Features December 2000 Issue

In-Water Inflatable Boat Test

20 stowable boats from eight companies are put through their paces in choppy conditions.

So you need a tender? (A tender is any vessel which services a larger one, be it a yacht or ship). Maybe you’re just not interested in a dinghy (a small, square-sterned boat propelled by oars, a sail, or perhaps even a small outboard). It certainly seems that dinghies continue to fall from favor. Those who like to row often gravitate to more efficient hull forms—long and slender shells with sliding seats—and do so for the aerobic element of health. Or take to paddling kayaks. (What has become of the Grumman aluminum canoe?). If you never liked to row in the first place you probably had a small outboard for your dinghy—a British Seagull or Cruise n’ Carry. Often loud, smelly and cantankerous, the 2-hp. banger pushing an 8-foot dinghy leaves a lot to be desired; it’s a slow and tippy combo.

A tester lets one rip on the Connecticut River.

After years of watching Jacques Cousteau and Calypso’s crew fly across exotic azure waters in their Zodiac inflatable boats, the concept slowly took root in the not-so-receptive brain soil of sailors. For so long, rubber boats just weren’t yachty.

Well, 30 years later, all has changed. Today, the inflatable tender is the overwhelming choice of sailors—racers (for the reduced weight) and cruisers (for their all-around utility). And there is a definite trend toward the peculiar hybrid known as the RIB (rigid inflatable boat), with molded fiberglass floor surrounded by rubber air tubes.

Throughout the 1990s Practical Sailor conducted on-the-water tests of all types of inflatable boats, most recently, three lightweight RIBs (Apex, Aria and Zodiac) in the July 15, 2000 issue. Our last look at ordinary inflatable boats was longer ago—June, 1997, with an update on the Quicksilver QS-230 in November 15, 1999).

The Companies
By far the largest maker of inflatable boats is the French company Zodiac. It has pioneered many processes of welding PVC, most recently without the use of glue. Among the seven brands represented in this report, Zodiac owns Bombard, and following its acquisition last year, Avon’s line of Hypalon boats. Zodiac also builds boats for West Marine under a private labeling arrangement. These boats are essentially the same as equivalent Zodiac models, but with minor changes.

Made in Japan, Achilles inflatables also are made of Hypalon.

The Seaworthy brand sold by BoatU.S. is made in Bosnia and Croatia, of Hypalon by RIS-Sportnautik/Severn Marine and imported by Severn Boats Ltd. of Annapolis.

Quicksilver is Mercury Marine’s brand; according to Defender Industries, they were until recently made of PVC by Maxxon. Since the split Maxxon now has its own line, which we’ll test in a future issue, as well as a Caribe, made in Venezuela. Apex Hypalon boats are made in Costa Rica.

Click here to view the Inflatable Boats Value Guide.

The Decision Tree
Let’s assume you’ve already decided against a traditional hard dinghy. Next to ponder is the RIB vs. stowable question. West Marine’s Chuck Hawley likes to talk about the “performance-portability continuum,” in which one is nearly always a tradeoff for the other. Which combination of the two you get is up to you.

Quickly, most RIBs have more of a V-shaped bottom than non-RIBs, so do not pound as much and because they can cut through waves more easily, may not be as wet. Their fiberglass floors are rigid, which makes for good footing. Also, they will take more abuse on the bottom, and stowage compartments may be incorporated. Their downside is weight and dimensions. Even a lightweight 10-foot RIB weighs 70-100 pounds (up to 40% more than a non-RIB…and an Avon RIB 310 weighs a hefty 150 pounds, almost twice as much!), and with buoyancy tubes deflated occupies twice the space (as an example, the Avon 10' 2" RIB 310 stows in 100" x 49" x 16"; the 10' 2" Avon Rollaway 310 stows in 46" x 21" x 16").

If your boat is big enough to handle the weight and dimensions of a RIB, and you can carry it safely on deck or in davits (not recommended offshore), it is probably the best choice. If, however, you need to stow the deflated boat belowdecks, look at non-RIBs.

