At its best, an inflatable tender (see our guide to all different types of tender) combines the charming convenience of a marine multi-tool with the freedoms of a compact powerboat - and all for running costs akin to those of a pet gerbil. At its worst, however, it is a heavy, lumpy, odorous, space-greedy aggravation of a thing that squats in your house and mocks your ambitions like a sullen and fractious juvenile.
I have personally found myself in the latter camp on more than one occasion, so I know just how hateful inflatable tenders can be. Certainly, they enjoy plenty of natural assets, like decent portability for ‘car-boot-boaters’; like generous buoyancy for carrying heavy loads; and like innate dynamic stability for the reliable ferrying of passengers from ship to shore. They can also be moved by modest outboard power and they can be bought for very minimal outlay. But what about the issues...
What about finding somewhere accessible to stow the boat, along with its fumy fuel tank and lubricant-filled, leak-happy, outboard engine? If you don’t have sufficient space on board the mother vessel to carry a ready-built tender, then rigging it on deck is also a major challenge; and then there’s the sheer bulk and weight of a ‘packed down’ inflatable, which is always much more troublesome to carry than you think. And once you actually get your tender on the water, you can generally expect it to flex when you put the power down, rear up when you helm it single-handed and get bullied by the elements when you’re compelled to use it in the wind.
In short, there are plenty of good reasons both to love and to hate the inflatable, but when the matter is viewed from a cool and dispassionate perspective, it seems that most of the issues are less to do with the boat itself and more to do with poor buying decisions on the part of the owner...
PVC versus Hypalon
Inflatable boats are constructed from either PVC or Hypalon and as you might expect, there is a trade-off here between price and durability. PVC is extremely popular because it is light in weight and very affordable. It is easily folded for a more portable and stowable package - and developments in polymers mean that modern PVC can also be remarkably strong. Some come with threads woven into the material and (like ladies’ tights) 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, 6x6 per cm rather than 3x3) is likely to prove more resilient.
On the downside, PVC remains susceptible to extended exposure to sunlight, heat and humidity. And it’s still not as hardwearing as Hypalon, a weighty, expensive and robust fabric that is commonly used for the construction of heavy-duty RIBs. Plainly then, your buying decision should be based partly on budget but more tellingly on your intended usage. If you want to keep your tender ready-built and routinely exposed for frequent use alongside the mother vessel, then Hypalon is the answer. However, if you want a very 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.
Air deck versus rigid slats
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. Of course, rigid deck slats do have a habit of trapping unwary fingers with merciless regularity but for some applications they remain the better choice.
Even on an entry-level budget, basic accessories (oars, seat, pump, repair kit, lifting points and 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. As regards motive power, the shallow draft and big windage of an inflatable means they can be buggers to row - so look for one with a pronounced inflatable keel to improve directional stability and investigate optional fins and tabs to help tweak the handling. Think also about investing in some wheels for transporting your tender up and down pontoons and beaches. And finally, if (as is likely) you intend to buy a small outboard, you should definitely consider electric power (for cleaner, simpler stowage and transport) plus an extended tiller to help shift your weight forward for easier planing and a flatter ride.
Buying an all-in-one package from an engine manufacturer will often bring you extra savings, as well as better after-sales convenience and greater stylistic consistency. As a starting point, take a look at a Honwave/Honda combination, a Suzumar/Suzuki combination, a Quicksilver/Mercury combination, a Yam/Yamaha combination and an integrated Tohatsu package. Alternatively check out our feature Outboard engine buying: 10 top tips.
The rigid-hulled alternative...
The newly imported F-RIB (see Foldable F-RIB 360 video: first impressions) is a Russian-built alternative to the inflatable tender that uses a rigid fibreglass hull in much the same way as a conventional RIB. However, the clever bit is that the hull comprises three individual parts that hinge together, enabling it to be broken down into a portable package. It is around 30 per cent lighter than an inflatable, as well as faster, softer riding and more efficient in its use of power. The downside is that it costs more than twice the price of the average inflatable, but if you enjoy the idea and don’t balk at the expense, F-Rib is well worth a look. If a RIB appeals, see our guide to the best RIBs.
A modern inflatable is a different animal to those of 20 years ago. Computer aided design and build processes, plus developments in fabric technology, have increased their reliability, reduced their prices and enabled the generation of much larger models. But whatever size of boat you choose, it is critical that you match it to your usage in all things, from weight and fabric choice to deck type, outboard selection and pursuit-specific extras. Get all of these things right and it might just be the beginning of a beautiful love affair. Get them wrong and you will very much rue the day...