MiniCAT vs Hobie, Inflatable vs Rigid, PVC vs Plastic: What costs less, provides better value and is the best choice for casual sailors.
A comparison of portable/inflatable sailboats like the MiniCat made from PVC to rigid hulled boats like Hobie, made of fibreglass and roto-molded plastic.
Day sailing or dinghy sailing is one of the greatest things you can ever do. Many people learn to sail on dinghies at camps when they were young or by joining clubs as adults if they weren’t so lucky to learn growing up. Others are introduced to sailing while on vacation using beach cats such as Hobie and inevitably come home with a fire lit inside them. Sure, the big boats get the glory but just ask any sailor moored up on some beautiful body of water and they will all tell you that they wish they had a little day sailor or dinghy to zip around and have fun with. But yachts and cruisers simply didn't have the room for a sailing dinghy, until now.
Once people discover that inflatable/portable sailboats exist they are simply blown away. But it takes a while to convince these old salts of the advantages and benefits of inflatable sailboats. Then you have those that learned to sale on vacation, who would love to go sailing more back home, but lacked the space necessary to own and store a dinghy. I was myself was one of these people. Having lived my whole life in a city and invariably a “condo” I learned to sail at a resort, then joined a club, but deep down wanted my own boat so I could sail wherever, whenever and with whoever I wanted to. I thought long and hard about buying a boat but then I could never find a place to store it. One club in Toronto has a 7-year waiting list and I will not even go into the other hassles I encountered.
When I eventually found portable / inflatable sailboats it was like a light bulb went off. I looked at all the pros and cons and decided the value of these boats was phenomenal. (I even flirted with designing my own, but that’s a story for another time.) Instead of just buying a boat I decided to get the rights to sell them and introduce others to this sector and the amazing possibilities of owning an inflatable dinghy.
Often, when someone sees an inflatable sailboat for the first time, they ask me about the toughness and durability compared to their rigid hulled counterparts. Invariably the question of price comes up as they ask, "why do they cost so much?" So, I decided to write article explaining the benefits of inflatable sailboats over rigid. I also want to write about the "value" of inflatables and show that they not only cost less to buy but they will deliver far more value to their owners.
For the purposes of this article I want to compare rigid catamarans from companies like Hobie, Nacra and RS with inflatables from companies such as MiniCAT, Grabner and SmartKat. While I will not be directly comparing rigid monohulls like Lasers with inflatable monohulls such as Tiwal and DinghyGo, the basic points I make should still apply.
First let’s start with a quick primer of materials used to make boat hulls.
The original material, wood boats were made for thousands of years, but you don't really see many boats made of wood sold commercially anymore, other than by some niche handmade ones. They are in my opinion beautiful works of art but there is a reason they are not mass produced. They are expensive, heavy, difficult to make, time consuming to maintain and very difficult to repair should the need ever arise. In terms of durability it was good but not great. Regardless, for many years there simply was no other choice of materials when it came to making boats.
Wood may have given way to metal when it comes to motor boats and monsters like this, but there is no day use sailboat today or ever that I know of that has a hull made of metal.
First developed in the 20’s and 30’s it started to be used on sailboats in the 50s and by the 70s it seemed like most boats were made of this venerable material. Classic boats such as the Hobie 14 and 16 and the Laser were all made of fiberglass. But while it was an improvement over wood it was still somewhat heavy. Eventually fiberglass boats became cheaper to produce than wood and required significantly less maintenance. However, the biggest knock against fiberglass was its fragility. Any scraping on a rock or a smash against a dock or other boat would invariably rip a hole in your hull, and while it was easier to repair than wood it still took days of time and effort and the chemicals used were to some extent toxic and environmentally unsafe.
The new space age material used in all sorts of high-performance objects from bikes to cars and everything in between. This material is the lightest of all those in this list but also the most expensive, and while it is very strong in some ways it is weak in others and can easily be damaged when scraped on rocks or crashed into docks. This material is only reserved for the ultimate performance boats with prices to match, where the cost and time to repair is less of a factor.
Roto-Molded (Polyethylene) Plastic
This material started to be used in dinghies about 10 years ago and has now replaced fiberglass as the material of choice for many consumer grade dinghies. It is much tougher than fiberglass and will withstand normal crashes and bashes and scrapes on rocks. But it is every bit as heavy as fiberglass and unlike fiberglass, should it get damaged it is virtually impossible to repair. While it is UV resistant, over time the sun will weaken this material considerably to the point when it will no longer be useable.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC has been around since the late 1800s and due to its incredible properties is chemically resistant to acids, salts, bases, fats, and alcohols, making it resistant to the corrosive effects of sewage, which is why it is widely used in sewer piping systems, among numerous other applications. In the 1950s Zodiac pioneered its use as an inflatable boat hull. It was renowned for its shallow draft, durability, toughness and low-cost relative to other boat building materials. You could crash into rocks, docks or other boats and the PVC hull will flex and bend and absorb the impact rather than break and yet they still retain their shape and sea worthiness. SUP manufacturers often show their inflated boards being run over by trucks without the slightest sign of damage. In the unlikely event it does get damaged it is fixed within minutes using a simple patch and glue. It is by far the most durable and desirable small boat making material in this list and has since been used as the preferred small craft material for Coast Guards, Navy, Police and other service vessels.
