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The Art of Inflatable Towing

Published By: Jonathan Lee

Tubing is one of the best perks of boat ownership. Kids absolutely love it – as does the inner child that lives in most of us as well. The learning curve is non-existent, making it an out-of-the-box activity. Still, there are a few things boaters need to know to ensure your experience behind the rope is as safe as it is fun.

Most modern inflatables have a PVC bladder wrapped in nylon. Determining the quality of towable includes several factors, one of which is the gauge of that bladder. “Typically speaking, the higher the gauge of the bladder, the more durable it will be,” says Laura Jendersee, Rave Sports’ Marketing Communications Manager. “Most manufacturers offer a nylon cover. These are usually rated as 420 or 840 Denier. The higher the Denier of the nylon or polyester, the better the quality.”

Denier is a measurement of the thickness of the nylon or other type of fabric used – the higher the number, the more tear- and water-resistant the nylon.

Jendersee suggests following the Water Sports Industry Association’s (WSIA) safety guidelines for inflatable water toys. WSIA is a US-based group that communicates, produces and distributes safety and educational materials for towed watersports. According the association’s guidebook (see chart below), a rope of specific tensile strength is recommended based on the number of riders on a tube. If for instance, your tube accepts up to four passengers, the guide estimates an average weight of 170 lbs. per rider for a total of 680 lbs., and recommends a rope with a tensile strength of at least 4,100 lbs. When you purchase a watersports rope, it should clearly state its tensile strength.

 Number of Riders
 Average Weight of Rider (lbs.)
 170 340 510 680 850
 Recommended Tensile Strength (lbs.)
 1,500 2,3753,350
 4,100 6,000

Braided towropes should also offer a degree of stretch. Using a rope made from a non-stretching material will jerk the riders more suddenly, creating a less comfortable ride. Polyethylene ropes provide that stretch and are an ideal choice for pulling inflatables. Bungee ropes, offering even more stretch, are designed to add a little ‘fling’ to the ride and are available from some towable toy manufacturers. Regularly check your towrope for fraying and replace it if you find evidence that it’s starting to fall apart.

Most boats have weight-limit warnings for ski pylons as well as ski tow eyes. For instance, if your pylon has a max capacity of 300 lbs., you shouldn’t pull two people on a tube if their combined weight is likely to approach your limit. Two adults – with WSIA’s average person weight of 170 lbs. – would already put you over your 300-lb. limit by 40 lbs. Pulling beyond your pylon or eye’s limitation can potentially cause it to break off from the boat and become a dangerous projectile. Also, avoid towing from a tripod-style ski pylon or tower that may not be designed for pulling inflatable toys.

Towable toys come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. For most boaters, the more outlandish the tube’s design, the more appealing the product. Here are a few of the most common styles of towable toys currently available from nearly every manufacturer:

Deck style: A flat-topped towable that places passengers belly down. This style of towable can have a flat bottom offering a more stable ride or a curved bottom that creates a rolling effect for riders as they swing back and forth on the rope. Some feature swept, angled wings that create more pop off the boat’s wake or become the contact surface with the water as the towable tilts left and right, creating a more thrilling ride for passengers. Some deck inflatables feature plastic fins that provide riders limited steering control through leaning and pulling handles. Still, maneuverability is limited, so it’s the driver’s job to make sure riders are safe. “These are usually the easiest type of inflatable to re-board,” says Jendersee. “Teenagers typically want the more lively rides these tubes produce.”

Cockpit style: Great for younger riders, the occupant sits bottom-down in the cockpit well surrounded by the tube’s inflated walls on all sides. This provides a more secure feeling for the passenger and partially reduces the chances of them falling into the water.

Chariot style: Essentially a deck towable with a backrest. As the name suggests, this style of tube allows passengers to ride on their knees with the backrest in front of them as well as partially wrapping around the sides to create sloping armrests. Usually, these models feature front and back tow points, providing a second, lounger-style ride.

