Most inflatable kayaks have the same basic construction: A floor, often similar to a beach mattress; two side tubes, like a boat shaped truck tire inner tube; and there can be many accessory chambers like spray decks, seats, thwarts and foot rests.
Some soft shell kayaks have a double skin with an air chamber zipped inside a tough outer cover. Some have solid foam rubber floors. Several different types of "rubber-like" material can be found from kayak to kayak.
Materials like Hypalon, Nitrylon, Vinyl and PVC are common. (PVC = poly vinyl chloride.) These materials are often re-enforced with a fabric backing for strength and durability.
Here is the answer to the question that has probably been on your mind:
"What will happen if the kayak leaks when on the water?"
That is why a soft shell is constructed of multiple air chambers. An air chamber will never "pop" like a balloon. It will leak slowly and only when it is getting very soft will you notice you have a problem.
Only one is likely to go at any time, allowing you to "limp" back to shore on the other two. If the floor goes you will have the two side chambers. If a side goes you will have the floor and one side keeping you afloat, listing to one side. Photo provided by Sevylor
Valves & Air Stems
Each of these chambers will have a valve that is used for filling with air and letting it out. Good quality boats will have a one-way valve called a Boston valve. The Boston valve screws into a fitting in each chamber. The valve body has a rubber flap that lets air flow in but not out. The top cap covers the filling hole. Remove both pieces and all the air comes out.
Boats with air stems, like the kind you may find on a beach ball, are of lesser quality. Stems may be used in accessory chambers of quality kayaks without concern. The three primary chambers: floor & 2 sides, should be one-way Boston valves.
You will need seats. These are often inflatable but sometimes are a foam block (even wood on some older versions).
Footrests are not as common as one would think. Both seats and footrests provide comfort, but aid performance as well. A well-placed dry bag can act as a decent footrest. Photos provided by Innova
D-Rings & Decklines
Some soft shell kayaks are outfitted with deck lines, mostly on the spray decks. Deck lines and safety lines along the gunwales can be added custom with D-rings glued on at strategic places.
D-Rings and other tie downs are handy for securing dry bags. They are often used for attaching knee straps and in some cases a backrest. D-Rings can be glued on to your kayak to customize it for your own storage needs and knee strap use.
If your kayak is out-fitted with spray decks and thwarts (a cross-member from one gunwale to the other) these can be used to stuff packages under relatively securely.
Rudders, Skegs, Strakes
Rudders are helpful for touring kayaks, but not for white water river kayaks.
While a rudder could be considered to be the most effective way to keep a kayak tracking on open water, skegs and strakes can do a good job to.
We carry the Tracking Fin Retrofit Kit in our shop to replace a lost or damaged fin on the Sunny and Safari Innova brand inflatable kayaks that are out-fitted to accept this fin.
A rudder will add bulk, weight and cost to an inflatable kayak, but while on the water you may find it worth its weight in gold. We carry the Helios Rudder, shown above, in our shop. Photos provided by Innova
A Strake is a long shallow fin on the hull. You will find them at the stern, sometime in pairs, or in some cases bow and stern. They look like they would do little but in fact they do quite well. Fins or skegs are found only on a couple of these craft. They are made of a flat piece of plastic and fitted into a slot as the kayak is inflated. In some cases the fin is permanently glued onto the hull.
Scupper Drain Holes
Not all, but many inflatables will have self-bailing scupper holes in the cockpit floor. This is great for rough waters so the collected bilge water can drain away from the seating and lighten your load. Scupper holes are especially helpful in white water and surf zones. An inflatable will not sink if the cockpit is flooded but it will paddle sluggish. If you do not have scupper holes a bailing device such as a large cup or bilge pump will be nice to have. Use it once you reach calm water. Photo provided by AIRE
In addition to your inflatable kayak you will need paddles, of course, and an air pump. Don't forget the PFD! You will need a patch kit that invariably comes with every soft shell. (Check it each season to ensure that the glue is fresh.) A strong carry case is also needed to protect your boat in storage and transportation.
The air pump is a critical accessory. Do not think you can fill your kayak using a bike pump or automobile tire pump. Inflatable kayaks need a pump that delivers a large volume of low air pressure, about 3-5 PSI. Bike pumps deliver low volume high pressure; auto tire pumps a high volume high pressure, both about 100 PSI.
You can cause serious damage to your kayak if you fill it at too high an air pressure. Use the recommended pump and if possible select one with a pressure gauge.
I like to have two pumps on hand, one of each; hand and foot pump. A large hand pump, looks like an obese bike pump, is the first kind of pump you should be looking for. It works fast, is easy to use and they are generally bombproof. The double action pump will work on both the up and down strokes. I use the large hand pump at the put-in on the beach. Then I pack it away.