PVC is also lighter and more environmentally friendly. Ultimately it is far more portable as it can be deflated and stored in less space. One of the reasons the Titanic and early ships did not have a full compliment of life rafts was the perceived lack of space. PVC Inflatable boats have revolutionized the world since their introduction and remains one of the best nautical materials in use today.
Since its introduction variants to PVC such as Hypalon have been introduced. There are some pros and cons of these variants but iverall they are in the same class and category of material as PVC and will be treated as the same for the purposes of this article.
Toughness – Winner: TIE Between PVC (Inflatables) & Plastic (Rigid)
Roto molded plastic is a very tough material, while it is more resistant to puncture by things like nails than PVC, it will not take as much punishment from rocks and crashes into decks and boats. Fibreglass isn’t even in the same league as these other two.
Repairability – Winner: PVC (Inflatables)
Nothing comes close to the time, cost and effort required to repair PVC should you ever need to.
Durability– Winner: PVC (Inflatables)
PVC is more resistant to UV and other harmful materials than Plastic or anything else in this list.
Weight – Winner: Carbon (but really PVC)
Carbon fiber is the champ here, but it’s only used in high end racing boats so the real winner here is inflatables made from PVC. A comparable rigid boat is 3 to 4 times heavier than it’s inflatable counterpart.
Capacity – Winner: PVC (Inflatable)
Not only are they lighter but they can hold double the weight of comparable rigid hulled boats.
Performance – Winner: It depends.
What do we mean when we say performance?
Often when we think of performance we think in terms of racing, but racing is usually limited to classes or “one design” rules. This means that all boats must conform so it’s not really about the fastest boat so much as it is about the fastest sailor. If you are into a racing then you will want the boat that conforms to your racing class, and to date there are no major international racing classes that feature inflatable sailboats.
If when you speak of performance you are speaking of speed then it really comes down to sail size, hull speed, and power to weight ratio. The fastest hulls are not hulls at all but instead hydro foils. Which are most often made of carbon fiber and mounted onto carbon fiber hulls. Unfortunately the price of these boats and skill level required make them inaccessible for the vast majority of sailors. To date no manufacturer of inflatable sailboats make a hydro foil.
So it comes down to sail size and power to weight ratio and manufacturers of rigid hulled boats like Nacras and Hobies offer boats with much larger sails. While boat weight and hull speed is a factor, and inflatables offer a high power to weight ratio, they simply do not come in sail sizes big enough to compete with some of the biggest rigid hull catamarans out there. Part of the reason for this is portability. To get a large sail you need much thicker masts and frames, which would reduce the portability. So if sail size is what you are after then you are stuck with a trailer and a boat ramp. There is another important factor to consider here, and that is skill level. While you may want a boat with a giant sail you must have a lot of skill to sail one, and you will need a lot of weight to right one should they capsize. 16 foot boats are about the upper limit for people to right without assistance from another boat.
Performance can mean different things to different people, so when choosing a sailboat it is more important to ask yourself what you will use it for. Do you need it to beach easily meaning it should be tough. Do you need it to be safe for your kids, meaning it should be easy to learn, sail and right. These are all the factors you should consider beyond just how fast it goes. Inflatable sailboats are much easier to sail than their rigid counterparts. This is largely due to the shape of the hulls. Rigid boats have angular hulls to provide lateral resistance in place of using dagger boards. The downside is they make turning, especially tacking, extremely difficult. Inflatables use retractable centerboards or keel fins, depending on the manufacturer, making them much easier to turn and tack. So in terms of turning performance the inflatables take the prize.
Upwind pointing ability can be another performance factor but without a detailed side by side comparison it is difficult to say which boat will point better.
So when it comes to choosing a boat based on performance the better criteria is to choose a boat based on how you plan to use it, what you plan to use it for, where you want to sail it and in what kind of conditions you plan to sail in.
Portability – Winner: PVC (Inflatable)
Hands down the winner is inflatables. They fold down into bags and can be taken anywhere. Inside a car, on your yacht, checked in as airline baggage! You don’t need a trailer and you don’t need a boat ramp. You can setup by any appropriate body of water. You can even set them up on the deck of your yacht. They also have the shallowest draft so you can sail in much more locations. All this is made possible by those miraculous folding, inflatable PVC hulls!
