Last Updated on May 31, 2022 by Brian Drew

“Row Row Row a boat gently down the stream…” goes the famous nursery rhyme that each and everyone has grown up listening to. A ride on a raft, canoe, or even a catamaran is the most pleasurable highlight of any vacation or camping trip. Grandparents to toddlers, everyone enjoys a boat ride the most. That is one of the reasons for many families to buy their own craft which they can use at their convenience.

The most popular vessel with families is the top-rated inflatable boat because of its versatility and ease of use. These crafts can be used either for fishing or for more adventurous sports like white water rafting, kayaking, and scuba diving expeditions. The military uses these for water rescue and guerilla warfare; the lifeguards use them as well.

Why are inflatable boats popular?

The reasons why these crafts are very popular with the masses are:

  • Weight: they are really lightweight
  • Storage: they can be easily dismantled and compressed into a small package and stored
  • Cost: they are very affordable 
  • Easy maintenance: it is very easy to take care of them
  • Easy to use: they are very easy to use.

Enough has been said about these amazing vehicles but do you know the history behind this invention?

The origins 

It is believed that our ancestors have also used a primitive version of these rafts several centuries ago. It is documented in the history books that the Persians and the Assyrians had inflated animal skins and used them to cross water bodies.

Even in ancient China during the Ming dynasty, there are references to the use of animal skins to cross rivers. These skins were expanded by blowing into them by mouth

Animal skins obviously don’t match up to the versions that we know today. The present-day models use better quality fabric, adhesives, and engineering to enhance their utility and durability.

Evolution as it happened

  • 19th century

The vulcanization of rubber has led to the use of rubber in several industries and in the manufacture of various products including these boats. The very first vessel was designed by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, an officer in the Royal Navy. He used a Mackintosh cloth which served the dual purpose of a cloak and a one-man raft when inflated. 

  • 20th century

Further advancements in the methods of rubber manufacturing lead to the production of a circular version that needed only paddles to help them move. This century saw the birth of two of the giants in this industry:

  • Zodiac
  • RFD
  • The birth of the Zodiac 

The development of rubber-coated fabrics saw another leap in the evolution of this invention. A French airship manufacturer Societe Zodiac started manufacturing inflatable rubber boats. They invented the first inflatable kayak and catamaran in 1934. Several improvements to this design led to the production of a more usable version.

  • RFD

Similar to Zodiac, RFD was an airship manufacturing company in Britain; its owner Reginald Foster Dagnall designed the first expandable boat using rubber-coated fabric. He went on to manufacture life rafts and life jackets. The potential of these crafts to save a life was recognized by the British Air Ministry and RFD was given the contract to build more such vehicles and jackets.

Progress after World War II

After World War II rapid advancement in science and technology led to the emergence of resilient, durable, and sturdy synthetic materials like neoprene and Hypalon.  Regular nylon fabrics were coated with these new synthetic materials to withstand the harsh climate, seawater, and UV radiation. There was also the development of better quality glue used in manufacturing these vessels.

Till the end of the world war, these crafts were primarily used for military purposes. After World War II the civilian use of this mode of transport increased manifold. This led to the development of the associated industry in a big way. In fact, many surplus crafts were sold to the public after the war.

Actual predecessor (forerunner) 

The forerunner to the present day floats is the vessel designed by Pierre Debroutelle in 1937. He built a U-shaped carriage that had two buoyancy chambers held together with a wooden transom (horizontal beam between two structures). He patented it in 1943.

Present-day types 

Present-day versions are much lighter and more flexible than their predecessors. The use of PVC, Hypalon, and vinyl has brought the weight down significantly. With further improvement in the material and manufacturing techniques, the future for this invention looks bright. Today there are several types of crafts in the market.

Types of inflatable boats

  1. Roll-up inflatable 
  2. Rigid-hull inflatable boats (RIBs).


These boats are really easy to carry objects because you just need to roll them up and stuff them into a bag. They can be either with slats or without slats; slats give more rigidity to the bottom. Maneuvering these crafts requires some skill. The main features are:

  • Compact: They can be deflated and folded and stored in a small bag
  • Durable: The better fabric and design make them more durable
  • Inexpensive: The simplicity of this type makes it affordable and within budget.
  • Synthetic Flooring: Weight should be minimal in these crafts and that is possible when the flooring is lightweight.

These floats come with paddles or oars. The entire piece can be packed into a bag that is as small as a golf bag.

  • Types of inflatable roll-ups
    • With plywood transom: A firm stern makes mounting in and out easy.
    • With HP inflatable floor: Models, where the floor is inflated like a balloon, are more steady and balanced on water.
    • With expandable keel: The keel is useful in providing directional support.

All these additional features add to the performance, speed, and stability of the boat.

Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs)

The RIBs offer you the best of both worlds: the required stability of conventional types along with the shock-absorbing features of the expandable tubes. These boats most often have fiberglass or solid V bottom making them immensely stable and strong. These vessels can’t be launched like the other version anywhere; they need a platform or have to be towed to be used.

Advantages of the RIBs:

  • Higher load-carrying potential:  Because of the solid hull this variation has a better load carrying potential.
  • Faster:  The solid hull is also helpful in maintaining the direction and making the vessel go faster.
  • Can be subject to harsh handling: This type is prone to less damage if caught in a storm or even if dragged on the beach.
  • Versatile uses: The hull can be customized to suit your specific requirements like fishing, cruising, and waterskiing.
  • No special skills required: You don’t need any special skills to use these RIBs.

Disadvantages of RIBs

  • Heavy: They are heavy and not compact
  • Expensive: Because of a sturdier framework they end up being more expensive.
  • Need a platform to launch: A swim platform is necessary to launch this solid structure.

Final words

Inflatables have come a long way from goat skins to vulcanized rubber to neoprene; today there are boats that are almost 45 feet in length. With further advancements in the methods of manufacture, damage-resistant coating, better sealant, and glues, inflatable gear will be in greater demand. So be it for recreational use on the lakes and the rivers or for more adventurous trips, inflatable boats are irreplaceable.

And during all your trips do spare a thought to the very first inventors of these versatile boats that give you so much pleasure today.

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