The 8 Best Inflatable Boats
A Rubber Band Of Brothers
One person can drag ashore a PVC or vinyl boat, complete with tackle box and a cooler full of fish.
The former is designed for beyond-the-horizon transportation, stealth, and its ability to take a bullet in one or more of its eight distinct air chambers and remain afloat.
Originally made from vulcanized rubber, modern inflatable boats for civilians are now typically made with PVC or vinyl. Although not nearly as puncture-resistant as vulcanized rubber, the standard for search-and-rescue missions and special operations, PVC and vinyl are much more flexible and lightweight.
For example, let's compare the Navy SEALs' "Zodiac", a rubber assault raft, with your average vinyl inflatable dinghy for fishing on the nearest lake. The former is designed for beyond-the-horizon transportation, stealth, and its ability to take a bullet in one or more of its eight distinct air chambers and remain afloat. The latter, with its average of three or four air chambers, is designed to not sink completely if you accidentally poke a hole in it with a fishing hook.
One person can drag ashore a PVC or vinyl boat, complete with tackle box and a cooler full of fish. One person cannot drag ashore 565 pounds of motorized, vulcanized rubber with a maximum payload of 1.4 tons designed to ferry Death itself across the River Styx.
In other words, vulcanized rubber may indeed be stronger than both PVC and vinyl put together, but it's also much heavier, which completely defeats the purpose of owning an inflatable boat to begin with.
Indeed, why buy an inflatable boat if you can't take it out by yourself from time to time?
To Hull And Back Again
We've talked about the benefits of PVC and vinyl for those of us not running black ops in the Persian Gulf. Now let's talk a bit about the different kinds of hulls you might come across and the effects they may have on how and where you decide to use your inflatable boat.
Inflatable boats have three major types of hulls:
Most whitewater rafts have flexible hulls designed to bend to the will of the rocks.
Flexible hulls with flexible floors for small boats less than three meters long allow for the most compact storage of all of the inflatable boats. Flexible hulls allow you to deflate your boat, fold, roll it, and stuff it into a carry bag sometimes small enough to fit inside a larger bag, such as a camping backpack. They are typically made of the same material as the rest of the boat. Most whitewater rafts have flexible hulls designed to bend to the will of the rocks.
Flexible hulls with rigid floors allow for sturdier boats while affording some flexibility for mounting waves. The floors usually consist of a handful of plywood or aluminum slats designed to prevent the boat from squeezing without sacrificing the benefits of bending bow to stern.
Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) have hard, V-shaped hulls that allow them to navigate rougher waters, such as the open sea, with increased maneuverability and control. RIBs make for ideal search-and-rescue boats because not only can they cut through waves with ease, but their inflatable gunwale ensures the boat stays afloat in the event it takes on too much water during a mission.
In sum, don't take plywood floors whitewater rafting and don't take flexible floors on a rescue mission. The rest is up to you.
Rubber Ducky, You're Not The Only One
Anyone who has ever floated down a river on an inner tube will probably not be the least bit surprised to learn that the modern inflatable boat began with none other than Charles Goodyear, the chemist and engineer after whom Frank Seiberling named his famous tire company.
In 1838, approximately 2,500 years after Mesoamericans invented stabilized rubber to make balls for sport, Goodyear invented his own more sophisticated process for curing rubber called vulcanization, named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Not only could it be carried in a knapsack, but it doubled as a waterproof blanket for explorers caught camping on wet ground.
Over the years, thanks to its amazing properties, vulcanized rubber has provided us with all sorts of rubbery inventions that we often take for granted, such as shoe soles, conveyor belts, rubber duckies and squeaky dog toys. But before shopping cart wheels drove us utterly insane with their uncanny ability to veer to the left at the most inopportune moments, vulcanized rubber gave the United Kingdom's Royal Navy its very first inflatable boat, the Halkett boat.
Designed in 1845 by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, the Halkett boat was a step up from the Duke of Wellington's inflatable pontoons. Not only could it be carried in a knapsack, but it doubled as a waterproof blanket for explorers caught camping on wet ground. However, despite the boat's many features, the Admiralty deemed the boat unfit for general use in the Royal Navy and limited its use to survey expeditions. It was not until the Titanic sunk in 1912 that everyone, including the Royal Navy, began to take inflatable boats very seriously.
Since then, inflatable boats have become not only the standard for lifeboats, replacing the Titanic's fancy wooden clunkers, but also the standard for military assault rafts, giving us the Combat Rubber Reconnaissance Craft, the aptly nicknamed "Zodiac" that Hollywood directors love to feature in their war films.
Best of all, now you can have one, too. And you don't need to use it for invading exotic lands, if you don't want to.