One Foot in the Grave? No Way!
By Tamia Nelson
February 10, 2009
Not too many folks like the idea of getting older. But consider the alternative. That's even less attractive, isn't it? Moreover, passing the mid-century watershed doesn't mean that you're sentenced to a La-Z-Boy® for life. Of course, the years do bring on many changes. You just have to adapt. Learning your limits is important, as is finding your comfort zone. The rest is up to you. Many members of the Over the Hill Gang have taken up paddling for the first time—or returned to it after a long hiatus—and if the mail that reaches me is any indication, they're mighty glad they did. They don't all follow the same path, however. Some prefer canoes. Others favor kayaks. And a growing cadre have discovered the many virtues of sit-on-tops. Yet there's another option that often escapes notice, and that's…
Using air-filled bladders to float loads is an old idea whose time has come. Again. The ancient Assyrians inflated animal-skin bags and used them to help heavily burdened soldiers swim across swollen rivers. Whether these improvised buoys were vessels or PFDs is a judgment call, I suppose, but when the same enterprising folks lashed multiple bladders to a wooden framework, the result was undoubtedly a boat. Now let's fast forward to the 19th century, when a handful of ingenious arctic explorers took advantage of the newly-developed technology of vulcanization to design inflatable boats for…you guessed it…river crossings. These novel craft may have been little more than a footnote in the history of the North—the birchbark canoe got top billing, after all—but they offered an attractive combination of portability, stability, and high load-carrying capacity. Today's big story? Their descendants still do.
There's more. Modern inflatables are also surprisingly affordable, something that couldn't be said for their 19th-century antecedents. The first recreational inflatables were surplus life rafts, retasked for river running in the aftermath of World War II. These were superbly adapted to downriver trips but ill-suited to open-water ventures. (Floating around in the Pacific waiting to be picked up after your destroyer had been torpedoed wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise. Yet that's the only kind of open-water boating the surplus life rafts were intended for.) Commercial outfitters soon improved on Uncle Sam's designs. Still, their purpose-built whitewater rafts weren't exactly cheap. And they didn't fare any better on open water than the GI models. Then came a new generation of inflatable canoes and kayaks. Initially these were little better than pool toys, pushed around by every breeze and destined to come to grief on the first sharp stick they encountered. But that was then. Nowadays, inflatables are sleek, sturdy, and serviceable. Here are their advantages in a nutshell:
- Reasonable cost
- Relatively light weight
- Easily stored and transported
OK. Maybe you're skeptical. And you're right to be. I've thrown in a few weasel words here, haven't I? "Reasonable" and "relatively," for instance. And I've told at least one outright fib: No boat is unsinkable. Period. But a multi-chambered inflatable comes closer than most, and the other tags can be justified, too. Let's look at each in turn…
Low Cost High-quality inflatables won't break the bank. In a quick search through the Paddling.net "Interactive Buyer's Guide" I found a good selection of solo inflatable canoes and kayaks for less than USD1000, with a fair number retailing under USD600. In fact, I picked up one for 250 bucks. The snow started flying before I could give it a proper sea trial, but so far I'm mighty impressed.
Light Weight Inflatables are no heavier—and often lighter—than comparable hard-shell boats. The heaviest airborne solo I've found is the Innova® Seaker, 60 pounds of rugged, rudder-equipped sea kayak. This certainly isn't a featherweight, but it compares favorably with many fabric folders and poly kayaks, and most solo inflatables do better, falling somewhere in the 20- to 45-pound range. My solo canoe weighs in at 25. This is five pounds less than my 12-foot ABS pack canoe. That's plenty light enough for me.
Easy to Store and Transport A boat that fits in a bag you can carry on your back or shove in the closet—how cool is that? The photo on the right shows my new canoe in repose. The PFD on top of the storage bag and the brand-new breakdown paddle standing alongside give you some idea of the size. I can't wait for spring!
Unsinkable Hyperbole? Yes. But unless Nemesis really has your number, it's mighty hard for her to send an inflatable to the bottom and keep it there. The flotation is built in, right?