The challenge for manufacturers of inflatable boats has been to replicate RIB performance in stowable models. To do this they’ve developed several tricks, such as inflatable keelsons, that give something of a V-shape to the bottom. And they do help.

Manufacturers also have worked hard to make assembly and disassembly faster and easier. The tubes are easy, a given. The variable is the floor, which provides the much-needed rigidity…or lack thereof. At least four distinct floor types have emerged.

Soft floor. Mostly seen in inexpensive models sold through department stores. They, as well as more expensive models from manufacturers like Avon, may have soft sterns as well (some people call them “donuts” or “soft-tails”). In lieu of a rigid transom for mounting an outboard, a bracket may be provided for small horsepower engines only. On the performance-portability continuum: poor performance, great portability.

Rollup floor. This type emphasizes portability with a rollup or rollaway floor consisting of wood or plastic slats connected by fabric, sort of like a window blind. In some designs, the slats are spaced several inches apart; in others, the slats are narrower and connected to one another. As you roll up the deflated tubes, the slats roll up, too. You don’t even have to remove the slatted floor assembly from the boat. It’s fast and easy. The drawback to rollup floors is that the slats aren’t rigidly connected to one another. Not only is footing less secure, but the bottom of the boat may ripple as you move. And a hull that changes shape with the waves isn’t going to be as fast or efficient. It has more drag. An inflatable keel helps keep the slats in one plane and is available on some models. Moderate performance, good portability.

Panel floor. Boats with plywood floor panels are sometimes called sport boats, we guess because they perform better. The three or four panels that make up the floor have metal channels to interlock them, as well as long, U-shaped plastic or metal connecting channels on the side to keep all the panels in roughly the same plane. These, too, may have an inflatable keel to give shape to the bottom and to keep the floorboards flat. To install the floorboards, one pushes the fore and aft boards into place, then fits the center pieces into them. These will be raised in the middle in an inverted V-shape. To press into place one exerts a fair amount of weight on the center joint and, keeping fingers clear, sweats until the boards sufficiently stretch the hull fabric that they fit. It’s not easy (you need some space), but if you leave your boat setup for a period of time, worth the effort. Good performance, moderate portability.

Air floor. A more recent development has been the so-called HPIF or high pressure inflatable floor that uses a removable drop-stitched mattress. Where the hulls of most inflatables are pumped to about 3 psi, these floors must be inflated to about 10-11 psi. Zodiac supplies a nifty 3-speed foot pump that makes it much easier to achieve this high pressure. A drawback is that floor pressure must be monitored to prevent damage, and this, of course, is affected by air temperature. Air floors compare most closely to roll-ups in terms of rigidity and hence footing and performance. Again, an inflatable keel improves performance. They are very easy to set up and are lighter than rollups or panel floors. We found that they generally perform slightly better than rollups. Good performance, great portability.

Making Up Your Mind
One of the first issues to decide is whether you want your boat to plane. Ease of planing is one of the inflatable boat’s great advantages; along with stability and light weight, it’s the boat’s reason for existing. Still, many owners are content to putt from shore to boat in their 2-meter inflatable with 2-hp. outboard, in which they couldn’t violate the harbor’s No Wake rule even if they tried.

So, if you don’t care about planing and cost is a concern, buy a rollup or an air floor.

Soft floor boats without any type of stiffening are difficult to recommend; they’re best left to floating down a lazy stream on a hot summer’s day.

If you coastal cruise and must inflate and deflate the tender almost daily, a rollup or air floor is a smart choice.

On the other hand, if you leave your inflatable boat set up for extended periods, carrying it on deck or in davits when you do move, a panel floor sport boat delivers superior performance (though still not as good as a RIB; they are, however, less expensive than RIBs). And you can still knock it down and stow below for the occasional offshore passage.

