Inflatable boards vs. hard boards
Inflatable boards have some clear advantages over hard boards:
- Durability. While nose damage is very common for hard boards, you can keep smashing your mast on an inflatable board without damaging it.
- High volume. This makes the boards more stable and very easy to get into plane.
- Small package. You can carry the board inside a backpack to wherever you like. And it doesn't take up much storage space.
- Price. There is a wide price range for inflatable boards. Notwithstanding this, you can have a proper inflatable board for half the price of a hard board.
But also some disadvantages...
- Stiffness. Although the stiffness of inflatable boards has been much improved with new construction technologies, hard boards do have a more direct feel and better performance.
- Gybing. Due to the thick rails it's hard to acheive good bite for proper carving gybes.
- Wave riding. The thick and rounded rails also mean that inflatables are not suitable for wave riding.
- Weight. Inflatable boards are usually a little heavier than hard boards.
Each board has it's own purpose and special features.
This is where it started: the idea of putting a sail on an inflatable SUP board. The added centre-fin prevents sideways drifting. The designs are suitable for low-wind conditions. They are not suitable for or intended for use in planing wind conditions.
This is where the advantages of an inflatable board are maximised. The extreme durability and stability make them perfect boards for those new to windsurfing. And if the center fin is removed they can fast-track learners to their first planing experiences. Some models also allow for footstraps to be fitted.
These inflatable boards are made for easy planing. The centre fin is omitted for a cleaner hull shape. The PVC rail improves water release for less drag at higher speeds, and more grip when carving. These boards provide the easiest step to 'real' (full planing) windsurfing.
Some brands have developed inflatable boards for more radical purposes, such as models with the Deep Tuttle fin box system to allow for use with serious slalom fins. The boards often utilize special materials like kevlar or dyneema to increase the stiffness. Speeds over 70kph have been recorded on these boards! Unfortunately, the price tag is almost as high as the top speed...
The way a board is constructed influences the stiffness, weight and durability of a board. Stiffness is especially important, as a flat board has much less drag than a board that bends under the load of the surfer.
All inflatable boards are made with 'dropstitch' PVC. This material is made of 2 layers of fibre-reinforced PVC that are connected by vertical threads (see below image). The length of these threads define the thickness of the board. Because all the threads have the same length, the top and bottom of the boards are perfectly flat. The scoop and/or rocker of the board are made by the shape of the side wall, and by making the top layer a bit shorter than the bottom layer.
Roughly, there are 3 different dropstitch techniques:
- Single layer. Cheap, but bad performance. If your board is more than just a toy for your kids, we would strongly suggest to buy a better board.
- Double layer. The board is reinforced by an extra layer of fiber-reinforced PVC laminate. A little heavier than single layer, but much stiffer and much more durable.
- MSL Fusion. The best. More fibers, less PVC and less glue than the double layer construction. This makes the boards lighter and stiffer. All Unifiber boards are constructed with MSL Fusion.
Some brands add stringers with kevlar or dyneema fibers to make the boards even stiffer. But this also makes the boards very expensive.
Which finbox your board has defines which fins you can use. Most inflatable boards are bought with the fins included. But the fins have a large impact on performance, usability and price. So it's worth to have a look at the options.
- US-box. The hard plastic fins are included with the board. The fins are detachable and the fin box is small. This makes the rolled-up package very compact. The downside is that the fins and finbox are not very stiff. That is why our Elevate freeride boards use a twin set-up: twice the fin area for high-wind conditions. This option has the best value for bucks: good performance, convenient, low price.
- Deep tuttle box. A large plastic block is laminated inside the board to accommodate high-performance fins. This finbox is stiffer than the US-box, increasing the performance of the boards. Downside: the large plastic block makes it harder to roll-up the board. And the price is higher, mostly due to the price of the fins.
- Daggerboard. Some inflatable beginner boards have a large retractable centerfin. This gives superb stability and close-hauled performance. Downside are the size and the price.
Most iWindsurf boards have a sharp PVC rail. This gives the board more grip on the water, so that it doesn't drift sideways. And it improves the release of the water flow at higher speeds, making the board suitable for planing.