Buying a Boat

In the Bag? Inflatables

By Farwell Forrest

Inflatables have been around for a long time—since the mid-nineteenth century, in fact. Until recently, however, the only choices were the rubber rafts used by groups of paddlers to run big Western rivers. No more. Now the catalogs are full of light, handy one- and two-person inflatable kayaks. Or are they canoes? Well, it really doesn't matter what you call them. They're inflatables. That's the important thing. You can store one in a closet in the smallest city apartment. Once you get to your put-in, however, you just hook up a foot pump and…Whoosh! Whoosh!…in a few minutes you've got a boat. At the end of the day, you open the big dump valves and wait for the air to rush out. Then you roll up your boat and stuff it back in its pack.

Riding on Air!

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, nothing's perfect. Pumping up even a small one-person inflatable can be sweaty work, and getting all the air out when you're ready to go home can leave you feeling like you've wrestled an alligator. It's a small price to pay for a boat that you can store in a closet, though.

Riding on air. That doesn't sound too bad, eh? And it's not. In most cases, inflatables can't match the performance of hardshell craft, but they do pretty well. They're great whitewater trainers, in fact—buoyant (naturally!) and incredibly maneuverable. And they don't do so badly on flatwater, either, especially when they're fitted with rudders or skegs.

Nor are they particularly vulnerable. After all, outfitters take rafts down some of the world's hairiest whitewater rivers. They capsize from time to time, of course, and they can get pinned, just like hardshell boats, but they don't often develop catastrophic leaks, even when subjected to the wear and tear of daily commercial use. Modern materials and multiple air-chambers provide a reasonable margin of safety. Anglers, however, will need to exercise care. No inflatable is proof against the needle-sharp point of a well-honed hook. Still, many fly fishermen manage to use fragile float tubes without trouble. It just takes a little caution.

Are inflatables costly? No more so than many canoes and kayaks. The cheapest boats usually have unreinforced vinyl tubes. They're great beach toys for good swimmers. Period. Better boats have Hypalon-coated fabric tubes or encapsulated air-cells. These are more expensive, but they're a lot stronger, too, and they're still no more costly than even the cheapest folding kayaks. As an added bonus, better-quality inflatables withstand higher inflation pressures. Higher pressure means greater rigidity, and rigidity translates into easier paddling and better control.

So, who should buy an inflatable? Anyone with limited storage space, or anyone needing a capable "take-along" boat. If your taste runs to open water, you might be happier with a folding kayak or canoe, but if you'd like to run whitewater rivers, an inflatable could be just what you need.

Inflatables come in both solo and tandem models. Some have fabric floors; some have foam. Foam floors add stiffness, but you pay a price in reduced portability. The moral? Decide how you want to use your boat and select a model to suit. As always, see if you can't try before you buy. And when you go shopping, pay special attention to the quality of workmanship. Look carefully at the seams. They're the most critical areas. Be sure to try the pump, too. Good pumps cost money, and not all good boats come with good pumps. So pay a few dollars more and get a good pump. You'll be glad you did.

And don't forget a repair kit. If you've lost the one that came with your boat, get a replacement, and be sure you know how to use it. The likelihood of serious damage is small, but if you take your boat out of the closet, sooner or later you're certain to get a puncture. Don't risk being let down on the water. Be prepared! 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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