For me, the type of raft, the make, the size, the tube diameter, and the age of the raft itself, is highly relevant to the trips we run. There have been many discussions through the years about how guests (i.e. clients, i.e. customers) simply do not know enough about whitewater to care about what raft they are in. I disagree. I think that definitely, people don’t have the same sort of scrutinizing eye that guides have, and they don’t spend their evenings kicking around the boatyard like the guides, arguing about whether or not a self bailing raft is a necessity for safety, or if Aire’s ballast floor really prevents “some” flips, or if diminishing tubes offer advantages as far as gear hauling; nonetheless I think it does matter and I think people notice.
There’s a few jokes I like to tell on occasion, and some of the readers have had the misfortune of hearing them (I am not funny)… my favorite joke I like to use when I start the safety talk at rivers edge for the upper Skagit is something like “welcome to the river everybody, we have experienced guides, prepared guests, and top notch life jackets helmets, and equipment, this is a great way to build a safe trip” (I pretty much always say that) “we have only the highest quality rafts for you today, we buy your rafts at K-Mart”… Everyone laughs, and maybe once in a while someone gets worried that we actually use K-Mart rafts, which is probably even more disturbing than me actually running a whitewater river in such a raft. The point is that it does matter where rafts come from. It does matter if they are capable of contributing to a safe trip. It’s my opinion that it matters, and even though I have guides that do not care which raft they run, day in and day out, we all recognize that some rafts have distinct characteristics, which help them excel in certain situations. Let’s talk about those situations.
Self-bailing vs. “bucket” rafts
Let’s start with the bare basics. All modern day rafts used in commercial applications should be self-bailing. Long gone are the days when we supplied you with a bucket and a ½ gallon minute maid orange juice container, equipped with the side cut out, in order for you to bail all water that entered the side of the raft. Mind you, this is a lot of water if you’re whitewater rafting. I should know, when I started rafting in 1994, I used to bail water. At that time the company I was training with had their older model boats that were bucket boats (non self bailing), and then there was the new fleet, which were self-bailing. Sometimes you’d end up in a new one and sometimes an old one. I remember spending half the day bailing the raft out if it was one of those old bucket boats, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Along the same lines, we have to realize that the bottom of the raft is going to have a constant stream of water coming in and out because the floor is inflated, and has drain holes or seams on the sides and often times also in the front. Self-bailing boats give you incredible versatility, added safety (floors can be removed in case of a pinned raft) and make the experience more enjoyable because you can focus on scenery instead of looking down all the time and smashing your head into people’s knees. Furthermore bucket boats don’t maneuver well when full of water, it’s like rafting with an anchor tied to the bottom. Well, the long story short here is that modern whitewater rafts are almost exclusively self-bailing for a reason; they perform better. Make sure that your outfitter is equipped with self bailing rafts, and if not, I would love to hear the reasoning (other than simple cost effectiveness of keeping outdated equipment in use) for using such a craft in this advanced stage of watercraft.
Diminishing Tubed Rafts
This debate used to rage on 15-20 years ago, back when Riken was leading the pack and the Nez Perce was the model to have on multi-day rafting expeditions. Those days have long passed and the diminishing tube craze has settle down into more of an aspect of our sport. Diminishing tube boats offer smaller tube diameter in the front and (usually) rear of the raft. This gets the guests wetter, and also increased cargo space in the front and rear sections of the raft. Diminishing tube boats are also naturally better in the wind since they have less surface area going into it. There are multitudes of other arguments for and against which I will not go into because I am not someone that thinks the difference needs to be expressed complicatedly, but suffice to say that there are guides and private whitewater boaters out there who either love or hate diminishing tubes. I am indifferent and will use either, but in specific situations. Here are a few:
Diminishing tube boats are not our cup of tea on the Sauk River, and here’s why: We tried out several designs before choosing a raft on the Sauk River, a few models would be the Aire Puma, Super Puma, 130D (D stands for diminishing tube), 143D, the Maravia Diablo, and the Maravia Spider. All of these boats did very well, but for us they weren’t ideal particularly because we thought that in the worst-case scenario they kept people colder. Let me explain further; in early season the Sauk water temperature is usually in the high 30s, perfect for hypothermia exposure. The air temperature at this time of year is usually hovering in the 50-70 range, so collectively you have a pretty cold trip. While we think that getting splashed can really add some excitement to the trip, we didn’t think that it was helpful in terms of safety because a cold guest cannot function as well as a warm and comfortable one. Thus, we eventually decided to scrap the idea of running diminishing tube boats earlier in the season. We have had a lot of success in the warmer months with them, however, as the higher temperatures give people more enthusiasm to get a big splash of water to the face.
