What is the best portable / inflatable sailboat? or How to choose the right portable / inflatable sailboat.
What is the best portable / inflatable sailboat? This is actually a trick question. The answer of course depends on which boat is ideal for you and your needs. So the real title of this post should be - How to choose the right portable / inflatable sailboat for your needs - A buyers guide to choosing an inflatable sailboat. In order to answer this I want to break it down into sections.
First let's qualify what we mean by portable sailboats. It can be argued that all dinghies are portable but that's not necessarily true. Almost all rigid shell dinghies require a trailer and need more than 1 person to load, transport, unload and assemble them. Furthermore these boats typically need a boat ramp and a dock to launch from.
What we consider to be portable is a boat that just one person can do all those things and that you don't need a trailer, boat ramp or dock so you can sail from anywhere. We sometimes call these ultra-portable. Both kinds of boats have their pros and cons but we are big fans of ultra-portable because you can sail pretty much anytime and anywhere, with or without friends and family. They are also ideal for a wider range of sailor such as children or men or women that weigh less than 120 lbs since the righting weight is so much lower than a typical rigid hull boat.
Some portable boats are rigid hulled like the Reverso or the XCAT. They are meant to be disassembled and can be easily transported on or in a car. For the purposes of this post I'm going to leave these ultra portable rigid boats out of the equation for now and tackle that question in a future blog post. For now I just want to focus on inflatable sailboats.
There are currently 7 manufacturers of inflatable sailboats in the world that dominate this market; MiniCAT, Grabner Happy Cat, Ducky, SmartKat, Tiwal and DinghyGo. There are smaller manufacturer’s or ones that produce DIY kits and add-ons but they are very niche. When you search for inflatable sailboats these are the ones that come up. Of these all but the DinghyGo are what I would call moderate or high performance. This means that they have a large enough sail area to give them good performance in low winds and they all offer hiking straps for a more robust and engaging sailing experience. While the DinghyGo is built well it has a smaller sail area and lacks hiking straps.
Furthermore, we at Mystic Point Water Sports want to narrow down your search to boats that we carry. We offer all these boats except the Ducky and DinghyGo so our discussion will be to help choose from the boats we offer. The Ducky is a worthy boat but it is built in Russia and due to supply chain considerations we have focused our product offerings on boats from the European Union where we have strong relationships and a great deal of confidence with all the manufacturers and the boats they produce. Ergo this post will essentially be how to choose the best boat for your needs from MiniCat, SmartKat, Grabner Happy Cat and Tiwal.
Most sailboat purchases start with the choice of monohull versus catamaran. In the rigid hulled world monohulls tend to be lighter, turn quicker, are easier to sail and require less weight to rite. Catamarans tend to go faster in a straight line and sailors tend to love the thrill of flying a hull but because they are more difficult to tack usually require a more experienced sailor. So while we would generally recommend a monohull for a new sailor they often experience sailing for the first time at a resort on a Hobie Cat and inevitable want to own a cat and duplicate that same experience. But without the necessary skills and crew weight can quickly become disappointed.
Let me start by saying that all of this is far less of a consideration in the inflatable sailboat world. Rigid hull cats typically lack a dagger board and use angular hulls for lateral resistance which in turn is what makes them so slow to turn and difficult to tack. Inflatable cats do not have angular hulls so they tend to turn much quicker and are easier to tack by far. That said a monohull like the Tiwal is still faster to turn and tack. But in turn the Tiwal will not be as fast in a straight line as a similar sized catamaran.
Where I really like the Tiwal is in places where there are waves and surf. This is because you can quickly get out over the waves and turn on a dime to catch one and ride it. Also the Tiwal has only a main sail so it tends to be slower in a straight course. Lacking a foresail might also mean your crew are left with nothing to do but enjoy the ride so some people may want a boat with more for themselves or their crew to do. Overall the Tiwal is easy and fun to sail and can handle a huger range of wind and water conditions, but when it comes to waves it is my favorite.
The Tiwal only needs 80 lbs of righting weight so it is a good choice for families and kids learning to sail. Made in France the Tiwal has won many design awards and remains popular all over the world. They started with the Tiwal 3 which contained a metal frame used for re-enforcement, sitting, hiking and righting but the frame added weight. This year they introduced the Tiwal 2 which limited the metal frame and uses inflatable wings for sitting and hiking. The result is something lighter, easier to assemble and less expensive. The downside is without the extra aluminum re-enforcement the sail area had to be reduced.
So if you want a Tiwal style monohull but don’t want to pay Tiwal 3 prices the Tiwal 2 may be the boat for you!
Since we are talking about price let’s address that next. One of the biggest complaints I hear with inflatable sailboats is with regards to the sticker shock. Some people feel the price should be less and it’s hard to disagree, I wish the price were less also. But when one considers these boats are tougher and more durable than rigid hulled boats, lighter and more portable, will last longer, and can be used in more places, they begin to see that the value is actually greater than what they get when buying a rigid hulled boat.
