Rob Melotti and the PBO test team put some lightweight, portable inflatable dinghies through their paces in Lymington to find the best inflatable boat
But what the ‘new wave’ of inflatable boats brings to the practical boating landscape is the air floor, which makes very stable, very lightweight tenders a very practical option for people with limited stowage ie owners of cruising boats under 30ft.
And the market has responded with a selection of offerings under 2.4m weighing under 20kg. So which is the best and what should you be looking for to get the most for your money?
We tested nine models sold by eight different brand names. The inflatable boats were superficially quite similar, but in the accumulation of small details it was possible to pick a few favourites.
We rowed and motored all of the inflatable boats solo, and most of them with two aboard. We weighed and measured them and found a lot to like.
What to look for in an inflatable boat?
The bag details matter when one of the main selling points of a product is its portability. We looked at handles, zips and overall design. Metal zips will corrode without a regular rinse in fresh water, but as long as the zipper track is plastic, then replacement zipper trucks can be fitted relatively cheaply.
Carry handles at the narrow ends are very useful and half of the inflatable boats tested can be carried as rucksacks. A few of the boats pack away in bags that deconstruct on all four sides like groundsheets, with webbing straps and adjustable buckles crossways and lengthways.
These are very forgiving and yet still pack up tightly and securely. We also looked at the quality of the bag material: is the bag likely to survive chafing, stretching, damp or UV exposure for as long as the dinghy itself?
Size, weight and price
The table overleaf will quickly show you the lightest and smallest packs and there are four tenders priced under £500.
The two longest inflatable boats in the test (YAM 240 and Quicksilver 240) were in the biggest bags (110cm and 120cm respectively), and were the heaviest packs weighing over 20kg even without any accessories.
Only three of the nine tested boats weighed in at under 20kg straight out of the box. There was an 11kg difference between the lightest (Force 4 02Lite) and the heaviest (Quicksilver Tendy Airfloor 240).
The Force 4 comes in a rucksack bag that is 20cm shorter in length than the Quicksilver and over £100 cheaper.
But unless size, weight and price are your only criteria, then a simple numerical comparison could miss some important details.
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Pumps and pressure
Some of the air floors are rated for 1psi; others at 11psi. Most of the sponsons were rated at 3.6psi, which shouldn’t require too much brow mopping for foot- or hand-pump operators.
Five of the inflatable boats came with foot pumps, but the double-action hand pumps with the 3D and the Quicksilver were a joy to use.
It’s an ironic linguistic quirk that a tender should be so regularly treated without much tenderness. Even a few hours’ use on a clean slipway incurred scuffs, dings, grubby marks and a few minor tears to the carry bags.
Grass is far kinder than concrete for inflating, but is in short supply at busy locations. We looked at keel strips, rubbing strakes, safety line attachment points, bow handles and more… including the relationship between price, weight and fit-out.
Tested: 9 of the best inflatable boats
3D Twin V Shape 230 Air deck tender
French manufacturer 3D Tender was one of the earliest producers of ultralight inflatable tenders. This model sports premium touches, such as davit rings and the most high-spec pump of all the inflatable boats on test.
In terms of convenience it is a rucksack carry bag with a large front pocket for the pump and accessories. The zips will need maintenance though.
The V floor is a single chamber, keeping set-up time to a minimum and keeping the weight down. The lack of safety lines on the side makes carrying as a two-person team a little less convenient than some of the other inflatable boats, but the keel strip will help preserve this boat.
The rowlocks double as cleats and the rubbing strake will provide strength but little in the way of splashproofing for passengers.
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Force 4 02Lite
This model is very similar to the Seago Go Lite (also tested), including the rucksack, which was our favourite on test for carrying comfort, although you do have to beware of any loose objects inside the bag dropping out of the side enclosure flap.
The Force 4 02Lite was the lightest package overall and packed down to just 90cm long.
The oars were the smallest on test, which affected the rowing performance, but it was the only inflatable boat with open rowlocks – so you can use your own oars.
The bench is adjustable, but I wasn’t able to position it far enough aft to brace my feet against the transom under oars.
There are three D-rings for making a towing bridle on the bow but no ergonomic carry handle.
The rubbing strake is minimal with no splash guard and there are no davit lifting eyes.
Crewsaver Air Deck 230
The pack we were sent for testing had the incorrect seat included, but we were able to substitute a seat from one of the other inflatable boats on test without difficulty.
The rucksack doesn’t have a front pocket, but there are no zips to corrode and the adjustable webbing buckles mean the top opening of the bag is quite forgiving for repacking.
The safety lines are robustly attached to the hull, which is a feature that will pay dividends long-term, but adds a bit of weight.
The rubbing strake is also weighty, but the splash guards will keep water out of the boat.
The coned aft sponson caps are hard plastic, enabling vertical storage without damage and the rowlocks double as cleats.
There are davit rings in the bow and through the thick transom board, plus the bow handle is wide for ergonomic carrying.