Materials and Construction
The two basic fabrics used in the manufacture of inflatable boats are Hypalon and PVC. Zodiac, the leader in robotically thermobonded PVC, calls its fabric Strongan™ Duotex™. West Marine’s Zodiac-built boats are made of gray PVC and urethane-coated 1100 Decitex polyester.

The generally accepted summation of the two has been that Hypalon is more impervious to ultraviolet rays than PVC. Indeed, in an upcoming issue of Elastomer Times, DuPont Dow’s global business director for Hypalon, Steve Santoleri, says, “Hypalon will outperform and outlast other materials such as PVC in abrasion, chemical and weather resistance,” Zodiac, which now owns Avon’s Hypalon line of boats, says this isn’t the whole story, and we’re sure it isn’t. For example, PVC boats are claimed to hold air better than Hypalon. Also, both materials are used in plies with other fabrics, such as Hypalon-coated PVC. In the coming year we hope to learn more about the various materials used for inflatable boats and report it to our readers. In the meantime, a tight-fitting cover would be a good investment for any inflatable boat.

The Evaluation
As in the past, our evaluation of the boats is in several steps. First, each boat is unpacked and note taken of the inventory—paddles, pump, valise, etc. Some judgment of completeness and quality is made. Instructions are nice, too, but not always present.

Next, each boat is inflated with the pump provided. The number of strokes is tallied (includes total of all chambers). This, rather than timing the job, provides a simple point of comparison between models. The number generally ranges from about 125 strokes for a 6-1/2' boat to between 500 and 600 for a 10-footer.

The boats are then transported to the water and launched. We row around for a bit, observing seat comfort, angle of oars (most oars are too short and hit the tube sides), method of securing oars when not in use, seating for passengers when boat is being rowed, etc. We don’t discuss all this in the article because it would take up too much space; instead we concentrate on features we think are unusually good or bad. Let it be said then that no inflatable rows particularly well, especially into a chop.

Returning to the ramp or dock, an outboard motor is fitted. On small boats, this will be the largest motor recommended by the manufacturer. On larger boats, we may try two different size motors, say a 5 hp and 8 hp., or 9.9 hp and 15 hp. Most of the boats in this report were tested with a Nissan 8 hp. as our four-stroke 9.9 hp. proved to be too heavy.

On the water, we accelerate to find out if the boat will plane with one person aboard, and measure top speed. Picking up a second person, the test is repeated for planing and top speed. A measured course is run next and timed with a stop watch. This gives an acceleration figure in seconds. The course is run in both directions and the times averaged so that the influence of wind and current is cancelled.

Before returning to shore, we simply drive the boats around for a while, turning, slowing and accelerating, to learn how they handle. Tracking ability varies considerably between floor types and models. And we just like to look around for any other not-so-obvious assets or shortcomings, like tie-downs for fuel cans and oarlocks where you sit.

Thanks to the good folks at Apex, Defender Industries in Waterford, Connecticut, West Marine in Newport, Rhode Island, and Meghan Rambo at Severn Marine in Annapolis, Maryland for loaning us their boats and assisting us at the test sites.

Achilles LEX 96
At 9' 6", the plywood floor LEX 96 has a different shape than the Achilles LSI 96 of the same length; the bow is pointed. Where most panel floor boats have painted floorboards, the LEX 96’s are varnished, which will require more maintenance. And the wood is thinner than on the more robust, painted floorboards of the SPD 102. Panel floors are somewhat difficult to assemble (you wouldn’t want to do it every time you used the boat) but there is a proportionate improvement in performance; this was the second fastest boat in our test, hitting 17.7 knots with one person and an 8 hp. outboard. The oarlocks are angled slightly outboard so that you don’t sit on them or the oars.

Bottom Line: Overall, we were impressed with Achilles quality, both in terms of workmanship, design and performance. Prices are lower than Avon’s.