Speed is one of the greatest factors under the control of the captain. Irresponsibly pulling an inflatable excessively fast can create several dangerous scenarios for your passengers and helplessly expose them to serious or fatal injuries.

WSIA recommends a top towing speed of 15 mph for children and 20 mph for adults.

In addition to speeding, some may intentionally try drive the boat in such a way to cause the riders they’re towing to fall off the towable. Besides impaired boating, this is often a precursor to accidents. Please let common sense prevail and take responsibility for the safety of your passengers.

All riders should be wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device designed specifically for watersports where wearers are expected to make impact with the water. “Tubers should be using ULC-approved type-three lifejackets,” recommends Brad Ketai, National Sales Manager for Kwik Tek, parent company to Airhead and Sportsstuff. “It should be comfortable but fit snug. Wearing vests based solely on fashion isn’t practical from a safety standpoint. Stealthy, black and dark blue lifejackets are going to be hard to spot in the water. Safety should come first.”

Keep in mind, the towable and its passengers are at the end a rope that will swing out wide if you take sharp sudden turns, potentially placing them in the path of objects such as swimmers, shallow water, rocks, other watercraft or even your own boat! This is another reason to keep the length of your towrope between the recommended 50 to 60 feet. Beware of hazards up ahead, and err on the side of caution when it comes to providing enough space for pulling inflatables. Stay away from other boaters driving in an unsafe manner – their mistake could endanger your riders.

Always have a spotter for your riders. Just as with water skiers and wake boarders, a spotter should be communicating with the captain when a rider falls off the towable so they can quickly be recovered. If you’re the captain, don’t try to multitask, watch where you’re driving and let the spotter concentrate on the action behind the boat. Riders would also be well advised to have a small signaling device attached to their lifejacket, such as a whistle, in case of emergency. “We recommend adding a ‘skier-down’ flag,” says Ketai. “It’s a rectangular orange flag that is put up on your boat when the rider is off the tube in the water. That signifies to boaters around you that someone’s in the water and to beware of their presence.”

“Every tube has a warning label tag,” says Dave Burgess, the Canadian rep for WOW Watersports. “You have to follow the directions on thelabel. Also, expect the unexpected and plan accordingly.” Burgess says directions on the label typically indicate that the passenger should wear a lifejacket and advises the driver not to exceed a certain towing speed.

Boaters should also never pull more than one tube at a time. Pulling two separate inflatables simultaneously can lead to tangling lines and dangerous collisions with other riders. ‘Tube wars’ are only fun until someone ends up injured.

Regardless of precautions, sometimes injuries are just going to happen. Therefore, be as prepared as possible by always carrying a first-aid kit aboard your boat to treat any injuries that may arise.

“People are always asking me how old kids should be before they start tubing,” says Ketai. “Kids grow up differently. Some have higher skill levels at a younger age than others. It’s not age or weight; the most important thing is that they’re competent swimmers.”

One of the most common mistakes made by boaters new to towing is over inflating the toy. “If you over inflate the towable in the morning when it’s cooler outside, by mid-day its ready to burst at the seams,” says Burgess. You have to take into account the fluctuation in temperature. According to all of the towable toy manufacturers interviewed, over inflation is one of the leading causes of damaged tubes. It’s also not covered under warranty, so remember that the next time you examine the price tag on a four-passenger model. While not all tubes come with recommended PSI ratings, you want the tube to be inflated until just firm, but not to its maximum capacity. Cold water can have the opposite effect on your towable than the hot sun, contracting the air within until it’s under inflated. Keep a hand (or portable) air pump with you on the boat so you can make adjustments as needed throughout the day.

If your towrope is connected to a lower point on your boat, you may want to consider adding a buoyant ball half way along your line (available from Airhead and Sportsstuff) to elevate the line off the water to reduce drag.

Taking the necessary precautions for safely towing inflatables will help ensure your family and friends enjoy every moment spent on the water this season as well as set a fine example for your little future boaters in the making.