Rigid boats also need a trailer and can cost money to store. Because they always stay outdoors they also last longer. But in terms of toughness nothing beats PVC. That is why coast guard and navy boats and companies like Zodiac use PVC. They are very tough and easy to repair if the need should ever arise. All these inflatable sailboats are made of UV resistant PVC and while it is not cheap to make the quality speaks for itself. Also in terms of quality all these boats use marine grade aluminum and the highest quality parts and materials. So while we all wish they were less expensive the value equation for inflatables is extremely high.
That said the Tiwal is to some people out of their price range. Some people could only afford a used sailboat so their comparison may be between an inflatable or a used rigid boat. The problem with used boats is they often have unseen damage and you never know what you are getting. You are also faced with not picking the best boat for you but rather choosing from whatever is available in the used market. I have had some customers ask about used Hobie 16’s which are very powerful boats and would have been a very poor and dangerous choice to make even though used ones were available for very little. You should never buy a boat that is outside your skill level just because it is a “good deal” on the used market.
So why not buy a used inflatable? The answer is they are few and far between and when they are available they either sell quickly or are still of such high cost that people just buy new. People end to keep inflatables since there is no cost or burden to storing them. They also tend to not get bored of them as they are so flexible. Imagine taking one with you on vacation! Used inflatables would be a great choice … if there were many or any out there.
And so if the Tiwal is not right for you or you want something less expensive what choices do you have? Enter MiniCAT.
MiniCAT has figured something out that no other inflatable boat manufacturer has … how to make boats at every price point. MiniCAT’s come in 4 sizes and have 8 individual models with prices starting from about 3,500 up to about 10,000. For many years now they have the lowest cost of entry for possibly any new sailboat in the world, rigid or inflatable, and as a result have now become the highest selling inflatable sailboat out there.
Last year the introduced the Guppy named both in part for its small size and as inspired by brand ambassador Laura Dekker’s ship she used to sail around the world that bore the same name. Laura was and remains the youngest sailor to ever solo circumnavigate the globe and that feat will likely never be beaten and she has inspired many people around the world, myself included, to chase their dreams. She partnered with MiniCAT in yet another move that showed MiniCAT keeps making all the right moves.
But when it comes down to it, some people just do not have the funds to get a sailboat, period. So the MiniCAT Guppy price of about $3,500 CAD has empowered many people to be able to fulfill their dream of owning a sailboat. Besides price the Guppy is a good quality, lightweight boat that is ideal for kids and single sailors. It’s single bag, 55 pound weight and 15 minute setup time make this boat an easy choice for many and sales of the Guppy have been off the charts.
However while the Guppy is great for some people I do caution some would be purchasers that this may not be the boat for them under certain conditions. First the Guppy lacks a jib. Second it cannot hold 3 people. Third it can only support just over 500 lbs. So for two adults I often recommend something a little bigger.
The MiniCat 420 Emotion is globally speaking the best selling MiniCAT in the world. It is a little more expensive but you get a lot more for the price difference. The Emotion will comfortable fit 2 adults and can hold about 1000 lbs. It has a much bigger sail area and includes a jib with furler so it can be sailed in a wide range of wind and water conditions. There are other 420 models you may wish to consider but the 420 range is a great choice for solo or social sailing.
Of all the MiniCAT models my personal favorite is the 460. Being an experience sailor I want as much sail area as possible, especially since I sail in Ontario where we have notoriously light wind conditions.
This is a good point to summarize the criteria I have been using to select a boat thus far and some I still plan to use:
The MinCAT 420 and 460 models tick a lot of these boxes. They offer an option gennaker. In fact they are the only ones to make a gennaker option for enhanced downwind sailing. They also offer from trampolines and motor mounts and the price points are excellent. As such the MiniCAT is the go to choice for a lot of consumers and hence why they have earned the moniker of “world’s favorite portable sailboat.” So why would you not choose a MiniCAT?
For one it’s a question of fins versus dagger boards. MiniCAT uses fins which attach to the bottom of their hulls for lateral resistance. SmartKat and Grabner uses a retractable centerboard. The centerboard will allow the boat to turn a little quicker but the MiniCATS turn so quickly as it is that I do not feel this is much of a deciding factor. I have not sailed them all side by side to determine pointing ability do I cannot say which of these boats points higher. Ultimately it comes down to personal choice. Some people prefer fins as it is less to worry about when beaching and some people prefer the boat to beach flat on the hulls… the choice is yours.
This brings us to SmartKat which has 6 models and is priced similarly to MiniCAT 420 and 460 models. In addition to the retractable centerboard differentiation, SmartKat also has wider diameter hulls than MiniCAT so it may be a slightly less wet sailing experience. SmartKat is also rated for the highest wind conditions of any inflatable sailboat. This is achieved through things like higher gauge wires and such. So if you live in a high wind area SmartKat may be your best choice.
