Are you looking for an alternative to driving from crowded charter boats or beach dives on murky, picked-over reefs? Why not consider an inflatable boat as a way to explore those distant offshore reefs that are teaming with life? Inflatables make excellent diving platforms and they are a lot of fun to use, but they do have a few drawbacks. This article will help you decide if they are right for you and will also give you tips on choosing the right inflatable.

The use of inflatable boats has been quite extensive in Europe and their popularity is on the rise in the United States. Many quality inflatables are manufactured overseas, with European and Oriental brands accounting for the bulk of the market. Inflatable boats can be divided into three basic types: dinghies and river rafts have an oval shaped hull that extends completely around the boat and sport boats are identified by a U-shaped hull and wooden transom across the stern. Dinghies usually have a small motor mount on the stem for attaching a low power outboard. They are used more for yacht tenders than for diving because of their limited maximum horsepower. Sport boats, with a transom, floorboards and inflatable keel meet the requirements of most divers. Let’s take a look at the advantages of this type of boat.

First, they are extremely portable because of their light weight and ability to fold into a small package when deflated. This portability allows the diver to transport his boat to remote locations in the trunk of a car without the need for a trailer. When they are not being used, they can be folded and stored in a closet. Then, when you’re ready for a dive, most inflatables smaller than 11 feet can be carried, assembled and launched by a single person in less than half an hour. Larger boats are often carried on trailers.

Another desirable characteristic of inflatable boats is their amazing stability. Their low centers of gravity and wide beams make them difficult to capsize, even in the roughest seas. This is why they are used so often for lifeboats and rescue boats. Increased stability allows the use of a more powerful outboard motor than can be safely used to propel conventional vessels of the same length. Inflatables typically have three or more separate chambers so that a puncture or leak in any one of them will not result in the sinking of the craft. They are generally safer and more seaworthy than conventional boats of the same length made of aluminum, fiberglass or wood.

A third reason inflatable boats have such an appeal to scuba divers is the tremendous payload they can carry. I have seen seven divers with full sets of equipment, including tanks, loaded into an 11 foot inflatable. The deck was piled with gear to the top of the hull, which the divers sat on with their legs dangling outward into the water. You would be lucky to get two divers with gear into an aluminum boat of equal length. The immense weight-carrying capabilities of inflatable boats can be attributed to the buoyancy of their large air chambers. Even when completely swamped, the average 12 foot inflatable will support over 1,500 pounds of weight. The boat I own has a greater maximum recommended payload than the car I transport it in.

Divers can really appreciate the ease of water entries and exits made possible by the wide hull and shallow freeboard of inflatables. A diver can sit on the hull with his legs overboard and gently slip into the ocean or he may execute a more flamboyant back roll. No ladder is required as with conventional boats. Also, there is a lack of rocking and certainly no possibility of capsizing, when a fully geared diver jumps overboard. This type of accident is a real danger in small, rigid hull vessels.

Inflatables - are they the boat for you

There are no other boats that fulfill the mission of transporting divers short distances as well as inflatables. They can also be used for other recreational activities such as fishing and water skiing. Having an inflatable allows you to avoid crowded boat ramps and hoists which sometimes require the payment of a fee; you can simply launch through the surf at a local beach. For these reasons, inflatable boats are reputed to be the ideal diving platforms.

Now, what are some of the drawbacks and disadvantages of inflatables? The price of such boats is much higher than that of conventional rigid hull craft of the same length and they have a reputation for not being as durable. Progress in the development of improved materials that resist wear and tear, as well as deterioration from ultraviolet light, gasoline and salt; and better techniques for joining seams, have made these boats more rugged than ever. Many manufacturers now offer multi-year warranties that have increased consumer confidence in their products. Despite these efforts to improve durability, inflatables have a shorter usable lifetime and reduced resale value when compared to other types of boats.

Some inflatable boat users complain about poor handling and comfort. Slipping during high speed turns is a problem with all boats with flat, planing hulls. This condition is exacerbated in inflatables by their shallow draft and light weight. To alleviate this problem, inflatable, V-shaped keels are built into most boats. Some of the more expensive models, have rigid keels and hulls made of fiberglass or wood that combine the best features of conventional and purely inflatable designs. These hybrid models have less slippage in fast turns and offer a smoother ride.

Comfort is another shortcoming of the flexible hull design. a greater amount of wave energy is transmitted through the hull to the passengers than on rigid hull boats. This makes the ride bumper and results in more wear on the structure. The continual pounding through choppy waves can be fatiguing, especially on long trips. Also, a lot of spray is generated, so expect to get wet.

Other complaints about inflatables involve the convenience of operation. Assembling and disassembling an inflatable can be laborious and time consuming. Launching through the surf is tricky and sometimes dangerous. And, finally, washing the sand and salt off the boat and outboard motor (in addition to all your diving gear) is not very pleasant, especially after a tiring day of diving.

Now that many of the benefits and drawbacks of inflatable boats have been discussed, here is a brief description of the features to look for when shopping for an inflatable for diving:

Aluminum floors are a must. Wooden ones cannot take the punishment of tanks and weight belts being dropped on them.

Do not buy an inflatable with a fixed bow dodger (for deflecting bow spray) or windshield. These take up valuable deck space you require for fear.

If you intend to launch at the beach, choose a boat light enough to hand carry, but large enough for gear and a buddy.

Outboard motors should be light weight for ease of carrying, yet powerful enough to plane the boat when loaded. Short-shaft outboards were recommended for most inflatables.

It is very important to shop around for an inflatable that offers a good warranty – one that covers at least the material and seams for movie than a couple of years.

The hardships of inflatable boat ownership are long forgotten as you collapse into bed after a long hard day of diving. In those few seconds of semi consciousness before you drift off into an eight hour coma you recall the exhilaration of skimming along the surface of a clear; blue ocean on a sparkling summer morning; the excitement of diving a new reef that’s inaccessible to fellow landlocked divers; and the still of witnessing the passing of a pod of whales only 100 feet off your bow. These experiences are certainly the most rewarding, yet intangible benefits of inflatable boat ownership.

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