There’s something about the word inflatable that just gives us the giggles.
No, not those kind of giggles, but rather the giggles that result from fun memories. Maybe it’s from riding a simple inner tube behind your parent’s boat as a kid on summer vacation. Maybe it’s from bouncing across the waves as an adult, escaping the monotony of the work week. Maybe it’s the looks on your kids’ faces as you whipped them outside the wake for the first time. Inflatables don’t discriminate. They appeal to all ages, all sizes, all athletic abilities.
Inflatables, however, can no longer be defined by that doughnut or tire tube of old. Modern versions come in all shapes and sizes. Created by intricately shaped PVC liners within durable nylon wraps, these modern “tubes” deliver totally tubular rides. Whether you like it wild or mild, alone or with multiple friends, there’s one that’s just waiting to make a new memory.
Looking for a sampling of what’s available? We picked out six of the more unique designs on the market, then turned loose a trio of teens (and one Boating editor) behind a Starcraft 211 CC OB. Between the giant grins, we got some great insights on which inflatables pump up the fun factor.
O’Brien Slacker 3
Don’t let the Slacker name or this inflatable’s La-Z-Boy profile fool you. The Slacker was one of our test team’s favorite models, due to both the three-passenger capability and the tube’s fun ride. Essentially a 70-by-80-inch rectangle with front-to-back rocker, the Slacker allows passengers to sit in a reclining position, with legs fully stretched out. Inflatable dividers, as well as six padded grab handles featuring EVA knuckle guards, keep everyone in place.
Once seated, riders simply chill out — and hang on for the ride. With its pronounced rocker, the Slacker rides on a reduced wetted surface, offering up a soft, gentle ride. But while we found it exceptionally stable, it’s also quick and drifts easily back and forth across the wake during a series of S turns. Riders didn’t feel apprehensive during these maneuvers, but instead felt relaxed, not fearing being flipped or flung.
The Slacker features an internal PVC bladder covered by a nylon outer wrap. A beefy quick-connect tow hook quickly attaches the tube to a towline. Inflation is quick and easy with O’Brien’s Lightning Valve. It’s large opening doesn’t require any special nozzle; just hold the inflater or Shop-Vac hose against the opening and fill. The large valve’s air-retention flap then just flips in for rapid deflation. It’s fast, although we found we couldn’t use the electric inflater to suck every last bit of air out, as the suction flipped the flap into the closed position.
Sportsstuff High Roller 2
The High Roller’s design is unique. Riders are positioned side by side, elevated above the water on parallel spheres, linked by a wraparound collar. Above, this invites riders to straddle the inflatable like jockeys on a horse, bracing their feet or knees against an inflatable barrier aft and hanging on to a choice of padded handles with EVA knuckle guards forward. Below, it allows the tube to ride on a vastly reduced running surface once on plane, hydroplaning across the water with little resistance.
Our crew was able to shift their body weight to move the High Roller back and forth across the wakes or hurtle this inflatable out into the flats with a little driver assistance. Almost like a catamaran, the tube is quite stable. One catch, however, is that due to the side-by-side profile, riders should be somewhat evenly matched in weight. The prone riding position can also be tiring over time and may result in a few abrasions from the cover, despite the large EVA pads in the knee and leg areas.
Inflation of the High Roller is a four-part process, consisting of the individual spheres, base collar, and knee/foot support. Sportsstuff uses two-part speed valves featuring a smaller opening for inflation and a larger base opening for deflation, formed from the same attached plug. The inner bladders are heavy-gauge PVC; the outer cover is heavy-duty nylon.
O’Brien Wedgie 2
The name may bring back unpleasant memories from middle school, but this is one Wedgie that promises not to leave you squirming in your shorts. In fact, with its extra-deep seats, this 73-by-51-inch cheese-wedge-shaped inflatable is actually quite comfortable, even when bouncing across the waves. Chalk it up to the impressive cushioning between the rider’s derriere and the water, as well as the legs out in a reclined riding position.
Our teenage testers found it quite fun to be flung outside the wakes on the Wedgie, which skids quite flat, reducing the fear of the tube rolling over at whipping speeds. Once again, however, it’s the driver who bears most of the responsibility. We found just setting up a series of S turns provided the necessary momentum.
The interior of the Wedgie is durable PVC covered in nylon. O’Brien’s Lightning Valve makes for quick inflation of the primary bladder with an electric inflater or Shop-Vac, without the need for flow-reducing adapters. When it comes time to deflate, the valve’s retention flap pivots in, rapidly emptying the tube of air. The three more traditional, pool-float-style Eco valves found in the passenger dividers, however, proved slightly more cumbersome, as they didn’t always align perfectly with the access zippers.