Both boats are attractive and although design is often matter of personal taste it should be noted that MiniCAT has the widest variety of colors to choose from. This year MiniCAT has released all new design for their hulls and sails and there is a very clean and unified look to all of them. In terms of sails MiniCAT is the only manufacturer to have some models whose sails are made of all clear or X-Ply re-enforced clear monofim, similar to what you see in the windsurfing world. The other brands as well as some MiniCAT models use Dacron with some having a clear window in the appropriate area for clear visibility.
Speaking of design we now come to a manufacturer that is known for its bright red hulls just as Ferrari was known for its red cars, that is the Grabner Happy Cat. Also the Grabner hulls are not cylindrical and round like those of MiniCAT and SmartKat. These hulls provide some lateral resistance but like SmartKat they mainly use a retractable centerboard for this purpose.
Grabner was the first maker of inflatable sailboats and started business in the 1970s. MiniCAT by comparison has been in business for over 11 years and SmartKat is a few years behind that as the youngest of the inflatable catamaran group. Grabner has sometimes been called the Mercedes of inflatable sailboats although sometimes based as much on price as quality. The Grabner is the most expensive of the bunch with models starting at about $9,000 CAD which is more than the most expensive models of their competitors.
They are of equally high quality and it is hard to say one has better quality than the other but they are a little heavier and contain more parts, come in more bags and take a little longer to assemble than their competition. They have 3 sizes and 5 models in total. Overall Grabner has an excellent reputation in the industry earned from being in business for years making boats. They also make some of the highest rated inflatable kayaks and canoes which neither of their competitors offers.
In terms of accessories MiniCAT has the most such as a front trampoline and the aforementioned gennaker which no one else has. SmartKat does not have a front trampoline whereas Grabner does but they all offer motor mounts. SmartKat and Grabner also have one thing MinCAT does not. The trapeze wire on the MiniCAT is meant for crew only as they do not have a tiller extension long enough for the helm to use while on the wire. Although some have jury rigid an extension or replaced theirs with a third party, they do not support this functionality by default. SmartKat and Grabner however offer a tiller extension and trapeze wire option that out of the box will support the helm.
Also, Grabner is the only manufacturer to offer a mast head float option which for some is essential. We have advised customers in the past that they can make one out of a pool noodle if they should want one to help prevent turtling of their MiniCAT and SMartKAT but we hope this is something all manufactirers eventually offer. I will say however that the rounded design of the hulls on both SmartKat and MiniCAT reduces the chance of capsizing in general but consequently the ability to fly a hull is also a little reduced. On the other hand the shape of the Grabner hulls makes it a little easier to fly a hull but also a little easier to capsize.
While SmartKat has the highest wind rating, Grabner does offer a high wind sail set that is a little smaller than their standard set of sails. I have also found that you can you the 420 and 31o sails on a 460, and the 310 sails on a 420 so that may be an option for high wind sailing. MiniCAT does not officially recognize or support this modification as there are other factors such as wire gauge to consider when sailing in high winds but if you wanted to use smaller sails for less experience sailors in normal wind conditions they will work.
So we are still left with the dilemma of how to choose between all these. That is why I want to return to my list of selection criteria from earlier.
What you choose should depend on the questions from this list.
For example if you are very experienced and want a boat to catch and surf waves, a Tiwal 3 may be the best choice. If you want to take 2 kids with you on an extended leisurely cruise a MiniCAT 460 might be the way to go. If you want something you can keep in your car and setup super fast before the sun sets for a quick sail after work a Guppy might be the way to go.
If you want to hang out on the wire while helming constantly pushing the edge and not afraid of taking a dive the Grabner might be your boat of choice. If you live in a high wind area or you want to use the boat as a tender and you want lots of water clearance the SmartKat may be the one for you.
Or maybe you just like the way one looks over another and you feel it “calling to you” … as long as it fits your size and skill range they are all quite similar and all of high quality. When a customer asks us for help on choosing these are the sorts of questions and scenarios we run through to determine the best boat for their needs. We find researching and choosing can be stressful but it can also be part of the fun. One thing we recommend is to not undersize your boat. You want enough room and sail area to get the most from your purchase.
You may find that over time and as your skill improves you want to upgrade. This is never a problem as you can easily sell your boat if you should ever want to.
In terms of budget we also remind people to factor in safety gear such as life jackets and wetsuits (if needed for your sailing location and season).
Finally the most important thing is once you’ve decided the real fun begins. Then its time to go sailing! We like to offer lots of tips on rigging and sailing to help you get the most from your new boat.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found this guide informative and helpful. If you have any questions you can always contact us by clicking HERE. If you want to learn more about these brands you can visit the manufacturer’s websites directly or click on INFO on our menu bar at the top. If you want to see prices and accessories check out our online store HERE.
My name is Ivano Stellato. I’ve been sailing, windsurfing, surfing and kiteboarding for over 15 years and am both a sailing instructor and kiteboarding instructor and I would be happy to help you find the perfect sailboat to meet your needs.
**UPDATE** Grabner now carries a Gennaker and snuffer kit ... so they now have the biggest choice of accessories.