Four easy-to-transport watercraft for backwater adventures.
By Gibbs Milliken
We've come a long way since the times when the only inflatable boat available was a round rubber dinghy. As anyone who's used one can attest, they can be difficult to steer and paddle - and nearly useless in a strong wind.
Fortunately, you can now find a wide range of inflatable watercraft. From float tubes to full-length kayaks or pontoon boats, the new designs are lightweight, easy to pack and made in elongated forms that are easier to maneuver.
For a relaxing way to float or fish in quiet waters, try the smallest inflatable - a one-person kick craft (also known as a "belly-boat"). The Triad Open Front Float Tube ($208.95, Trout Traps, (800) 831-6398, www.trouttraps.com) features three separate PVC air bladders covered by durable nylon fabric. The opening front support allows easy entry and exit, and the pointed main tube gives better directional travel with less resistance than earlier round styles. Propelled with the aid of swim fins, it has multiple storage pockets. To save space, deflate the main tube, throw it in the back of the car, then easily top it off with a hand pump when you get to a fishing hole. When fully deflated, it compacts into a large stuff-bag for air travel, cycling or backpacking.
The next step up in size, weight and features is the pontoon boat. These catacrafts may be kick-propelled or used with a set of light oars. Pontoon boats are not limited to still waters. The larger models can carry two people in fast rivers, with one person using the oars to maneuver difficult passages. Some have added frame supports behind the seat for gear, a battery and trolling motor. They have the advantages of easy mobility and less water resistance, and anglers are positioned higher for sight-casting.
One of the newest models is the one-person Orvis Pontoon Boat ($450, Orvis, (800) 548-9548, www.orvis.com), which comes as a complete package with a comfortable two-position swivel seat, adjustable leg rests, aluminum breakdown oars, rod holder, stripping apron and rear anchor system. (Anchor not included.)
Although not all inflatable kayaks are recommended for open seas or large, windy lakes, the 14-foot Sea Eagle 435 Paddleski ($899, Sea Eagle, (631) 473-7308, www.seaeagle.com) is suitable for sea kayaking and is also rated for Class I or II rapids. Twin catamaran-style air chambers meet at the bow, making it unmatched for all-around stability and performance. It can be paddled as a kayak, rowed with oars or powered with a thrust of up to 85 pounds from an electric motor. Optional accessories include a rowing arm kit, deluxe fly fishing high seat, side motor mount, and a sailing rig for open water. This boat can carry two people and camping gear on a two-week outing with its load capacity of 650 pounds.
The two-person Mad Dog Wetlands Inflatable Kayak ($599.99, Model # H501, Stearns, (800) 697-5801, www.stearnsinc.com) is a fun and practical boat that can double as a blind for birders and photographers wanting a silent craft to approach wildlife. It has an 11-foot 8-inch elongated, heavy-duty outer hull and backrest seat. This kayak comes in several models, including the camouflaged hunter/fisher model shown here. Weighing just under 40 pounds, the unit has the advantages of low-profile stealth, stability and portability.
When you use an inflatable boat, always carry with you a good high-volume manual pump. One of the best is the Double Action Hand Pump ($22.99, Model #9341 GRY, Stearns), which pumps air on both the up and down stroke to either fill or top off the craft. In addition, a 12-volt electric inflator/deflator pump like the Metro Magic-Air ($54, Model #12-IDAR, Metrovac, (800) 822-1602,www.metrovacworld.com) is very convenient if you have a power source. For safety, keep on board an approved personal flotation device (life vest), reflective warning patches, loud safety whistle, waterproof flashlight and the correct patch kit for your boat or float.