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Choosing the Perfect Inflatable Boat

Looking for an inflatable tender? Read this, before making any decisions.By Alex Smith

For all but the biggest yachts, inflatable boats make the best tenders. But inflatables are a mixed blessing; at their best, they combine the convenience of a marine multi-tool with the freedoms of a compact powerboat—with running costs akin to those of a pet gerbil. At their worst, however, inflatables are a heavy, lumpy, odorous, space-greedy aggravation of a thing that squats in your garage or stowage compartment.I’ve found myself in the latter camp on more than one occasion, so I know just how hateful inflatable tenders can be. Certainly, they enjoy some strong advantages: easy portability, generous buoyancy, innate dynamic stability, and low power requirements all come to mind.

inflatable tender

An inflatable boat makes a great tender. That is, as long as you choose one wisely.

But there are plenty of downsides, too. What about finding somewhere accessible to stow the boat? Then finding somewhere for its fumy fuel tank and lubricant-filled, leak-happy outboard engine? If you don’t have sufficient space to carry the inflatable fully puffed-up with air, then there’s the sheer bulk and weight of the packed down inflatable to deal with—and it’s always much more difficult to carry than you think.

Once you actually get an inflatable tender on the water, you can expect it to flex when you hit the throttle, rear up when you’re singlehanded, and get bullied by the elements when the wind is blowing.

Clearly, there are plenty of reasons both to love and to hate the inflatable. But if you understand their up-sides and down-sides, when the matter is viewed from a cool and dispassionate perspective it seems that most of the issues have less to do with the boat itself, and more to do with poor buying decisions on the part of the owner. So, how will you make your decision the right one? Consider all of the following factors.


Inflatable boats are constructed from either PVC or Hypalon, and the trade-off here is between price and durability. PVC is extremely popular because it’s lightweight and affordable. It’s easily folded, and recent developments in polymers mean that modern PVC can also be remarkably strong. Some come with threads woven into the material, and these threads are measured in denier. A higher rating denotes a stronger thread, but you should also pay attention to the nature of the weave, as a more tightly-woven thread (for instance, 6×6 per cm rather than 3×3) is likely to prove more resilient. On the downside, PVC remains susceptible to extended exposure to sunlight, heat, and humidity.

Hypalon, on the other hand, is a weighty, expensive, and extremely robust fabric. That’s why it’s commonly used in the construction of heavy-duty RIBs. Plainly then, your buying decision should be based partly on budget but also on your intended usage. If you want to keep your tender ready-built and routinely exposed for frequent use, then Hypalon is the answer. However, if you want a more compact and portable boat for less regular use and for stowing away between outings, a modern, lightweight PVC craft is likely to prove the better compromise.

inflatable tender in action

Consider portability, longevity, and cost when comparing PVC and Hypalon.


Inflatables tend to come with either an inflatable ‘air deck’ or a rigid floor built from interlocking aluminium or plywood slats. For low weight, forgiving ride comfort, softness under your knees and a simplified assembly process, a high-pressure air floor is ideal. For higher speed operation with less flex, greater structural rigidity, and a more efficient use of power, a hard deck is the better bet. Be aware, however, that rigid deck slats do have a habit of trapping unwary fingers with merciless regularity.


Even on an entry-level budget, basic accessories (oars, seats, a pump, a repair kit, lifting points, and a carry bag) should be included in the price. But you should also look for multiple air chambers for safety, plus an inflatable thwart for extra strength. Those with a pronounced inflatable keel have improve directional stability, and optional fins and tabs can help tweak the handling. Think also about investing in some wheels for transporting your tender up and down docks and beaches. And if you intend to buy a small outboard, you should consider electric power for cleaner, simpler stowage and transport. Whatever type of outboard you use, an extended tiller can help you shift your weight forward, for easier planing and a flatter ride.


RIBs, properly called rigid bottom inflatables, are an option that bring a lot of pluses to the table: vastly improved performance, far better seakeeping abilities, and almost unlimited options for size and style. Naturally, however, they cost far more than simple inflatables. And, their portability is not much different than fiberglass boats of a similar size. These factors make RIB boats an entirely different kind of choice, worthy of a full-blown investigation. Fortunately, we’ve already done one. If you think a RIB might be the right move for you, read RIB Buying Guide: The Top 10 Questions You Should Ask.

Wondering just how much of an investment an inflatable will be? See these inflatable tender listings.



The Advantages of Rigid Inflatable Boats


There has been much discussion about the pros and cons of rigid inflatable boats of late. In the past there might have been certain negative connotations linked to the RIB but with today’s modern build standards and the superior materials being used, the RIB makes for an excellent purchase. The quality issues of the past have been eliminated and the modern RIBs offer a variety of commercial uses such as sea rescue operations, diving boats and safety. They are also a lot lighter than their fibreglass counterparts and are equally at home in breaking surf, rivers, dams, lagoons, inlets and open sea conditions.

The RIB sector in the marine industry is a fast growing sector and this can be directly apportioned to the reduced costs of this type of boat and their ease of use. Modern RIBs use stronger imported materials and employ thermo-bonding tube technology to create the excellent foundation for these boats.

boat rib

Another factor that weighs heavily in favour of the RIB is that they are extremely stable and offer great buoyancy due to their low centre of gravity. The tubular structure acts as a shock absorber and gives all passengers on board a much softer ride than that found in conventional hulls. It is almost impossible to capsize a RIB and this is why it is a favourite of the NSRI in South Africa and many other sea rescue, police and naval authorities throughout the world.

RIBs are often easier to launch and retrieve and they often require less engine power to drive them due to their reduced weight.
Another factor of the RIB is that it has a higher load capacity compared to conventional craft due to its greater levels of buoyancy.

From a leisure boating perspective, RIBs are a lot of fun and offer owners a greater sense of adventure. Did we mention that RIBs are a highly affordable option? Well they are, and they offer excellent value for money. Throw in portability, ease of transport, stability and durability and it is understandable why there are so many RIB converts. Rigid inflatable boats offer a good combination of affordability and comfort.


1. They cut through the water easily making the ride that much smoother and less bumpy – even in rough conditions.

2. The hull structure adds support and allows for more powerful motors since the transom is usually made of solid, rigid material.

3. A RIB is very difficult to capsize and the rigid construction makes it very stable at high speeds. It will also remain afloat even if the hull is flooded.

4. The RIB can be used in all types of water, right from calm dams through to rough open seas.

5. RIBs offer a variety of uses which range from leisure boating activities such as fishing and diving to commercial uses such as tenders, sea rescue boats and life boats.

6. RIBs solid floors provide excellent stability for passengers.

7. RIBs generally are easily manoeuvred and the modern RIB responds to changes in motion and direction very quickly compared to other types of boats.

8. RIBs are almost totally resistant to low-impact collisions. This is due to the separate tube chambers that negate the impact. Most RIBs have a pressure release valve which prevents the dangerous increase of pressure rupturing the tubes.

9. The deep V-hull designs of the RIB allows for excellent hydroplaning and in the more modern RIB V-hulls where the hull flattens out to the rear of the boat, it adds to the stability of the ride when on the plane.

10. The bigger RIBs often come with wheelhouses and cabins that safeguard the navigational equipment and provide areas of rest for the crew.