An inflatable boat always seemed more like a swimming pool toy than a vehicle for travel, but last summer while looking over maps of China that showed an incredibly complex network of the waterways criss-crossing everywhere I began getting big ideas for big trips.
I could get a boat and ride these canals, rivers, and lakes across this country.
The more I planned these trips the more doable they seemed. But there was one major impediment to this plan:
Traveling by boat is a commitment, you’re forever locked to your vehicle and must deal with it’s inherent attributes — such as its size and weight. Boats, even kayaks or rowboats, are big and heavy, and require extensive means (i.e. an automobile) to transport them overland. Traveling by boat across a hugely varied region like China requires the ability to occasionally get out of the water and move around obstructions like dams, extensive shipping traffic, and rapids. In point, you can’t just take a boat and stuff it into a backpack when you don’t want to use it anymore.
Or can you?
Enter the inflatable boat.
The history of inflatable boats goes back to the 1800s. Like my own situation in China, explorers of these times needed a way to travel by water while still maintaining the ability to travel overland. Having to carry even a small hard-hull boat for many miles is a hassle that nobody has ever wanted to deal with. So with the invention of vulcanized rubber in 1838, people began experimenting with inflatable boats. By 1839 an inflatable pontoon was being tested, and the innovations continued on from there. In the 1842-43, John C. Frémont’s expedition carried an inflatable boat with them on the Oregon Trail. In 1844-45 Peter Halkett made two types of inflatable boats to be used by Arctic explorers which were made of rubber-impregnated cloth that could be used as a poncho when not in use as a boat. In 1848 inflatable boats were used in the Mexican-American war and later on in the Civil War. In 1866 four men crossed the Atlantic on a three tube raft.
If anything, my idea to travel on an inflatable boat was an archaic one, plenty of other explorers, adventurers, and travelers have found the same solution when faced with the problem of wanting a boat that can easily be carried.
I picked up an inflatable rowboat for $50 in an outdoor sporting goods shop in Taizhou. It had Seahawk 2 written down its side and was made by Intex. It was made of vinyl, it seemed rugged and well constructed. The hull was made up of three separate chambers which take in air via their own valves. The instructions that came with the boat proudly claimed that it can stay afloat with just one of the chambers inflated. So I guess this means that I can pop two and still be able to limp in to shore, which sounded pretty good to me. A hand pump was also included along with a set of plastic oars. The weight was probably about 15 to 20 pounds, which is good for a boat, but a touch on the heavy side for carrying. Whatever was the case, this boat was not a pool toy, it was a vehicle, and that’s how I intended to use it.
Testing and performance
I got ready to take the boat out for a test run. I removed it from its box and laid it out on the floor of my apartment. I folded it end to end a couple of times and then stuffed it into my large Lowe Alpine TT Tour backpack. With the oars and pump, it pretty much took up all the space in the bag, but it all fit, and that’s what really matters.
I walked about three or four blocks over to a canal and then walked down to its bank. I tossed my knapsack down in a small grassy area, tip-toed around a dirty diaper and some garbage, and removed the folded up boat. A group of fishermen watched curiously. I unfolded the boat and began inflating it with the hand pump. Each chamber only took a few moments of hard pumping to inflate, and the entire operation was done within fifteen minutes. It was now time to launch.
I picked up the boat and walked down between a couple of fishermen and launched from a place where people often do their laundry. I removed my shoes and placed one foot inside. It seemed steady, so I hopped in. No problem.
I paddled around the moat that was dug around Taizhou millenia ago, but I wasn’t dreaming about the adventures I would have on my new form of self-propelled transportation. No, I was struggling to maneuver and keep control of the boat.
As they sits on top of the water rather than “in” the water, inflatable boats are prone to spinning and being taken away by even the slightest current. I fumbled with the basics of rowing as the fishermen watched from shore amused. Eventually, I determined that my difficulties were 85% a matter of my inexperience with this kind of watercraft. I simply was not expecting the impact it’s lack of weight and draft would have, and I had to adapt fast. But as the summer went on I practiced more and, eventually, was able to fully control the boat and enjoy my rides around the canals of Taizhou.
There was only one problem: it took a lot of effort and energy to gain speeds higher than an aquatic crawl. The fat, U shape of the boat produced a lot of drag and took a lot of muscular endurance to move smoothly over a long distance. I began debating as to whether an inflatable kayak would prove a better vehicle, so I began researching the mechanics and merits of paddling versus rowing.
It was my initial impression that paddling (what you do on a kayak) is more energy efficient than rowing, as you mostly use your torso with only supplemental force coming from your arms and shoulders. I checked some paddling and rowing forums, and found that, almost invariably, people who seemed to know what they’re talking about claimed the contrary, that rowing is faster. I pondered this for while and deciding that if I were to increase the strength and endurance of my arms, shoulders and back and perfect my technique that I could probably power this row boat way more efficiently than I could an inflatable kayak. I then began an intense regimen of targeted strength and endurance training for this purpose.
Though there was something about rowing that I found I really don’t like, and that is going backwards. Rowing the canals of China is often not a straight forward affair. There are turns, junk in the water and right below the surface, other boats, and, very often, fishing nets. In point, there are a lot of obstacles to maneuver around, and having to crane my neck backwards every ten seconds quickly became a hassle that I have yet to get used to. Though I’m sure that if I spend enough time on this boat that this will eventually become second nature.
Travel, more than anything else, is about access. It’s about going to places and accessing the people, food, environment, and knowledge that you can find there. By using an inflatable boat to travel around China I can access places that I never could by riding a bike, walking, or, especially, taking public transport. Even just riding the canals around Taizhou I’ve seen an entire world open up to me that I simple did not know existed before. Now if I continue boating down these waterways between provinces, from city to city, my imagination cannot conjure what places, sights, sounds, and experiences I will be able to access.
Using an inflatable boat is a well-established strategy for traveling by water in remote areas where there is a high probability of extensive portages. While there is a vast network of canals, rivers, and lakes that spans across much of China, I know that there will be many times when I will meet an obstruction (a dam, heavy barge traffic, etc . . .) that I will need need to travel around overland. When in this situation I can just row over to the nearest exit point on the river or canal, get out, deflate my boat, stuff it into my backpack, and skirt around the obstacle.
As I outlined in The Ultimate Vagabond Set Up, one strategy is to use an inflatable boat intermittently with a folding bicycle — when you’re using one you carry the other. But there are major drawbacks to this strategy. A major one is what do you do if you find an obstacle on a waterway in a place where there are no roads nearby? I’ve thought this scenario through a dozen times, and I have to admit that I don’t want to be trudging up the side of a ravine or through the woods carrying a boat and a bicycle. So this is a strategy that should only be employed in areas where I am confident there are roadways near the waterways I intend to travel. In point, this may not be the ultimate long distance travel strategy I once made it out to be.
For now, on long boat trips I will stick to either rowing or sticking the boat into my knapsack and hiking. This is a realistic travel strategy.