Rafts are made in Asia? ... Any good?
We just had our annual meeting with our primary whitewater rafting gear supplier, Northwest River Supplies. A few things were different when we walked in the door this time… and of course a lot of things were the same. The new paddles, helmet designs, increased attention to detail and of course continuing to improve their supply chain to bring great gear to outfitters and private boaters alike. But right in the middle of their showroom was a Star Inflatable raft. Kicking it a couple of times and asking the clerk at the front desk “what’s this doing here”…. She replied “we just purchased Star Inflatables”. Well, that’s interesting.
Over the last 15-20 years the whitewater raft industry has gone through some major metamorphosis. I’ll keep this brief and focused more on the professional side of things, but here’s the just of it. Before the 1990s pretty much all rafts were made of rubber, simple, rubber. Sure, you can call it something fancy like “Pennell Orca”, “Hypalon”, or what have you, but these are rubber compounds just like tires on a car. In fact, back in the day some of the best rafts were manufactured by the same companies that manufactured tires. Anyway, moving on… what’s the significance here? Rubber was kind of expensive, and even though it made great rafts, it’s kind of a one trick pony when it comes to raft design. The old Riken designs were Hypalon/rubber and were very innovative in their day. Most raft designs, in terms of tube diameter, shape, width, and so forth, are much the same now as they have been for many years. The cutting edge designs that were game changers; The Riken diminishing tube design used on the infamous Nez Perce, Cheyenne, and other designs, have been copied repeatedly and to be honest, seldom have they really been improved upon. The Aire “D Series” rafts are essentially a uniquely manufactured diminishing tube design that had it’s origin back in the old Riken days. To be clear, back in their day, Riken boats were highly innovative compared to what was out there, and the designs are still manufactured, now by Northwest River Supply using the Pennell Orca material (which is still very similar to Hypalon/Rubber/et. al).
In the 1990s a company out of Idaho came along and really changed the game, and they continue to be the standard for private boaters in the Western United States as well as in other places. Aire came out with several innovative raft designs that not only fit their production system, but also gave better performance than anything out there. The “Puma” series, with the original Puma (around 11 feet long) and the Super Puma (around 13 feet long) gave paddlers a boat that could slice down rivers like the Upper Yough, and technical water, with more style. To this day these two designs are the industry standard for steep technical paddling. You can see that the most serious rafting is often done in Aire boats because of the advantage afforded them by the ballast floor, which in some cases does prevent flipping. If you don’t believe us please just google “Dan McCain” and watch some of those descents R2ing an Aire 130E (A design very similar to the Super Puma, albeit slightly wider). The point here is that Aire came around and brought a new way to manufacture rafts, which forced them to come up with new ways to design boats. The Aire factory, located in Boise, Idaho, is a benchmark for new raft design. They focus highly on customer satisfaction and a great warranty service. Their rafts, with a unique urethane bladder, which is held at pressure, and is then contained within a PVC shell, gives the rafts the ability to sustain a puncture and be repaired easily in the field, or, better yet, their rafts can often be gashed on the outer PVC shell and the internal urethane bladder remains in tact. What’s the catch? Are they expensive? Actually no. Are they heavy? Well, not exactly. An Aire raft off the showroom floor isn’t any heavier than a comparable Maravia, NRS, Hyside, or other manufacturer, and if so it’s only a slight difference. The thing that makes their designs disadvantageous is that the ballast floor fills up with water, and is difficult to lift in and out of the river. This causes issue for people packing in, or outfitters that want to stack their boats 5 or 6 rafts high, and maintain an efficient operation. Further, the Aire PVC shell is sewed… That’s right! The things are literally sewn on sewing machines. There is even a non waterproof zipper that you can see clearly on their rafts, Inflatable kayaks, and catarafts. So do they absorb a lot of water? No, but it’s enough to make a difference, and it also means that through the course of the season you will be watching those stitches occasionally push water out, which is not only distracting but causes one to naturally consider just how much water and river sediment gets inside those zippers. Truth be told we really don’t know because at Triad River Tours we have never opened one up (perhaps a testament to the durability of the design; we’ve just never had an issue).