Raft Materials: Hypalon vs. PVC vs. Urethane
If there was ever an ongoing argument in the industry, it is the opinions about the best raft material and construction. It’s not as simple as saying that you are a fan of one raft material vs. the other, because in actuality each manufacturer cures, builds, or treats the base material differently, so there are fundamental differences in each manufacturer’s boats. But who makes the best boat?
When I was 13 years old I traveled around to trade shows and sold rafting trips with my dad. Every time people would ask us what kind of boats we used we would say, with pride; “Riken”. Well, at that time Riken was a great boat. They’ve since been bought by NRS and as far as I know are no longer in production. Still, Riken boats revolutionized the industry and many commercial rafting outfits still have old Rikens that sit in the corner of the shop rolled up and come out only once or twice per year when 500 sorority sisters or an entire Microsoft employee wing comes on a rafting trip. Point here is that Rikens were good boats, and they were made of Hypalon, which has dominated the industry for some time since. Hypalon, or rubber, is the base material (it’s often called something else, or I suppose Hypalon is a registered trademark, but it has become slang for all boats made of rubber). Rubber rafts like NRS, Hyside, Avon, and many others are fairly inexpensive to build, and are relatively solid in construction and durability. They flex with waves (sometimes desired sometimes not) and they are easily rolled for storage. Rubber boats are also very easy to patch; you just prep, glue, and let cure a patch of rubber onto the raft. Rubber boats are reasonably priced and easy to fix, which makes them ideal for large commercial rafting companies. You’ll see a lot of rubber (i.e. hypalon) rafts out on the river, and if you search craigslist and you see an old raft for sale that looks like it’s seen better days, it’s probably an old hypalon boat (with expected patches on side tubes and floor, par the norm).
Here’s where I have developed an opinion. PVC is a cheap material. You’ve used PVC pipe and you’ve seen it break. PVC is not the toughest stuff out there, but it is often used for rafts. The thing about PVC is that it’s very inexpensive and easy to come by; it’s also very easy to repair. PVC comes in many grades and different chemical makeups, but PVC ultimately must abide by its essential properties.
Commercial rafts are rarely made of PVC for good reason; it’s just not tough enough. One exception to this rule is those boats manufactured by Aire. These boats are a PVC exterior that is zipped over a urethane bladder. In this case the PVC acts as a buffer for the Urethane and thus prevents punctures. They also save costs because the urethane (the expensive part) is relatively thin compared to the beefy layer of PVC, which protects it. Furthermore Aire uses a type of PVC known as Ferrari which is tops in the industry. Aire has made quite a name for itself with its borderline ingenious design, and they deserve a lot of credit. Furthermore, what Aire may lack in material strength they make up for in customer service. They have long been known as the best in customer service in the industry and as a result have eaten up a large part of market share due to their persistence and dedication to their customers. Aire boats have an outstanding warranty and service. If your Aire boat does develop a leak you can be sure that someone at the factory will be helping you deal with it. They are also an incredible value, so it’s worth noting that you certainly get what you pay for. There’s no doubt that if you are going to go with a boat made primarily of PVC, that Aire is the only choice. The boats are also manufactured solely in the USA (Boise, Idaho).
Sotar, Wing, Maravia, and Aire all manufacture boats made of some kind of what they call polyurethane, and they are all very different. Sotar is an industry leading whitewater raft manufacturer that has built a reputation as being state of the art (hence the name: State Of The Art Rafts is an acronym). Sotar boats are constructed very simply by welding sheets of urethane together in a similar fashion, as are many rubber rafts. The boats come out looking very clean and simple. The advantage to Sotar rafts is that they are incredibly light for their strength. They are among the lightest in the industry, and they also fold and roll well. Sotar boats are expensive but you get what you pay for. The company is incredibly solid also, and because all of their boats are built by hand you can pretty much have anything you want.
We’ve used Sotar boats on both of our rivers and the most outstanding thing about them is the way they slide over rocks. They have a silky finish on them that seems to not stick to things, including your butt… so maybe you can slide a little bit on your Sotar, but you can expect many years of use from a Sotar boat.
