Tender Love & Care
An expert at tube repairs can give your inflatable or RIB a breath of fresh air.
As a young man, I crewed aboard charter sailboats in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. One day, while I was loafing on the dock, a deflated Zodiac inflatable drifted under my perch. It looked like a rubber dishrag, and was covered with grass, slime and not a few barnacles. I let it pass, but the guys a few slips down didn’t. They retrieved it, cleaned it, removed most of the barnacles and pumped it up. And you know what? It held air and carried them all around Charlotte Amalie harbor for months.
Inflatables and their cousins, RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats), look pudgy, but they can take a heck of a lot of abuse, and most of them do: Inflatable tenders are bounced against barnacled pilings, dragged onto rocky beaches, jammed into a gaggle of other tenders at dinghy docks, flung around at the hands of reckless kids, overloaded with crew and supplies, capsized while being towed and filled with soapy water to wash clothes after a long ocean passage. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Outfitted with big motors, RIBs allow drivers to take advantage of the typical V-hull and extra buoyancy to interdict smugglers, carry out clandestine missions, rescue crew from sinking ships, explore unknown territory, ferry divers and their gear, and, sometimes, just race around wave-jumping over a steep chop. But no matter how badly they’re treated, inflatables and RIBs typically last for a decade or more without need for serious repairs. In short, rubber boats are tough: They can withstand almost anything. Anything, that is, except mice.
Okay, inflatable boats aren’t really rubber—or at least, not only rubber. Their tubes are built of several fabric layers, usually nylon or polyester for strength and synthetic rubber, often neoprene, for airtightness, with an exterior layer of either CSM (Hypalon) or PVC to resist abrasion and the elements. (Hypalon is the DuPont brand name for CSM, chlorosulphonated polyethylene rubber. DuPont also invented neoprene, or polychloroprene, in 1930. “Rubber” boats used by WWII commandos were really neoprene.) CSM is durable, hard to cut or tear, abrasion-, weather- and UV-resistant. It’s not harmed by oil or fuel spills, nor by most solvents, and resists staining. CSM will last for a long time with basic care—up to 20 years. PVC is less expensive and lighter, more abrasion-resistant but not as resistant to UV and chemicals, and not as long-lived as CSM. It still makes a pretty good inflatable, though.
Tough Boats Need Love, Too
Even tough stuff needs repairing now and then. The tubes of inflatables and RIBs are susceptible to abrasion, punctures, cuts, UV degradation over many years and even the aforementioned mice. Yep, according to Chris Going, proprietor of DinghyPro in Essex, Connecticut, mice enjoy nesting in and gnawing on Hypalon and PVC. Store your inflatable in the garage or attic during the winter, and chances are Mickey and his cousins will move in, and you’ll find holes in the fabric when spring arrives. That’s when you need experts like Chris and his father, Jeff. They can repair just about anything you, or rodents, can do to an inflatable.
Before starting DinghyPro in January of 2011, both Goings knew plenty about inflatables: Jeff was an executive at Zodiac for 20 years, while Chris spent more than 14 years at Defender Industries, selling, among other gear, inflatables. According to the Goings, DinghyPro is now the largest renovator and re-tuber of inflatables and RIBs in the Northeast, with more than 500 repairs completed in 2018. I believe them: When I visited the shop, the Goings were working on projects from small inflatables leaking air to a 20-foot-plus RIB needing complete tube replacement, with a bunch of other boats waiting their turn. The most common repairs, said Chris, are finding and sealing pinholes and fixing the aforementioned mouse damage.
Replacing the tubes can give an older RIB a new lease on life. It’s a straightforward job if new tubes are available, but many owners of older RIBs have been abandoned by manufacturers that have gone out of business. In those cases, the Goings will have custom tubes built—their supplier can fabricate new CSM tubes for any RIB by taking a pattern from the original tubes. Different RIB builders use different arrangements for marrying tube and hull, so the Goings install the appropriate mounting hardware in their shop.
