When Inflatable Kayaks Deflate

Winnie and Friend Paddling in Lake Wylie, South Carolina

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Over the past fourteen years kayaking has become my most favorite outdoor activity. Along with actually paddling kayaks comes the fun part of collecting kayaks. I’ve managed to collect a few nice boats over these past years including inflatable kayaks.

One of the most common remarks I see/hear when people ask about the pros and cons of inflatable kayaks is: “If you punch a hole in an inflatable, you’ll get wet.” I can now attest that this is not true.

A Winter’s Paddling

We presently have two inflatable kayaks: A Sea Eagle 370 two-person boat, and an HO Sports Beacon single-person boat. A few weeks ago, Winnie and I took a weekend trip down to visit her friend near Charlotte, North Carolina. As it was reasonably warm that weekend Winnie wanted to bring both inflatable kayaks so her friend could paddle with us. Lake Wylie is close to her friend’s house, and we agreed it would be fun to do some mid-winter’s paddling.

So, on a reasonably sunny Sunday morning with air temps in the mid-50s, the three of us bundled into our RV pre-loaded with two inflatable kayaks and accessory gear and headed down to the nearest boat launch. I prepped our boats, closely supervised by Winnie and her friend, and we paddled away. Winnie and her friend were in our Sea Eagle, I was in our HO Sports Beacon. It was a nice day, and I could tell the ladies were enjoying being on the water.

A couple of happy paddlers on a mid-winter's outing.
A Couple of Happy Paddlers on a Mid-Winter’s Outing

We mostly stayed close to the shoreline. In several places I noticed there was lots of scrap concrete chunks used as rip-rap along the banks. After a couple of hours, we were all ready to get back to shore.

As I pulled the Sea Eagle onto the pier, I saw that the bottom was mostly deflated. There wasn’t much I could do about it there, so I just packed everything back into our RV and enjoyed the rest of the weekend visit.

Inspection and Troubleshooting

Once safely back at home I unpacked our Sea Eagle and started testing for leaks. I quickly determined that yes, the floor section of our Sea Eagle 370 was in fact not holding air.

The Sea Eagle 330 and 370 boats have three main air chambers: two side chambers and the “I-Beam” flooring chamber. Each chamber is independently inflated. Normally, these boats should hold air for days at a time. I even found one boat, a 330, who’s human had left it inflated for two years.

In my case, the floor was deflating within a few minutes.

Cross-section of a Sea Eagle 330 and 370 inflatable kayak.
Cross-section of a Sea Eagle 330 and 370 Inflatable Kayak Hull

A close inspection of the underside showed a number of deep scratches running lengthwise. These scratches, more like shallow cuts, looked like Winnie had paddled over some razor-sharp metal. None of the scratches seemed to go all the way through the 38 mil PVC fabric, but they were deep. And they weren’t there before the most recent outing. I ran the standard test for finding air leaks: spraying soapy water over the scratched areas. Any air leaks will cause soap bubbles to form at the point of the leak. In theory, once a leak has been identified it’s possible to patch it using the standard Sea Eagle-provided patch kit.

My soapy-water tests were inconclusive. There was no obvious air leak. I also checked the valve seating. On occasion a Boston Air Valve doesn’t seat properly causing a slow leak. But, after checking and even replacing the floor chamber valve, I had to rule this out.

Probable Cause

So, I was left with the probable cause of the air leak being these scratches/shallow cuts deep enough to let air leak through the fabric. Possibly with occasional pinholes thru the fabric along the length of the scratches. The only reason I can think of, was the boat brushing over chunks of concrete rip-rap that had steel reinforcing wires sticking out. The ends of any rusted reinforcing wire would have been razor-sharp, enough to cause these shallow cuts if they brushed along the hull.

Not Repairable

Sea Eagle includes a patch kit with their boats, and there are several excellent YouTube videos showing how to patch holes. But long deep scratches like these are simply not repairable. Patch material is only a few square inches in size. If I could even source enough patch material and adhesive to cover all the identified scratches, I could still never be sure the floor chamber would remain airtight.

Tough Boats

But I think the important lesson is that an inflatable boat is a lot tougher than people might think. We didn’t notice the floor chamber was deflating until we pulled the kayak out of the water. The two side chambers provided enough buoyancy to keep the boat afloat and feet dry. Had Winnie and her friend been in a hard shell kayak that was punctured through the bottom, they would have started taking on water. At best, they would have made it back to shore with wet feet and a boat a lot heavier than normal due to water incursion. At worse, they would have been swimming.

So, to anyone who is nervous about sinking an inflatable kayak, I’d say, no worries. You’re safer in an inflatable than in a hard-shell kayak.

Time For Replacement

Not replacing our Sea Eagle 370 wasn’t even a consideration. The big question was replacing it with the same model or taking a “step up” to a higher end boat. We opted to stay with the 370 as it’s so compact, simple to setup and easy to care for.

Unfortunately, Sea Eagle doesn’t sell just a hull. They sell accessories, but all hulls are sold only as a complete package with seats, paddles, and air pump. All of my 370 accessory components are still fine. I don’t like throwing away good equipment and didn’t see much of a market for these used items.

I opted to go with the “Deluxe Solo Package” of a 370 hull, one paddle, one standard seat, and a foot-powered air pump. Having one extra seat, paddle, and air pump isn’t a bad thing. And I can still use our existing 370 accessories with the new hull.

I ordered the package directly through Sea Eagle. Delivery was fast and free, and ordering directly through Sea Eagle qualified me for their warranty and return policy. Not that I’d have any reason to just return it.

Edited for format, March 26, 2024

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