Versatility - Winner: PVC (Inflatable)
You can just do so much more with a portable sailboat. You are not limited. I think this is why you see so many rigid sailboats sit around unused and for so many years. Boats that are less versatile mean they just will not get used as much.
PVC based inflatable sailboats are also easier to move and store. They are more family friendly and easy to sail. They can hold more weight and you can take them for overnight sailing/camping adventures. Nowadays they cpome with a lot of amazing accessories that expand their uses even further. Some of these include gennakers and front trampolines and trapeze wires and more. Inflatables also offer motor mounts so you can attach a motor as either an emergency backup or for use as a tender or motor boat. There is no rigid day sailor that I know of that offers this.
Setup time – Winner: Depends
If you have to drive your rigid boat somewhere and setup the mast and everything that goes along with trailering then hands down the setup time is better on an inflatable. But if both boats are left out and all you have to do is raise the mainsail and install the rudder then its about the same amount of time and effort. But if you compare setting up an inflatable from scratch to just raising a main on a rigid then the rigid wins, but not by much. Inflatables can be setup in anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes depending on the model. Electric inflation pumps also help reduce setup time even further. Rigging and setup is part of any sport but while we never remember the rigging we always remember the experience of sailing.
Finally, we come to the question of Cost
COST - Winner: PVC (inflatables)
Inflatables cost anywhere from 20-50% less than a comparable rigid boat, and that is just for the initial purchase and without factoring in a trailer. Long term they are also more expensive to own as you may need to pay storage or other fees to sail them from appropriate locations unlike inflatables which can be sailed from pretty much anywhere. Furthermore, since rigids are left outside in summer and winter they tend to degrade quicker and will not last as long. Because they are less versatile and have been around for a long time you tend to see a lot of used rigid boats for sale for very low prices, but this is a slippery slope. Because they were left out it is very difficult to determine which ones have leaks or other serious problems. Many are lemons and not very sea worthy. By contrast it is very easy to see if an inflatable will hold air and therefore much safer to buy a used inflatable, if there were any.
Because inflatable sailboats are so much more versatile and easy to store and you don’t have to pay storage fees, owners tend to keep them for years. Even if they take a break from ailing one year they can easily get back into it a year later and it doesn’t cost anyth8ng to store their boat. Not leaving it outdoors all winter long also means it lasts much longer and requires very little if any maintenance.
Since the cost to buy is so much lower, and the cost to own and maintain one is lower, and the resale is higher, the total value of an inflatable sailboat is significantly greater than a rigid boat and is the better choice for casual portable sailors. The only time I would recommend a rigid boat over an inflatable is for class based racing or very experienced sailors seeking ultra high performance. For casual sailors who want portability and versatility the value is exceptional.
So why do so many people experience “sticker shock” at the price. There is a general belief amongst people who lack boating experience that inflatables should cost much less, but one look at zodiacs and other high grade PVC boats and one quickly realizes that the cost of an inflatable sailboat is quite reasonable. After all , these are not low grade vinyl pool toys. Inflatable sailboats come with high quality marine grade components from some of the best names in the industry such as Harken and North Sails. They are made in small quantities in Europe as opposed to en masse in giant factories. Every customer agrees after examining the boat or purchasing one that the value is quite high and cost quite reasonable despite any initial trepidation they may have had.
Before I started importing and selling inflatable sailboats I considered all sides of the equation and it just made sense. I discussed it with colleagues who all agreed that this technology made sense – so why haven’t we seen it before. Grabner, out of Austria has been making inflatables since the 70s, and MiniCAT started more than 11 years ago. But as they grew to fame in Europe sailing in North America was on the decline. As more and more people moved into high density housing they lacked the space for a boat. Video games and other distractions entered into the fray, and those that still sailed were often limited to one design and racing.
But now we are seeing a renascence in wind and water sports as people want to get back to nature and enjoy the mental and physical benefits of being on the water. New sports have emerged such as Kiteboarding and Stand Up Paddle boarding that is contributing to this resurgence. It's not just about racing, sometimes its about having fun and feeling good. Sailing as a result is back on the rise fueled in part by this revolution in new boats. People are enjoying sailing for its own sake and not just for racing. For those sailors where racing isn't the sole motivator portability and versatility make all the difference. Just as the Zodiac made boating more accessible so too are companies like MiniCAT making the dream of owning a sailboat a reality for many people.
So if racing is your thing, then there is no choice, stick with your one design racing class. If money and skill are not a factor go for a foiling moth or some other high performance boat. But if being able to sail wherever, whenever and with whoever you want is most important to you then I hope you give portable/inflatable sailboats a serious consideration. That way next time you pack your RV for a weekend of camping and end up sitting on the beach watching a beautiful sunset, or are mooring your yacht next to a beautiful island, remember this; you could be sailing right now!