendly — after all, they’re essentially one giant fender. They’re also easy to repair if punctured — military versions can even take a bullet and still keep running! Many have integrated rubrails and aftermarket tube covers (made from durable UV-resistant fabric) that can also be purchased.
Despite the rubber ducky term persisting, natural rubber hasn’t been used in inflatable boats for decades. There are two main materials used in the construction of today’s inflatable boats.
Firstly, there’s PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which was created by accident in 1830s. It was later perfected by an American, Waldo Semon, during the Great Depression as he attempted to develop a synthetic rubber replacement for tyre manufacturer BF Goodrich. Secondly, there’s the more expensive but very durable Hypalon (chlorosulfonated polyethylene), a synthetic rubber that resists chemicals and tolerates extreme temperatures.
Versatility and fun
Inflatables are great boats for kids, both as passengers and as novice skippers (licence permitting). The smaller boats only need a couple of horsepower or an electric motor to get them going, or you can ditch the outboard and press the oars into service for an aerobic workout.
Predominantly outboard-powered inflatables require no more effort than any other boat to maintain in as-new condition. To maximise your inflatable’s lifespan, follow these simple guidelines:
• If you normally have a shower after a dip do the same for your boat, a 10-minute washdown is all it takes. If you have a boat-in-a-bag, air it once it’s rinsed off, much like you’d hang out a wet tent. Hang wet carpet on the lifeline or siderail to dry and pop some moisture-absorbing pouches in any storage locker.
• Flush the engine after every use. I repeat, flush the engine after every use.
• Tubes can be cleaned of grime and scum with a bit of elbow grease and a mild detergent, while products like Jiff or Scuff Orf will sort out stubborn stains. Wax any fibreglass hull surfaces and dress the interior vinyl with a protectant such as Armor All.
• Check the tubes for correct inflation and for leaks.
• A pressure gauge is an inexpensive investment as is a bucket of soapy water, which brushed onto the tubes will reveal any leaks through tell-tale bubbles. Punctures are easily fixed with the supplied repair kit.
How to pick an engine for an inflatable boat
Michael Orsmond from Ribforce says the key to matching the perfect engine and tender is in getting the correct power-to-weight ratio. Minimum requirements are normally around 70 per cent of the manufacturer’s maximum horsepower recommendation, however, if the boat regularly carries its maximum payload you should probably move up to the highest horsepower allowed. Ideal engine sizes would be 5hp for 2.4m RIB, 8hp for 2.6m and up to 15hp for 2.9m.
Commenting on engine type Michael suggests that two-strokes are popular, being manageable, light and packing plenty of punch, while four-strokes are often chosen by people who hate mixing oil and wish for a quiet, smoke-free motor.
And lastly Michael suggests seeking expert advice when considering a cheap imported motor. It may not be up to standard or come with any backup.
So you’re now probably even more interested in exploring the inflatable option so we have whittled the list down to a few likely suspects. The next step is to get off the couch and trot down to the local dealer for a proper poke and a prod.
While it will probably be tough to get hold of a roll-up inflatable for a demo, most dealers would be more than happy to accommodate your request for a ride in a RIB — providing you stress that you’re interested in finalising a purchase if the rig lives up to your expectations.
Ask as many questions as you can and don’t feel awkward if they sound a little silly to you. Trust me, most dealers would prefer you ask them then and there than see you walk away confused. And finally, get one wet — then I guarantee you’ll develop a rubber fetish all of your own!
› 1. It takes as much pressure to push a nail through 4mm of alloy as it does to push-puncture a Hypalon tube.
› 2. The tapered and lowered buoyancy tube ends increase the waterline length, generating better economy and increased stability.
› 3. The inflated tubes utilise very low pressure, commonly around 3psi.
› 4. Inflatables have cemented their role in the military ever since their humble beginnings in 880BC.
› 5. Most large inflatables can be paddled in an emergency due to their lower side heights.
› 6. A typical Royal Australian Navy J3 (Juliet Class) RIB in service spec is worth more than $500,000. That’s for a 7.2m boat, which doesn’t even have a trailer! Many models in the current RAN inflatable fleet are more than 15 years-old and still have their original Hypalon tubes.
› 7. Ukranian manufacturer Brig originally supplied inflatable Hypalon landing tubes for the Soviet space industry prior to the end of the Cold War.
› 8. Some inflatables actually have replaceable collars; these can dramatically increase service life in high-wear applications.
› 9. Survival junky Bear Grylls and his crew used a customised RIB to cross the frigid waters that claimed the Titanic, and recently traversed Canada’s treacherous Northwest Passage aboard a customised 11m special forces-spec Zodiac called Shockwave Arctic Wolf. That boat boasted a whopping 900hp, courtesy of a triple stack of Mercury Verado 300s.
› 10. Compact racing inflatables, Thundercats pack an enormous wallop thanks to a power-to-weight ratio of 340hp per tonne. That’s Ferrari territory and it would spank most PWCs off the line, despite carrying a meagre 50hp on their tiller-steered rumps. — By Michael Orsmond from Ribforce
List of inflatable boat manufacturers
- AAKRON BOATS - www.aakronboats.com.au
- AB Marine - www.westribs.com.au
- Achilles - www.inflatableboats.com.au
- Active Water Sports
- Alpha Marine Inflatables - www.westribs.com.au
- Amanzi Inflatables - www.mercurymarine.com.au
- Aqua Marina Inflatables - www.waves.com.au
- BRIG - www.siroccomarine.com
- Caribe - www.globalforcemarine.com
- Explorer Inflatables - www.waves.com.au
- Falcon - www.westribs.com.au
- Gemini - www.siroccomarine.com; www.jettorquemarine.com.au
- Jarvis Walker (Watersnake) - www.jarviswalker.com.au
- Plastimo (RFD) - www.rfd.com.au
- Quicksilver Inflatables - www.mercurymarine.com.au
- Sealegs - www.siroccomarine.com.au
- Swift Marine - www.swiftmarine.com.au
- Takacat Inflatables - www.takacat.com
- Tiger Marine - www.jcmarine.com.au
- West Strata Inflatables - www.westribs.com.au
- Zapcat (Gemini) - www.siroccomarine.com.au
- Zodiac - www.zodiacmarine.com.au
We clocked 44kts in a recent test of the sport Eagle 650H from Europe RIB giant Brig.
The diminutive Aakron BM250 is no trouble to row.
The catamaran-styled New Zealand Takacat Lite allows greater carrying capacity and less engine power compared to equivalent conventional inflatables.
The legendary Zodiacs are used globally for both serious and fun water activities, with this Pro Open 650 making a handy wakeboat as well.
A popular choice with cashed-up big-boaters are Williams Jet Tenders, like the 325 — no dangerous propellers or protrusions make for easy storage.
Avoid the harsh Australian sun by accessorising with a Zodiac bimini.
Always select an engine based on weight, power and suitability for the specific size of inflatable as per manufacturer’s recommendations.
Queensland-based Swift is a major builder boasting around 50 models, including aluminium-hulled RIBs with Orca Hypalon tubes and sizes ranging from 2.4 to 13m.
Achilles is a major Japanese manufacturer and this model, the air floor LSI365, features topside UV protection, a solid rubbing strake and can have optional storage under the seat.
There are several of these Italian-made Polaris flying RIBs in Australia — strap the airframe to your favourite RIB and take off!
A basic roll-up inflatable, such as this Zodiac Cadet 2.4m can be rowed or motored.
The USA-based Novurania’s 550 DL is a high-spec RIB, hand-finished with custom options making it a deluxe-level boat.
From Trade-a-Boat Issue 432, Oct-Nov 2012.
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