Since the Aire design came out there really has not been, in our view, an innovation in raft design that has really changed the game as much since then, aside from the tremendous influx of inexpensive PVC rafts, particularly those manufactured in Asia. Back in the old days, you had Star and a few others that were using an exclusively PVC raft design (keep in mind that Aire uses a Urethane mixed with PVC). Around 2000 (almost 20 years ago at the time of this writing) we started to see these Korean and Chinese raft manufacturers showing up at the boat and sportsman shows. Saturn, Maxxon, and a few others came on the scene at an incredibly attainable price point. Private boaters rejoiced en masse. No longer were private rafters needing to shell out outfitter money, and a huge market began and has continued to this day. These rafts were coming in at $1500 in USD money back in 2000, and even today you can find some of these rafts in 14’ (a common Pacific Northwest size) for around $2500. This is an incredible change in the market, and many outfitters abandoned their “Buy American” roots and opted for the cheaper rafts. Even still, American manufacturers like Rocky Mountain Rafts, a USA raft manufacturer, uses foreign manufacturing on American designs using PVC. The world has indeed changed.
The design of the PVC boats manufactured overseas are almost always carbon copies of simple Hypalon raft designs which have been around for decades, and they almost always feature round tube (non diminishing tube) designs. The boats are tough and heavy, as it comes with PVC, and are made of a durable, albeit less fancy version of PVC used by Aire (Ferrari PVC). The Asian manufactured designs have completely rooted out any domestic competition in the lower end private boater raft market. Aire, being the steady handed company they are, and knowing full well that their products serve a mix of outfitter and private boaters, they noticed right away that something was going to have to be done, and they made a move with their Tributary line. If there was no pressure from foreign raft manufacturers it would have been ridiculous for them to offer two raft lineups, competing for the same customer. But in a market now cramped with low end rafts, they had to do something, and they did… and they did it with style. The Tributary boats initially offered the exact same (essentially) construction as their outfitter series (E, D, R), but were manufactured overseas to save costs, were only available in one color, and had a few bells and whistles removed, per the norm. The Tributary became an instant classic. 14’ Tributary boats initially offered had a retail price point below $2000, and outfitter pricing offered tremendous opportunity for small developing rafting companies to get a pretty solid fleet put together for a third the cost of the major brands (Aire, Hyside, Maravia, Sotar, NRS, et. al). Tributary boats were game changers.
At Triad River Tours, where we innovate and try to always be leading the pack, we decided to follow the crowd and have owned a few of these Tributary boats and think they’re great for their intended purpose. They run slightly more sloppy (think; more flex) than the standard Aire boats. The Tributary boats also have a newer PVC which we feel is inferior to the Ferrari material; we assume this must just be a slightly cheaper and slightly less durable material. Nonetheless, where the market is crowded, and you want to try and buy American, one has to consider it better to buy a foreign manufactured raft from a domestic company than going full import… Right?
The progression of rafts has left us in an ocean of possibilities, where the price of the higher end companies like Sotar and Maravia have not risen in price in many years. At the same time companies like Aire with their Tributary line, and newcomers such as Saturn and Rocky Mountain Raft, are competing with each other to the ultimate end of helping the customer (more often than not the private rafter) find a capable whitewater river raft at a decent price. Things are looking good all around. As far as selection? It’s personal preference at this point. The companies that have been making rafts and selling them in the American market for the past decade or more have all been tested on a variety of rivers. Obviously, the more multi-day whitewater rafting you do the more you will want to consider the higher end boats, as nothing screams “bad decision” more than patching a raft half way down your once-in-a-lifetime Grand Canyon trip. Take that into consideration; the old adage “you get what you pay for” has practical application here and elsewhere. Manufacturing rafts overseas is no longer the death sentence it once was. It’s cheaper, and they’re using the same techniques employed here in the states. The world has changed, indeed, and has brought our own raft designs overseas and back to our own shores, from decades of innovation, rafting outfitter and private rafter feedback, many dinners and conversations between outfitters and manufacturers like we just had with NRS, and we’re at a place where things have stabilized and there are no longer many secrets. Everyone that manufactures whitewater rafts seems to know how to do it fairly well… it may come down to who has the most charming salesperson, who has the best warranty, and maybe who has the most exciting Facebook videos.
Until next time friends, remember that you’re always in between swims, take every precaution, and respect mother river for all the lessons she gives us. Take good care and always look downstream (Maravia slogan!).