The Pros and Cons of Inflatables
By: Captain Bill Jennings
When a person buys a boat today, he or she must first decide the "type' of boat that most interests them. With the advances in design and types of boats now available, this is not as simple as it may seem. The more a boat is designed to fit into a specific "type" category, the less efficiently it will work in a different category. To help boaters navigate through the realities of boat types, I present a series of articles that reveal some of the not frequently advertised characteristics of different boat types, in order to help you, the boat buyer, select a boat type that is right for you. We begin the series with "inflatable boats." Inflatable boats are made of flexible tubes containing pressurized air or gas. Basic inflatables have a PVC bottom, giving you a soft bottom to walk on, but most insert aluminum or wooden sheets to provide a fixed floor that makes it easier to stand on. On models where outboard motors are added, the transom must be rigid. Moving up to a very popular class of inflatables, is the "RIB," meaning "rigid inflatable boat." RIB inflatables resemble a fiberglass hull with inflatable tubes attached to the gunnels. Such hard hull inflatables are capable of higher speeds and are more stable in rough water. Unfortunately the fiberglass hull under the inflatable makes them considerably heavier and much more expensive.
Almost all inflatable boats are constructed with either PVC, or CSM. PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic thermoplastic material made by polymerizing vinyl chloride. While PVC fabric is relatively inexpensive to produce, it can be easily damaged by the sun's UV rays. A stronger inflatable material is CSM, which stands for chlorosulfonated polyethylene rubber. CSM is a UV resistant material that has recently replaced 'Hypalon' for manufacturing quality inflatables. To answer the question, 'is an inflatable right for you?' lets cut to the quick and list some of the often overlooked characteristics of this boat type.
Life Expectancy: Low. An inflatable life expectancy is not nearly as long as a solid fiberglass boat. Some PVC models last less than five years. High quality well cared for inflatables can last up to ten or more.
Storage: Limited. Inflatables have minimal storage space. Even RIBs with inserted center consoles and bow lazerettes have much less storage space than other boat categories.
Ride Comfort: Poor. Inflatables are not known to deliver a comfortable ride. What they are know for is a wet ride. Of course you can pump out any water that splashes into the boat using a hand or electric pump, but because there is no separate bilge area, excess water will slosh around in the bottom of the boat and over your feet until it is removed. And while they are very safe, the ride is rough in choppy conditions.
Capacity: Limited. The tubes on an inflatable reduce the available space for seats. On many of the models, the tubes themselves become the seats.
Cost: High. A quality inflatable, large enough to transport several people and with a reasonable horsepower outboard motor, will cost as much or more than an equivalent runabout.
Maintenance Required: Tricky. Inflatable owners must rinse off any salt water, clean the tubes regularly, maintain the tube air pressure at what is usually 2.5 PSI, as well as inspect fabric welds at least annually. What is not easy for owners to do is locate dealers qualified to repair any tears and punctures in the PVC or CSM.
The Upside: While these somewhat negative characteristics deter some buyers, there are some important functions in which inflatable boats excel. Small, low cost inflatables that are used occasionally, then deflated for storage, offer safe water access on a tight budget. Many cruising boat owners choose inflatables as their 'tender' to carry people and provisions to shore. The added buoyancy provided by the tubes increases their load carrying ability, and those soft tubes do not cause damage if they bump their cruiser. Almost all inflatable construction builds multiple floatation chambers within the tubes. Multiple chambers dramatically reduce the risk of sinking from contact with the bottom, or another object.
Of course we have all seen the heavy duty inflatables used by government agencies from the Coast Guard to Navy SEALs. Their greater lengths provide sufficient floatation to carry twin outboards and a host of specialized equipment. These high end, CSM inflatables present a formidable force and are built to operate daily. If you decide that your needs call for a boat that you can blow up, here are a few specific things to look for:
1) A good number of chambers and preferably ones with inter communicating valves that reduce the effect of a puncture.
2) If the inflatable you want is not a RIB, specify an inflatable keel to give you a softer ride.
3) Because few inflatables offer grab handles, specify grab straps on the tubes.
4) If you plan to keep your inflatable for an extended period of time, be sure to specify tubes made with chlorosulfonated polyethylene rubber, (CSM). This material, while more expensive, can double the life of your boat because it provides excellent protection from the sun and is more resistant to abrasion, fuel spills, and other chemicals.
5) If you are ordering an inflatable made with PVC, look for ones made with heavier 1.2mm thick PVC.
6) Be sure that the seams are welded and not simple glued.
Bottom Line: I believe that there are two extremes when it comes to happy inflatable buyers. The first group are buyers that want to spend very little on their inflatable and are simply looking for an affordable small vessel to take them fishing on rural lakes or to shore from their small cruiser. The second group of buyers are those with a sizable budget, who want a large, well equipped RIB for heavy duty applications. If you fit into one of these two extremes, you will love your inflatable. For applications between these two extremes, you could be disappointed.