Achilles LSI 96
One thing to watch out for with air floors is possible damage caused by spilled gasoline. It will attack vinyl (PVC). Though made of Hypalon, Avon’s air floors are PVC. Not so with the Achilles, which uses Hypalon throughout, even offering a Hypalon sticky-back pad for use under metal gas tanks. Like the LEX 96, the LSI 96 has full-length grab ropes port and starboard. There is a wood cleat inside the transom to hold down the drop stitch air floor. Performance was good with no unusual handling. It weighs 17 lbs. less than the LEX 96.

Bottom Line: Quality air floor model at a premium price of $1,467.

Achilles SPD 102
The four floor panels on this 10' 2" boat are painted and secured with metal hinges and retainers. There is provision for two athwartship seats. Seats and floorboads have foam-matted non-skid on top. Testers commented on the exceptional stability of this boat, which was probably due, at least in part, to its size. The transom is fiberglass. The boat is very fast and well made.

Bottom Line: If you want a high performance non-RIB, check out this big panel floor Achilles…but only if you’re going to leave it set up for periods of time. The comparably constructed Avon R310’s rollup floor makes assembly much easier than the SPD 102, but the Avon’s performance suffers a bit due to the flexible floor and it costs about $800 more; in that light the SPD 102 is nicely priced.

Apex 832RI
The 832RI is a rollup with slatted floor; the 12 slats are more closely spaced that in the West Marine/Zodiac boats, but it feels pretty much like other slatted floors—a bit spongy. It is a big 10-footer with 17" tubes. This makes seating very comfortable. Our test boat had no horns for oarlocks so we weren’t able to row the boat, but presume it would handle like most others—poorly compared to a hard dinghy. There are no grab ropes aft for the helmsman or crew to hold onto—a pointless omission, in our opinion.

With an 8-hp motor, the 832RI barely got on plane with one person. It would not plane with two persons. So we tried it with a 9.9-hp. four-stroke Nissan motor. Unfortunately, this motor weighs more than 100 lbs. and caused the transom to sink sufficiently that the slatted floor began to slide aft and ride up on the angled transom. This was not a problem with the smaller motor, but we nevertheless think that slatted floors ought to be secured to place, if only by a cleat screwed to the transom under which the floor is wedged.

Bottom Line: This is a big, well-made inflatable that needs the right motor to perform well—a 9.9-hp. two-stroke. Expensive at $2,775 retail.

Avon R280HP
This 9' 3" boat has big 17" tubes and an air floor (you can get the same boat with a rollup floor or panel floorboards); it weighs just 63 lbs. Maximum recommended horsepower is just 6 and we found out why when the wind picked up during our testing. With an 8 hp. motor and one person cruising in a chop, the boat became very skittish at high speed. Oars may be stowed on top of the tubes or more out of the way on the edges of the floor (see photo). There is a good grab rail forward.

Bottom Line: It’s interesting to compare this boat with other air floors. The Seaworthy R-6IF, which is also made of Hypalon, has smaller tubes (14") and had some difficulty getting up on plane, but costs $550 less. The 10' 2" Quicksilver QS310 Airdeck made of PVC sells for $1,280. The $1,995 Avon is good quality and you pay for it, but the Hypalon Achilles LSI 96 is probably the best buy here at $1,467 from Defender.

Avon R310 Rollaway
The 10' 2" R310 has the same blunt-bow shape as the R280HP. Like most of the boats tested, it has just one athwartship seat, but we’d like the option of a second after seat for the helmsman when conditions are wet. Also like most other rollups, the floor does not extend all the way to the bow, so you could lose things under the slats, and it tends to flex underway. Avon has a more pronounced rubrail than most other inflatables, which should help protect the skin from abrasion. Though rated for a 15 hp., the R310 performed very well with an 8 hp. Handling was good.

Bottom Line: The R310’s $2,295 price makes it the second most expensive boat tested, but its big 17" tubes and easy-to-plane hull make it a good performer…despite the somewhat flexible rollaway floor.

