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Singing the Praises of an Inflatable Fleet

Michael Peters

Sightlines - September 2016

Air Apparent

Who knew that today’s inflatable boats and water toys were on the forefront of boatbuilding technology?

Modern yachts carry a flotilla of small boats and water toys on board, because no matter how large the yacht you’re on, the real fun happens down close to the water, where you can actually enjoy the refreshment of playing in the ocean. My personal mini fleet includes a 10-foot dinghy, a two-man kayak, and a couple of stand-up paddleboards. Thanks to the space-saving technology of inflatables and drop-stitch construction, it’s possible to carry all these water toys aboard our 48-foot ULDB trawler. We would never have enough deck space for these as rigid boats, but deflated, they all roll up tightly for compact stowage in our lazarette.

Blowing up an inflatable paddleboard

The dinghy and kayak sport inflatable collars with drop-stitch floors, but my stand-up paddleboards are 100-percent drop-stitch—an amazing, recent development that frees inflatables from the limits of round forms and creates just about any fairly flat shape with air pressure. Two layers of rubberized fabric are stitched together in a tight grid pattern of threads that dictate the distance between the fabric surfaces. Inflate the chamber between the rubberized skins to about 6 psi and you get a surface rigid enough to stand on in the water. Align a series of panels together and you can create almost any shape you want. I have seen rock-hard drop-stitch panels under development that can take much higher pressure. When high-pressure panels like these are perfected, we’ll have entire rigid hulls made with this technology, which makes it possible for a 20-foot boat to be rolled up small enough to stow in a locker.

Some real visionaries must have held an Inflatables Standardization Conference early on, because all four of my little boats share the same air-chuck configuration and can use the same air pump, even though they were all made by different manufacturers. Who knew the boat industry could be so cooperative? The inflatables business is doing a great job of design and innovation, allowing all of us to carry an incredible range of toys that were once only possible on board larger yachts.

But as in any field of development, sometimes the technology is so exciting that the designers begin to overlook the mundane features and manage to create an overall fail. While my kayak and SUPs are complete successes, my inflatable dinghy is a real dud. After using it only a few times, the plastic oarlocks failed, leaving us to paddle our dinghy like Pocahontas. While vacationing on Catalina last week, my daughter Jennifer was doing crazy Ivans with the dinghy, only to realize that she had broken yet another oarlock. We carry a stock of a half-dozen spare oarlocks on board Adele, and go through at least one per week. You have to wonder how a flaw like this could get past the manufacturer. Maybe it’s like printer-ink cartridges: They figured out how to make the real money off oarlocks, and the boats are just to get you hooked. At any rate, I doubt anyone ever tested these boats in any real-life situations.

I have made much of my disdain for maintenance, but I’m religious about washing my rubber navy with soap and fresh water after every cruise, lest they rot and stick together like gummi bears in the lazarette. Nonetheless, when sliding the plastic paddle over the depressed, spring-loaded detent ball on my aluminum oar shaft, the stainless steel ball shot from its oversized, corroded hole as if it were fired from a BB gun, and knocked a chip out of my front tooth! I immediately reflected on the scene from A Christmas Story, when Ralphie is told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” I never imagined the kinetic energy of that little ball hiding behind its plastic paddle. I was lucky it didn’t hit me in the eye. Note to manufacturer: Make future detent balls out of plastic, so they won’t cause corrosion and put someone’s eye out.

Flawed or not, our little fleet of inflatables add a lot of fun to our family cruises. They’re cheap, durable, and safe, and solve some real stowage problems. I can’t wait to see what new water toy drop-stitch technology brings us next. In the meantime, my grandkids will just keep having fun making farting noises with the foot pump as they share the chore of inflating our little fleet.

Blow it up! Share your favorite tender or toy story with Michael in the comments below.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.