Tape and Glue Do the Trick
Some RIB builders (Zodiac is one) attach the tubes with a track-and-bolt-rope arrangement: The bolt rope, basically a synthetic rope with fabric folded around it, is glued to the tube using a high-bond, two-part adhesive formulated to stick like a barnacle; there are different adhesives for CSM and PVC. Sliding the rope into a track on the hull attaches the tube. (It’s a little more complex than this, but you get the idea.) Most builders don’t use the bolt-rope thing, however. They use fabric tapes, glued to both tube and hull. The Goings were re-tubing a RIB, a quality boat from a now defunct manufacturer, with this second arrangement when I visited DinghyPro. They had carefully marked the tube to apply the first stretch of tape. Once the tube was taped, they would position it on the hull and glue the other half of the tape to the fiberglass, and then apply a second layer of tape to lock everything together. The adhesive has a pot life of anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours, depending on conditions (it’s best to work in a controlled environment; a paint booth is ideal), so the Goings check and re-check their marks and cut all the lengths of tape before mixing the glue. After that, it’s fairly simple, at least for Jeff and Chris, who have done this particular operation many times. When the job is done, of course, the RIB is ready for another decade of adventures.
Super-sticky adhesive are good for more than repairs. You can add things to inflatable tubes, too: grab handles, life lines—when you’re sitting on the tube, you can’t have too many things to hang onto—lifting or towing eyes, chafe patches for davits and so forth. It’s best to add these while the boat is fairly new, for gluing purposes. CSM oxidizes as it ages, PVC gets brittle and the adhesive sticks better to fresh fabric. Chris Going said that any inflatable will resist aging if you apply a UV protectant at least once a month during the season, after cleaning the tube with a non-aggressive cleaner made for the purpose. He uses, and sells, Aurora Boat Care Products Inflatable Boat Cleaner, a non-abrasive solution that does the work for you—spray it on, let it work, wipe it off. Follow up with Aurora’s Poly Guard UV protectant—wipe it on and let it dry.
Pump It Up
And, he continued, keep the tubes inflated to the proper pressure, usually 3 to 3.5 psi. (Read your owner’s manual and invest in a pressure gauge.) Tube pressure will vary with temperature; pump to the recommended pressure on a cold morning, and in the heat of the afternoon it’ll be too high, which can damage the seams and the baffles inside the tubes. So, pay attention. Chris said that most people don’t inflate enough. If the tubes lose air quickly, check the valves. Spray soapy water on them and look for bubbles; this works for finding air leaks anywhere. Keeping the valves clear of sand, seaweed and other junk will help maintain the pressure. There are over a dozen designs used in the industry, but most have a threaded base attached inside the tube. The valve itself screws on from the outside, so it’s easy to remove, clean and, if necessary, replace. If the threaded base is damaged, that’s another story; it generally has to be removed and replaced by a pro.
Some DinghyPro repair jobs involve more than just the tubes. RIBs often need fiberglass repairs, too; the Goings do this themselves, as well as rewiring, systems repair and so forth. About the only thing they don’t address is engine problems; they have a mechanic for that. But the bottom line is, deliver a tired, broken RIB to a talented inflatable-repair specialist, and after a period of time, you’ll get it back good as new, and maybe better. I don’t know if they can rejuvenate barnacle-encrusted Zodiac carcasses, but the next time one drifts past, I’m going to find out.
The Goings like Aurora Boat Care products, but there are many others; most of the big names in maintenance have inflatable cleaners and UV protectors. For example, Star brite says their Inflatable Boat & Fender Cleaner can restore the appearance of dirty RIBs and inflatables, removing grime, grease, fish blood and so forth. The company’s Mildew Stain Remover gets rid of—you guessed it—mildew from hulls and tubes, while Fabric Guard provides UV protection. And it may seal tiny pinholes, too. A Star brite rep said their Epoxy Putty Stick, designed for repairing cracks, dings and small holes in RIB hulls, could be used to plug holes in inflatable tubes, as it will stick to almost anything. “It might not be pretty, but it could be what gets you home,” he said. Take a trip through the shelves of any chandlery and you’ll discover many other concoctions for the care and feeding of inflatables, from many manufacturers. In my experience, most will do the job.
For everyday cleaning, use mild soap and fresh water, rinse thoroughly and let the boat dry before reinstalling any floorboards, seats and other accessories. Don’t use ammonia, chlorine bleach or strong detergents on tough stains; a hand cleaner with lanolin will often remove oil and grease. Or invest in one of the purpose-made cleaners. After cleaning, UV-protect the inflatable tubes once a month, again with a product specifically designed for inflatable boats. Protecting the tubes will add years to their service lives. But the best UV barrier is a form-fitting cover, made of Sunbrella or similar fabric; it also looks very, shall we say, yacht-y.