Bombard Tropik 285
At 59 lbs. this was the lightest of the 9-foot-plus air floor boats tested. Trim is yellow, playing on the name, we guess. Four buttons forward allow one to fasten a spray dodger using elastic cord. It’s a nice idea, and better than none, but too small to be of any real utility. There are lifting eyes in the transom. Webbing is used for the grab rope. There is no athwartship seat. Performance and handling were good.

Bottom Line: At $1,013 the Tropik 285 is the lowest priced 9-foot-plus air floor tested. Good choice in a light, fast mid-size inflatable.

Bombard AX 5001
One could argue that this unusual folding RIB with solid fiberglass hull shouldn’t have been included in the test, but because the transom folds down by means of a rubber-like hinge, making it significantly easier to stow than a conventional RIB, we thought it worth taking a look. It is very light for a RIB at 88 lbs.; it would be interesting to know more about the fiberglass laminate. The boat is a sizzler, hitting a test record 18 knots with one person. The AX 5001 also had the best carrying handles—padded webbing.

Bottom Line: Innovative folding transom feature makes it easier to stow this boat on deck or below.

Very fast, but the ride is a bit hard.

Quicksilver QS310 Sport
Quicksilver boats, we were told by Defender’s inflatable expert, used to be made by Maxxon, but are now made by themselves, a division of Mercury Marine. While we’ve had problems in the past with smaller Quicksilver models standing on end during acceleration (to the point we worried about flipping over backwards), the two 10' 2" models tested exhibited good handling. This 4-panel floor model weighs a hefty 110 lbs, the most of any boat in our test. The floorboards are numbered for easy installation. There are provisions for two athwartship seats.

Bottom Line: We understand that these PVC boats are hand glued, rather than “welded” as done by Zodiac. We’re not keen on the 5-year pro-rated warranty, the poorest of the warranties in this test. On the plus side, the boat handles well.

Quicksilver QS310 Airdeck
Though the same length as the QS310 Sport, the hull shape of this air floor model is less pointed. At 86 lbs. it’s also heavy for its size, which isn’t necessarily bad; while it may require a bit more horsepower or throttle to get up on plane, the added weight may well help keep it under control in bumpy conditions. As far as portability is concerned, weight is never good. Both Quicksilvers have a single rubbing strake on the hull bottom.

Bottom Line: Like the Sport model, this Airdeck handles well but the pro-rated warranty is a detraction.

Seaworthy SW 8.3
Seaworthy boats are made in Croatia and sold in the US by BoatU.S. New for 2001, this slatted floor Hypalon boat is rated for a 5-hp. motor. We mistakenly started with an 8-hp., and, unfortunately, by the time we were able to fit the 5-hp., the wind had picked up to nearly 30 knots with whitecaps on the water. Meghan Rambo, importer, told us the boat can plane with a 5-hp. motor and one person in the right conditions. But at 8' 3" this boat isn’t really intended to be a speedster. It has two rubbing strakes on the tube bottoms. We lost an oar due to what we judged was a poor retaining system of shock cord holding the paddle end. There is no bow eye.

Bottom Line: Priced at $999 it breaks the magic $1,000 price point. Like most inflatables under 9', it is best suited to non-planing speeds.

Seaworthy SW 9.2
The plywood panel floor of the 9.2 has all-wood locking parts, unlike the others which use metal or plastic. Pieces are urethane painted. Connecting hinges are rubber, which won’t corrode. The boat was somewhat difficult to get up on plane with two persons, which may be due to the smaller 14" tube diameters.

Bottom Line: Good value for a Hypalon boat, but small tube diameter seems to affect performance.

Seaworthy R-6IF
This 9' 2" boat is Seaworthy’s air floor model, roughly the same size as the Achilles LSI 96, both of which are made of Hypalon. Unlike most other air floors, which are made up of thousands of polyester “dropped stitches,” Seaworthy’s is a series of tubes like an air mattress that comprise the outside hull as well as the inside floor (see photo). The low-pressure floor is comfortable to sit on but not as rigid as a dropped stitch floor. Rambo said their “I-beam” design is used because they didn’t want to use “a PVC coated drop stitch floor, due to the inherent problems with PVC.” Second, she noted that in some boats the keel pushes the air floor up into the boat, elevating the keel so it’s not as effective (we noticed this on a number of boats). Lastly, she said drop stitch air floors are difficult to inflate to 11.7 psi and that the Seaworthy air floor can be properly inflated with the same pump used for the tubes.