If the trip will be long or overnight I will bring a small foot pump on board. Not only will I be prepared for topping off a leaky air chamber but I can follow good maintenance protocol. (More on that later.) A foot pump takes up little space on board and can be operated, by hand, while afloat, if necessary. We carry the Bravo 1 Foot Pump in our shop which is an excellent choice for an easy-to-stow all-purpose pump.
Your pump will likely come with a selection of tip adaptors allowing you to use the pump to inflate a variety of chambers, other soft shell kayaks, as well as beach toys and air beds. Keep these adaptor tips handy in your repair kit. You never know when you may be needed to help inflate another's boat.
A storage bag is a must. You can not just let a "naked rubber boat" ride around the truck of your car, check as luggage or store it in the garden shed without some wear and tear. Look for a good quality, heavy-duty duffle bag. Military surplus, hockey & football duffels, scuba gear stow bags and other large opening cases and bags will be perfect.
Look for one that can hold the entire package. Wheels would be a nice option on a case for the heavy, bulky soft shells. I use a military surplus canvas duffle. It dries fairly easy and has held up well over the years and did not cost very much.
Inflatables are paddled as you would any hardshell kayak, using the same paddles but with some minor considerations. Inflatable kayaks are wider than hard-shell kayaks. (Aquabound Manta Ray pictured right)
When selecting a paddle for your inflatable kayak you will want to choose a slightly longer size than you would use for a hard-shell. For touring a lowoke angle paddle will help you accommodate the wider beam. Photo provided by Innova
You may want three or four piece paddles, instead of the standard two-piece. I have done well with my two-piece paddles but I often wish that I had a four piece that would fit into the kayak storage bag to reduce the bulk.
I obtained some inflatable PFDs to go with my inflatable kayak in an effort to reduce bulk in transport; but there has always seemed to be enough space for my standard PFDs in my general baggage. We carry a variety of good quality, medium priced kayak PFDs or Life Vests in our shop.
Your kayak will come with a patch kit no doubt. It will be fine for basic use and casual day trips, but if you plan to do some expedition kayaking you may want to take a close look at it and run through some worst-case scenarios, then bulk it up with some spare parts, patches, D-rings, extra glue and maybe a spare valve (stem cap) if you can get your hands on one.
You can custom mount additional D-rings to your kayak in the cockpit for knee straps and baggage, on the outside perimeter for safety lines, and on the decks for small bags and paddle parking. Roughing up both surfaces with sand paper is often required. Apply glue to both just as you would when patching (see "Repair & Maintenance"). Allow both the "patch" part of the D-ring and kayak to "dry" - about five minutes - then stick together. Take your time and plan carefully.
A Life Line is a very good piece of safety gear to have along. A device developed and promoted by famed adventure kayaker Audrey Sutherland, the lifeline will prevent the kayak from drifting away from you in the event of a capsize. It is simply a length of rope with a large loop on one end and a clip on the other end. The clip attaches to the kayak, somewhere convenient, and the loop goes over your head and under one arm.
The reason for the Life Line is to keep you with your kayak. An inflatable kayak can drift quite fast on open water in wind. Even a light breeze can blow a soft shell kayak faster than you can swim. The surf zone can also take a soft shell from its rider quite easily. You could use a surfboard leash on your ankle, or possibly a paddle leash to achieve the same result. Whatever your plan, some method must be used to combat the greater risk of an inflatable drifting or blowing away from a capsized paddler. Even at a breif landing an inflatable can easily blow off the beach in a good wind.
You can make your own Life Line as chances are you will never find one in a shop. Select some rope, maybe about ½ inch in diameter, not too thin, as it could cut into you. A nice soft braided or twisted nylon would be nice, although mine is a ½ inch hollow core braided polypropylene rope. I used about a 12-foot length. You may want more or less depending on your size and kayak. Photo by Tom Holtey
Affix a brass clip on one end and a large loop on the other. My loop is about 2 feet in diameter. The loop is static, meaning it cannot tighten and get smaller - you are not making a hangman's noose! Make sure that the loop is large enough to slip on and off easily, stay in place, and not tighten. Many prepackaged ropes come with instructions on how to create effective and elegant loops. If not, for photos with further instruction see my article: "How To Make An Eye Splice" here at TopKayaker.net. We carry a variety of rope and clips for such projects in our shop.
© 2005 - 2009 Tom Holtey
Resources: Visit our Inflatable Kayak Index of articles here at TopKayaker.net
We now carry Innova
Inflatable Kayaks at Tom's Top Kayaker Shop
| -Inflatable Boats: Selection, Care, Repair, and
Seamanship by Jim Trefethen
-The Complete Inflatable Kayaker
(white water only) by Jeff Bennett
-Guide to Inflatable Canoes & Kayaks
-Inflatable Kayak Handbook
-Inflatable Kayaking: The Complete Guide
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