Maravia rafts are constructed in Boise, Idaho and are made of a PVC shell, which is then encapsulated in urethane. The result is an incredibly tough exterior. In most cases, in our experience, there is no tougher material made than that, which makes up the tubes on a Maravia. The weak point in these rafts is the floors, which are a high grade PVC. While Maravia isn’t as light as a Sotar they aren’t incredibly heavy, and they have a clean look. Whilst many boats have a smooth texture, Maravia has gone one step further and made a matte type finish on all their rafts, which in some cases can help people stay in the raft and avoid sliding out. Maravia rafts are all constructed by hand here in the USA, and are among our favorites. Maravia is a smaller company and they stand by their products, but this is one raft that may never need warranty repair.
Maravia rafts are durable and expensive, nearly exactly the price of an equivalent Sotar, and they lack the ability to be rolled up easily. Maravia rafts are handy in tough situations because they are so rigid and dependable, they also are stiffer than other rafts and thus they are more active on the water. Some people have called them “fliptavias” because they tend to flip, but this can mostly be explained by the slick bottoms of the rafts which also provide excellent responsiveness. Maravia and Sotar rafts are both “expert” level rafts that have no equal in the industry in my opinion. They are commonly used as commercial whitewater rafts and are revered by private boaters that can afford them.
The right size raft for the right size river
We’ve run just about any size inflatable you can think of on our rivers to test what is best. There truly is a science to finding the right boat for the specific task. We have to use smaller rafts later in the season on our Sauk runs because that river gets very narrow and technical, with specific chutes that must be used in order to navigate the complex channels of the rapids. Larger rapids in these places ads danger for our guests due to tendencies to pin against rocks. Smaller rafts are not as safe in larger rivers because they are more prone to flip over. So ultimately, on a river such as the Sauk, which constantly changes, we are in for a very difficult challenge. Here’s what we’ve done.
When I first came to the Sauk I was running with Adventure Cascades and they had Aire 143D rafts. We never had any issue and those rafts seemed incredibly stable for that river. They ran the rafts as straight paddle boats (no oars or frame) and so there was a classy and natural feel to them. The other rafts we commonly see on the Sauk are the Maravia Diablo, Maravia Spider, Maravia Williwaw 1, and several of the longer Aire models. None of them is perfect and each has a place on the Sauk. There is no doubt that with the rough rocky bottom and tendency to hit rocks that having a tough boat is desirable. I personally (hold your applause) punctured a nice Maravia Williwaw 2 on the Sauk in low water, and have also seen chunks of material taken out of them after hitting rocks. It’s a tough little river that has high demands for rafts.
Our most recent experiment has been with Sotar and a custom design that we worked on with their designers. The boat has a longer length but a shorter kick to give it a longer waterline and therefore sit higher in the water (less likely to hit rocks), the narrow width allows it to fit through narrow channels, while the larger tube diameter keeps guests up high in the raft and out of harms way. The design is still a work in progress but we feel it incorporates a lot of the greatest attributes of many of the other boats we have tested.
We have also run the Aire 143R and 130R (14’3 and 13’ respectfully) with success on the Sauk. The ballast floor provides “stick” and stability in rougher water, and in high water they are a great choice. We’ll have to do more testing to see which is the best fit, but there is no doubt that whatever boat you take down that river, it needs to be tough.
The fleet raft for Triad, and the boat we go to if the water is high is the Maravia Williwaw 1.5. It’s a 15’ long raft with a 7’ beam and has 21” tubes. This raft, equipped with a stern mount frame, gives us a great bit of leverage and ability in big water and dangerous whitewater situations. This is the largest boat we currently use on any of our rivers.
Most rafts in the 14’ range are between 6’ and 7’ wide, and most in the 13’ range are 6’-6’6 wide. We prefer a smaller raft for a smaller river.
All of my thoughts are just the opinions of one person. All it takes is one day or one experience to fall in love with a certain raft or raft design. All it takes for me is one phone call or one evening at dinner with an employee to fall in love with a company that treats its customers well. So to each his or her own, I like Aire, Maravia, NRS, and Sotar and feel that they are so close in value that it’s all personal preference. During my 15-year career as a guide and trip leader I ran pretty much every boat there is, many of them no longer manufacture boats. I personally think you’re doing yourself and the workforce a disservice if you purchase a raft built in Korea, but then again you have to find the right tool for the job, and if you only have $1500 on hand it’s hard to argue with a raft that you can use a few times per year. For us as a commercial company, and for me as someone who hates patching rafts, my preference is a urethane raft, and we’ll go ahead and pay the extra money. As with anything there are advantages and disadvantages, but with the 4 manufacturers I just mentioned you can buy with confidence that you’re getting what you pay for. Take care and safe travels.