There are three rubbing strakes on the bottom. It tracked well and felt stable until going fast into a windy chop where the light weight of an air floor model becomes a liability.

Bottom Line: The R-6IF’s air mattress type floor isn’t as rigid as a drop stitched floor, but doesn’t require as much attention to psi. We’d like to have larger than 14" tube diameter on a 9' 2" boat.

Seaworthy RU 290
Unlike most inflatable boats, the RU290 has an almost round shape forward as opposed to the sectional tubes and seams; this slightly decreases interior space forward but eliminates some seams and looks good. Tube diameter at 16" is bigger than other Seaworthy boats, which we like. The rollup slats are thermoplastic and like other brands don’t extend all the way forward. The athwartship seat doesn’t have to be removed for folding and stowing. The rubrail is good, but it needs an extra carrying handle/grab rail aft. As it is, two people port and starboard carrying the boat have to grab the oars. There is a large molded bow handle. Performance and handling were good.

Bottom Line: Larger diameter tubes set this model apart from other smaller Seaworthy boats. Design and performance are attractive but absence of aft handholds needs to be addressed.

West Marine RU 200
Said to be popular in Europe, where the average car is smaller than in the US, this 6' 6" boat made by Zodiac is small. Too small for us. With two people their knees touch. The floor has four fiberglass slats. There is no inflatable keel.

One small person and a 5-hp. motor might plane but it won’t feel easy or particularly safe. It definitely won’t plane with two people. Rowing, as with most inflatables, is not a viable means of propulsion into any kind of wind or chop. The oarlocks are located right where the helmsman wants to sit; due to the short length of this boat, even the crew will find it difficult to move forward or aft of the oarlock location. It shouldn’t be difficult for the manufacturer to roll them outboard on the tubes a few inches.

There are stainless steel D-rings for towing, and there is a grab rope around the entire boat. We found the boat very easy to set up; just 115 strokes of the pump inflated the boat.

Like all West Marine/Zodiac boats, they are made of a light gray PVC and urethane-coated 1100 Decitex polyester.

Bottom Line: The RU 200 is a minimal boat. If all you want is something inexpensive to slowly putt back and forth from your mooring, it will do, but its small size and flat floor may prove frustrating over the longer haul.

West Marine RU 260
Also made by Zodiac (and marketed by Zodiac as the C260), the RU 260 is West Marine’s most popular boat. Like the RU 200, it has a slatted (6) rollup floor. Weight is just 39 lbs. It’s surprising how much difference 2' make. At 8' 6", this boat moves much better, though not as well as larger boats. When it comes to inflatable boats, length is nearly everything. Getting in and out of the boat is easy; both helmsman and passenger can be seated in much more comfort.

Underway, the boat planed at 11.5 knots with one person and a 5-hp. outboard. With two persons, the best we could do was 5 knots. Handling was very good, especially considering it has no inflatable keel.

Bottom Line: While it shares many features (good and bad) with the RU 200, the 260 is much more boat. Performance with one person is good, but most of the time aboard you won’t be on plane. Still, it makes a very serviceable tender, and at an attractive price of $899.

West Marine SB 285
As noted, with length comes improved performance. At 9' 4" and an 8-hp. motor, the SB 285 gets up and boogies. It planed easily with one and two persons. This is due to its length, panel floor and inflatable keel. The four marine-grade plywood panels are typically difficult to press in place, but once fitted the floor is very stiff—clearly superior to slats. Footing is secure and underway we made 16.2 knots with one person and 14.5 knots with two. Tracking is good.

The SB 285, at 68 lbs., is about 10-15 lbs. heavier than an air or slatted floor of similar length, but not so much that it’s a troublesome load.

