From Personal Belly Boats to High Performance Racers - An Overview of Inflatable Boats
Evolution of the Inflatable Boat
Historical records indicate that the first inflatable boats were animal skins filled with air. Over the years, many cultures have created various versions of inflatable watercraft, and in 1839, the Duke of Wellington tested the first inflatable pontoons. In the decades that followed, many new designs were introduced and some of them were utilized by European military forces.
The inflatable boats were used to transport torpedoes and other cargo. They also allowed troops to make discreet landings in shallow water, and their compact size and storability made them easy to bring with, even on overland marches where it would not have been possible to bring a traditional boat.
One of the models, the Zodiac, grew to be very popular with the military and contributed significantly to the rise of the civilian inflatable boat industry, both in Europe and in the United States. After World War II, surplus inflatable boats were sold to the public and the general population had a chance to experience how easy and enjoyable these boats can be.
Hull Designs & Types of Inflatable Boats
Inflatable boats come in rigid hull design and soft-bottom style. Soft-bottom boats have floors made of fabric and slats (usually wood) running across the beam. This design is generally found in smaller inflatables ranging from about 6 to 8 feet in length only.
Rigid hulls, or RIBs, were introduced in 1967 by Tony Lee-Elliott and advanced by Admiral Hoare and the Atlantic College in Wales. As opposed to soft-bottom boats, which have a fabric hull with inflatable or wood keels, RIBs have hard fiberglass or aluminum hulls and large, inflatable tubes. This allows for a combination of the best features from both types of boats.
Some RIBs incorporate the V-shaped bow similar to that of a traditional boat. This design consists of a separate inflation tube running the length of the boat beneath the floorboards. Once inflated, it pushes the floor materials down to form the V-shape that helps in steering. The flotation collars on many RIBs are removable, making them easier to store and to clean.
RIBs typically range from 10 to 30 feet in length and are propelled by either by an outboard motor or an inboard motor turning a water jet or z-drive. They were first used as lifeboats in 1970, and later as dinghies or tenders on larger pleasure yachts. Many of today's sport boats used for fishing and water skiing are made with RIB designs.
Inflatable Sport Boats
Inflatable sport boats generally describe recreational boats that are used for fishing, water skiing, and other activities where a motor is required. Depending on the size of the craft, an inflatable sport boat can be used with a motor that generates up to 40 units of horsepower They can be deflated and packed away for easy transport or used with a trailer to avoid having to inflate at each use. Inflatable sport boats typically cost much less than their traditional counterparts and, because they are lighter, use much less gas.
Several companies also make high performance inflatable boats that are used for racing, rescue, and other activities where speed is essential. These high performance boats generally have additional inflation tubes that lift the boat up off the water and create additional hydroplaning effects. They typically use larger motors, sometimes up to 400 horsepower. Because of their speed they are more difficult to navigate and require an experienced captain.
Inflatable Canoes, Kayaks, and Other Personal Watercraft
On the flip side are the inflatable canoes and kayaks that rely on human power and are used by one or two people at a time. These watercraft often look similar to their traditional counterparts, but have inflatable bodies, making them much lighter and easier to transport. They are often less expensive as well.
In more recent years, inflatable sailboats and inflatable catamarans also have been introduced. They usually range from 12 to 14 feet in length and, like inflatable canoes and kayaks, only accommodate one or two people.
Belly boats are yet another category of inflatable personal watercraft. These floats are sometimes called pontoon boats, but are not to be confused with the large, flat-bottomed craft often seen carrying large numbers of people on area lakes. Belly boats were specifically designed to be used for fishing and often look like floating donuts with a seat. Some may have two small pontoons with a seating area suspended between. Most are less than eight feet long and have room for just one person.
Falling in between inflatable kayaks and other personal watercraft and the larger sport and performance boats are the Yacht Tenders. These are typically inflatable boats that range in length from 6 feet to 20 feet and, as the name implies, they are often used as lifeboats and runabouts on larger vessels. Yacht tenders can also be used for fishing, general boating, river rafting, and other activities where a motor is not essential. Many tenders can be paired with a small electric motor if needed.
These categories of inflatable boats provide a general overview of the choices available. There are many variations and unique designs within these categories. In addition, some larger models of inflatable boats have inboard steering stations, cabin areas, and other features similar to traditional yachts.
As the inflatable boat industry continues to advance and grow in popularity, we are likely to see many new and innovative designs in the future, providing even more opportunities to find the inflatable boat that fits perfectly with your budget and boating needs.
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