Now consider a few other advantages of inflatables. You won't need a roof rack, and you'll never have to worry about your boat flying off your car when a guyline snaps or a badly tied knot lets go. You won't need a lock to keep light-fingered passers-by from lifting your treasure off the rack in your absence, either. And you'll never strain your back or throw out a shoulder heaving your pride and joy onto the roof of your SUV. In fact, you won't even need to own an SUV. All inflatables are compact enough to stow in the smallest of small cars, and a lot of them are light enough to tow behind a bike. When gas prices resume their upward climb—and it's when, not if, I'm afraid—this could be very good news indeed.
A Fan's Notes
Mostly, though, inflatables warrant serious consideration for the simplest of reasons: They're great boats. They'll take you almost anywhere you want to go, under almost any conditions. They're also particularly well suited to the needs of first-time paddlers (or veteran boaters returning to the sport after a long absence). But you don't have to take my word for it. Here's how one In the Same Boat reader puts the case. Bob Angel is a scholar by trade, and his Japan Considered website is an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in East Asia. Bob is also a novice boater. And—I'm sure he won't mind my saying so—he's no longer a young man. That didn't stop him from bringing his formidable analytic skills to bear when the time came to buy a boat, though. How did he decide on an inflatable kayak? Let him tell the story:
I'd never done any boating at all before, and a friend suggested it. He helped me by patiently answering hundreds of silly questions, and he offered very good advice.
I needed a boat I could carry in my car. I didn't have a way to put a hard-shell kayak on top. So an inflatable or foldable kayak was the way to go. I looked at folding kayaks and found them too expensive for my budget. Plus they seemed to require a lot more maintenance and care, and too much time was needed to assemble them. Inflatables were cheaper and simpler, or so they seemed to me. I first bought a Sea Eagle® 330. Had lots of fun with it. Still have it. But the Advanced Elements® Expedition just looked too good to pass up, so I bought that.
Bob's Expedition incorporates aluminum ribs to give shape to the bow and stern. In a way, it's a hybrid between an inflatable and a folding kayak. The minimal framework doesn't slow Bob down when he's setting up, though. His photos show you just how easy it is:
The wheeled cart can now be folded and stowed on deck or returned to the car, where Bob can lock it safely away to await his return. And he may be gone a good while. As the photo at the top of the page shows, his Expedition is well named, with plenty of room for all the stuff he'll need for a long weekend, including a full complement of deck gear. Then again, every trip has to end sometime, and that's where inflatables really earn their keep. There's no need for the tired paddler to wrestle an awkward load up and onto his car and struggle with a complex web of tie-downs. All he has to do is open the valves and go about his business stowing his gear while the air whistles out. Then he can fold his craft up into a tidy bundle, bag it, and put it in the trunk for the trip home. Piece of cake!
Of course, Bob isn't alone in his enthusiasm. For another reader's inspirational take on inflatables, go to the September 30, 2008, edition of "Our Readers Write" and scroll down to Mary K. Davis' letter, "Inflated Expectations? No Way!" I can't think of a better illustration of the triumph of spirit over adversity—and of the versatility of these remarkable craft.
Does all this sound too good to be true? It's not. But there's a lot to learn about the art of going airborne. Luckily,…
There's Also a Lot of Help to be Had
Farwell's "In the Bag?" is about as brief an introduction as anyone could wish for. Ready for more? Then read "Bag It!" Are you worried that inflatables aren't seaworthy enough for "real" paddling? Don't be. Audrey Sutherland started exploring the northeast coast of the Hawaiian island of Molokai in a "pool-toy" inflatable four decades ago, before getting an expedition-grade boat and heading off on the first of many visits to Alaska. At last report she was back in Hawaii and still going strong, though she's now in her 80s. Her Paddling Hawai'i, though first and foremost a guidebook, is also a valuable primer on the use of inflatables, as is William Sander's long out-of-print Guide to Inflatable Canoes and Kayaks. Don't think that out-of-print means out-of-date, however. Sanders' product information may be dated, but his advice is timeless, and he's a wonderfully witty writer into the bargain.
What about it? Are you intrigued by the idea of floating on air? If so, you'll want to check out Paddling.net's Buyers' Guide and Reviews for up-to-the-minute information. Together, they've got just about everything you'll need to make an informed decision on the right craft for you. Then you'll be all set to chart a course for the far horizon.