Bottom Line: The difference between a panel floor and slatted or air floor is noticeable. We recommend the panel floor sportboat for anyone who, for whatever reason doesn’t want or can’t afford a RIB, and who will leave the boat set up for a time. The payoff is security and performance.

West Marine HPIF 340
Zodiac, maker of this boat, calls its patented, drop-stitched air floor H2P. In many ways, it was the surprise of the test series. We expected the floor to be softer than it was. Indeed, the floor is sufficiently rigid that if carried outside the boat it will support a considerable weight. Rated for up to a 15-hp. motor, we tested only with an 8 hp., which easily got the 340 on plane, with one and two persons. It’s 11' 2" length really goes to work here, both in terms of performance and interior space. The inflated keel gives good tracking. With big 17" tubes, strokes to inflate are around 600 strokes. Weight is a mere 63 lbs.

Bottom Line: Extremely light and very fast, the 340 was a surprise performer. The air floor makes set-up easy, though there are, of course, more strokes required on the pump. A winner. Also available as 280 and 310.

Zodiac C285YL
This rollup model has a plywood floor that is made to look like teak and holly. It is varnished and will require more maintenance than painted wood. Like most other rollup floors, you can feel it ripple under your feet. This generally has some effect on a boat’s ability to get up on plane and hold it, but the tradeoff is easy assembly/disassembly. The C285YL has good web grab rails. The single athwartship seat is well forward. Performance and handling was good.

Bottom Line: Reasonable choice from the leader in PVC construction.

Conclusion
As noted in the introduction, the issue of portability vs. performance can be thought of as a continuum along which there are many choices, each with tradeoffs. The boat you choose will have much to do with how it’s used—number of passengers, stowed for passages, left set up most of the time, used at high speed to access dive sites far from anchorage, tender used only for getting to shore, etc. We won’t attempt to cover all the choices, but here’s a stab at some obvious ones.

If all you want is a small tender for two-three people to putt-putt from boat to shore, an 8-1/2' boat will do—the West Marine RU260 is low priced.

If you want a boat that planes, buy one that is at least 9 long. Buy the longest boat you can afford and can stow.

Among Hypalon boats, we liked both the Avon and Achilles, and feel that Achilles, priced substantially lower, is the better value. The Seaworthy SW 9.2’s 14" tubes make it a less desirable choice. Among 9' PVC boats, the Bombard Tropik, West Marine SB285 and Zodiac C285YL are comparable, though we developed a preference for air floors over rollups—same easy assembly/disassembly but stiffer underfoot and we think slightly better performance. We’d take an air floor such as the Bombard Tropik if frequently deflating the boat, but we’d take a panel floor such as the SB285 if leaving it set up for periods of time. Panel floors seem to outperform air and rollup floors in terms of both speed and handling.

The larger 10' and 11' boats, such as the Achilles SPD 102 and West Marine 340 HPIF, are noticeably more comfortable and generally behave better. An exception was the Apex 832RI, which we had difficulty getting on plane, probably because we didn’t have a 9.9-hp. two-stroke, which we think would suit the boat well.

 

Contacts- Achilles Inflatable Craft, PO Box 2287, Everett, WA 98203; 425/353-7000, www.achillesusa.com. Apex Inflatables, 919A Bay Ridge Rd., Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/422-5977, www.apexinflatables.com. Avon Marine, Bombard, Zodiac of North America, PO Box 400, 540 Thompson Creek Rd., Stevensville, MD 21666; 410/643-4141, www.avon-marine.com, www.bombard.com, www.zodiac.com. Quicksilver Inflatables, PO Box 1939, Fon du Lac, WI 54936-1939, 920/929-5000, www.mercurymarine.com. Seaworthy, BoatU.S., 884 S. Pickett St., Alexandria, VA 22304; 800/937-2628, www.boatus.com. West Marine, PO Box 50070, Watsonville, CA 95077-0070, 800/262-8464, www.westmarine.com.

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