The original three-passenger Poparazzi was a huge hit when we last did an inflatables roundup, a fact that made us anxious to check out this more compact two-passenger model. Like the original, the Poparazzi 2 features a unique overhead arch and riding platform with gentle, side-to-side rocker. Passengers lie down, kneel or stand behind the arch, or mix up the positions for variety. Padded grab handles with neoprene knuckle guards are spaced high and low to offer a handhold; additional straps are located inside the arch interior.
Like the original, our test crew noted they could use leverage and the bottom rocker to steer the Poparazzi in and out of the wakes by simply shifting their weight. That leverage increases exponentially in the standing position but, without the width of the larger model, the first attempt at wake crossing ultimately left everyone in the drink. In this two-passenger version, the center of gravity is high and the base comparatively narrow. Once riders learned not to lean so aggressively, the Poparazzi was moving in and out of the wakes with relative control.
The Poparazzi is quickly inflated via a speed valve, a two-part valve with a smaller opening for inflation and a larger one for deflation. The base and arch inflate separately. Neoprene pads on the base provide a softer surface for rider contact, as well as protect the nylon exterior from wear.
Slingshot Big Shot iDrodisk
Anyone who rode a simple plywood disc as a kid will recognize the iDrodisk. A 5-foot-diameter, 4-inch-thick pancake, it glides across the water with ease while letting the rider lie down, kneel, sit or stand. An integrated hanger cradles a conventional ski handle to allow for easy starting and, later, you can ride hands-free or hold on to any of the four integrated nylon web handles; Slingshot recommends limiting its use to under 10 mph. At higher speeds, undo that handle and you can hold the towrope conventionally. An EVA deck pad adds a layer of comfort as well as traction underfoot.
Our crew immediately took to the iDrodisk, enjoying the challenge of trying to one-up each other and perform 360 spins. They quickly learned slower is better, at least during the initial learning curve. At higher speeds, the iDrodisk was easier to catch on its forward edge, should you not keep your weight toward the back of the disc.
Slingshot uses the same construction found on inflatable stand-up paddleboards, a cloth core wrapped with multiple layers of durable PVC. Thousands of tiny polyester threads, sewn between the top and bottom, limit expansion to create the rigid feel. Most electric inflaters can’t achieve the recommended 15 psi, meaning the included hand pump is necessary to finish the job. When deflated, however, the iDrodisk packs flat, making it one of the easiest inflatables to store.
Airhead Throne 2
Throne is an apropos title for an inflatable that Airhead calls one of its most comfortable designs. A 67.5-by-77-inch oval tub with high sides and a couchlike backrest, the Throne is essentially one big cushy recliner. Up to two riders comfortably recline within, with room to fully stretch out adult-size legs. That makes this an inflatable that works not only behind the boat, but also equally well after the ride as a static float.
While the Throne’s laid-back style may seem tame, our test riders appreciated the change of pace, kicking back and relaxing as this inflatable easily skidded across the wakes thanks to its flat bottom surface. Still, maneuvering the tube is a task that falls more to the driver; riders aren’t really able to manipulate direction. A high freeboard enhances the rider’s sense of security. For those who need a little more reassurance, padded grab handles with knuckle guards are located in the center of the floor as well as on each side.
The Throne features two heavy-gauge PVC bladders, one for the floor and the other for the surrounding collar, wrapped in double-stitched nylon. The patented, two-part Speed Safety Valves offer quick inflation and deflation while eliminating any worry about losing parts.
Inflatable Do’s & Don’ts
Inflatables may seem like the simplest form of watersports, but just like skiing or wakeboarding, they require responsible use — and a healthy dose of common sense.
DO invest in a towline rated to the proper capacity. WSIA standards call for 2,375-pound rated lines for two-passenger inflatables, 4,100-pound ratings for four-person models, and 6,000-pound ratings for six passengers.
DON’T be careless with your rope’s attachment points. If a tube nose-dives, the stress created is enormous, making it essential to secure the rope both to your inflatable’s connection point and your boat’s tow ring.
DO fully inflate the PVC bladders. The inflatable should feel firm to the touch, with few to no wrinkles in the outer nylon cover. Underinflation hinders performance, causes premature wear, and can be a safety hazard.
DON’T overinflate. Filling your tube with excessive air may cause internal bladder seams to tear, distorting the tube’s shape.
DO adhere to manufacturer passenger capacity ratings. It’s not only common sense but also the best way to let riders enjoy it.
DON’T overload a towable, even if it seems like it can handle the added passengers. The added weight will negatively impact the ride, potentially damage the inflatable, and may be dangerous.
DO give your riders a fun pull. That includes responsible use of S turns to drift them outside the wake, and speeds up to 20 mph. Always use a spotter; a rear-view mirror may also be helpful.
DON’T exceed 20 mph, whip riders outside the wake at excessive speeds, target large wakes, or bring a rider any closer than twice the towrope length to obstacles or the shoreline. Tubes aren’t steerable; it’s up to the captain to keep riders out of harm’s way.
This article was originally featured on our sister site, Boating Mag, on June 20, 2017