Inflatable insights – Scott Wilson 

In talking with many customers I have found that there are misconceptions when it comes to Inflatable boats so I’d like to take this opportunity to outline the many aspects of inflatable boat materials and design, how they work and how to do repairs should they be necessary.

Our first subject is Fabric. Inflatables are primarily made from 3 different types of coated fabrics.  These days there is usually a woven base of polyester or nylon which is coated with PVC, Hypalon or CSM, or polyurethane. The most popular fabric for small boat tubes is PVC or Poly Vinyl Chloride. The reason is cost. PVC is considerably cheaper than many other options and is produced by many factories around the world. PVC based boats can be quite strong and can last well if made from premium fabrics. The Highfield PVC boats are one of few brands made from the German Mehler or Valmex marine mainstream plus PVC. Mainstream Plus has an extra lacquer coating on the outside to guard against UV and chemical attack. This is one of the dearer PVC fabrics on the market but of course is considerably better than most of the others.

There are literally hundreds of brands of inflatable boats and many of these are available in Australia. Most of the brands being sold on the internet for instance are made from inferior Chinese or Korean PVC fabric and are put together with cheap glues by someone who has never been on the water and even worse has no idea what an inflatable in the tropics has to go through. The end result is an inflatable or RIB that will be lucky to last a year or two anywhere north of Melbourne.

The rule for high end PVC RIBs is that they need quality fabric, very good adhesives and the main air holding compartments should be welded with hot air welding machines similar to those used at Highfield.

The next step up is HYPALON. Hypalon is a trade name that Dupont came up with for a synthetic rubber that is used throughout the inflatable boat industry for outer coating on heavy duty, commercial and high end boat tubes. Dupont no longer uses the name but it has become generic for the product that is now described as CSM or Chlorosulfonated Polyethylene. The fabrics are mostly sourced from Pennel and Flipo in Belgium, one of the worlds most trusted suppliers of Hypalon or CSM since 1924. What is normally described as Hypalon fabric involves much the same layering as with PVC fabric except that the inner and outer layers are calendared or rolled onto an internal matrix of  woven polyester cloth (for strength and stretch resistance). The outer layer is Hypalon or CSM and is highly resistance to UV, chemicals and abrasion. The inner layer is usually neoprene, another synthetic rubber which is excellent for its air holding properties. The actual product is more involved but this is essentially what is described as Hypalon fabric.   

Hypalon is at least 7 times the price of PVC fabric and it cannot be welded. It must be laboriously marked out, ground and hand glued at every seam. Fortunately the glue used on Hypalon boats is very strong and stable over very long periods and in high temperatures so it means that you can be assured that your Hypalon tubed RIB will last for many, many years. The fabric in Highfield boats is just the start of the story but it is one of the most important parts of any inflatable and as such must be very reliable and long lasting.  As the originator of both the Swift and Highfield brands and with experience over 30 years in the industry I can say with certainty that the fabrics used are the best in the industry so will give you many trouble free years of service. 

Some tips for those living on the eastern or western seaboard of Australian in terms of what’s the best material. North of say Bundaberg, Hypalon is by far the best way to go. If you are cruising and will only spend a limited time in the tropics then PVC is fine but the majority of the boat’s life should be spent south of that point. Quality PVC is great stuff and lasts really well in southern climes and I have seen many examples of PVC boats hanging in for 10, 12 or even 15 years in South East Qld. They can withstand a little while in the tropics but the life of the boat will be somewhat better if it is covered or kept indoors when not being used. Hypalon boats are far better in the North and even though they too can suffer from life in the tropics they will last far better than a PVC boat. Swift Marine has many Police, Marine Parks and Fisheries RIBs operating in FNQ and they last exceptionally well with the Hypalon tubes having a long and trouble free service life. Both Hypalon and PVC, will benefit if covered when not being used and both fabric types should be regularly washed with a good quality cleaner and then have inflatable boat preserver applied to ward off mildew and marking, and to help the fabric last even longer. 

Nyrie Roos