Excel Ventura SL200
From a Midlands-based company that specialises in inflatable boats, this came with a great double-action hand pump and was the only boat on test with an over-pressure valve – a useful feature for exposure to the hot sun.
The safety lines are sturdily attached and splash guards make up part of the rubbing strake protecting the sides and keeping water out of the boat.
The rowlocks double as cleats and the bow handle is wide enough for a proper grip.
Davit fittings are supplied and the sponsons are shaped to add waterline length and buoyancy aft. The duffel carry bag was the sturdiest on test.
This inflatable boat comes with a good long set of oars, although we had to sit side-by-side to make any progress under oars with two adults on board.
Quicksilver Tendy Airfloor 240
This boat has an inflatable keel as well as a removable inflatable floor. There was also a rigid slat athwartship between the floor and keel, which increases the weight overall.
This is one of the priciest and heaviest inflatable boats on the test and one of the largest in packed dimensions.
It features a fuel tank strap, a decent keel strip to prevent damage on slipways, a decent bow carry handle and rowlock cleats.
The rubbing strake is quite meaty as well without being particularly splashproof.
The carry bag is very forgiving – opening flat like a groundsheet.
There were no carry handles on the sponsons and the safety rope fixings aren’t as solid as many of the other inflatable boats on test, although there are rowlock cleats and the seat is fully adjustable.
Seago Go Lite 230
Seago is a distributor, supplying UK chandleries and there are similarities between this model and the 02Lite from Force 4.
This model is very light and compact – just 0.5kg heavier than Force 4, but packs down to the same 90cm length.
The oars are very short, but are fixed using a pin and thole system which some may prefer over the Force 4’s rowlocks.
The PVC material is described as 1100 Decitex (Force 4 is 800 Decitex) and the backpacks of the two were identical: comfortable to carry and forgiving to repack due to their large side aperture rather than a narrow top.
The rubbing strake is minimal and there is no ergonomic bow handle.
This 2m inflatable boat has a fixed seat and was unique on the test for having wooden slats to reinforce the floor. This means less pumping up, but slightly increased weight.
Like the 3D tender there is no safety rope so carrying between two crew involves spreading your arms wide from bow handle to stern handle placed on the sponsons. It is rated for one adult and one child – the smallest by rating on the test.
There is a hefty rubbing strake with raised levels to block spray and the rowlocks double as cleats. The oars are miniature and the bow has three D-rings for rigging a towing bridle but no ergonomic handle for carrying. With two adults aboard we would have been better rowing side by side – but it was no slouch under engine.
YAM 240 (STI) Air Floor Sport Tender
This is the most expensive model on test and features an inflatable keel as well as a floor section, plus two sponsons to inflate.
With that much to inflate a high quality pump would have been better, but there is a pressure gauge included in the package to get everything sufficiently firm.
The seat is fixed but the oars were nice and long, which made it the nicest boat to row. As with the YAM 200T there were no safety lines fitted and carry handles are spread far apart, which makes carrying more difficult.
But there is a good, ergonomic bow carry handle and the inflatable boat is rated to carry 400kg, the highest rating on test. The rowlocks double as cleats and the rounded aft end of the sponsons have protective, hard plastic caps.
Talamex Superlight SLA230
Talamex is a Dutch brand imported by EP Barrus. This inflatable boat had the narrowest diameter sponsons on test, which creates more internal space, but less freeboard.
It’s an extremely lightweight package, with a thin transom board, but nice long oars and a good carrying handle on the bow.
The pump supplied is a single-action hand pump and the bag folds out completely flat like a groundsheet, which is very forgiving for repacking.
The bag has nice carrying handles on the narrow ends. The seat was massively adjustable and the rubbing strake is generous without offering very much splash guarding.
The safety rope attachments look a bit vulnerable and there are no other handles on the sponsons.
Verdict: Which was the best inflatable boat on test?
This group of inflatable boats can be subdivided in a few different ways: by length, by price and by weight (note there is also a group of rucksack boats and a trio of air-keel boats).
I think the best on test goes to the 3D Tender, which manages to keep the weight down, comes complete with a very high-spec pump, a very user-friendly rucksack bag with a big front pocket and a ‘slight V form floor’ that inflates as a single chamber.
There are no safety lines or a bow handle, so carrying the boat when inflated is less natural than some of the others and it’s the second most expensive.
The best bargain buy is probably the lightest, smallest package: Force 4, for me, is preferable to the very similar Seago model because of its ‘open’ rowlocks. But if you prefer captive oars, the Seago is slightly cheaper.
The Crewsaver is the same low price and probably more robust and seaworthy than the Force 4 or the Seago while being easier to carry when inflated than the 3D Tender. But without the V floor I think it’s a less versatile performer.
I didn’t see the benefit of the two 200cm dinghies we tested: both were noticeably small in use without being smaller to pack and stow or lighter to carry. The 240cm V Floor models can carry bigger loads at greater speed, but if you really need that level of performance you have to accept the extra set-up time, weight and stowage.
First published in the September 2021 issue of Practical Boat Owner.
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