Objectively evaluating watersports tubes (inflatables, in modern parlance) can be a surprisingly tricky task. After all, most each and every one is kind of a one-size-fits-all thrill ride. But after testing by whipping four teenage girls and two young boys around the lake, we just may have stumbled onto the closest thing to a scientific formula for fun factor. Call it SPM — screams per minute.
To say our crew pumped up the volume is putting it mildly. There was the excited this-thing-is-awesome shriek, the slightly terror-filled am-I-about-to-get-flung squeal, and the ever-present “Do it again! Do it again!” shout that accompanied every adrenaline-packed skid. Each and every inflatable elicited just about each and every reaction, meaning in the end the only real conclusion we could reach was this: When it comes to good old-fashioned on-the-water fun, inflatables just may offer the best bang for the buck for boat-owning watersports enthusiasts.
Ready to get your scream on? Here are five of our favorite high-SPM rides that we towed behind a Supreme S238.
Airhead Griffin III ($320)
Like its mythical namesake, Airhead’s Griffin III sports wings, or in this case upwardly curved ends that give this speedy inflatable a dose of side-to-side rocker. The shape has multiple benefits. For starters, it puts less of the tube in the water, reducing resistance and increasing the ease with which the Griffin whips in and out of the wake with only a subtle S-turn from the boat driver. The curved ends also allowed the riders to roll the tube more easily into turns with the appropriate lean. Last, the shape adds a welcome dose of security to riders. There’s less of a feel that the tube may dig in or flip as it skids up and over the wakes because the wings better match the curvature of the water.
The Griffin III measures in at 5 feet 10 inches by 7 feet 6 inches, giving passengers ample room to lie side by side on their stomachs. EVA pads are placed toward the tail to offer protection to the knees, with flanking nylon web straps to ease boarding in deep water after a spill. Six double-web handles are arrayed across the tube’s leading edge, with similar EVA knuckle guards to prevent scrapes. With no extraneous parts, inflation is quick and simple via a single Airhead Speed Safety valve, covered by a zippered port when not in use.
Though undoubtedly fun, our testers did notice a minor drawback in rougher conditions. Because the Griffin tows quite level in the water, spray occasionally hits riders right in the face. On a hot day, however, that’s all part of the fun.
Sportsstuff Rock n’ Tow 2 ($360)
Picture a rocking chair mated with a doublewide La-Z-Boy recliner, then inflated with air and you have a pretty good image of Sportsstuff’s Rock N’ Tow 2, a wild inflatable that allows passengers to lie back and recline rather than lie prone on their stomachs, providing a change of pace. Essentially one big 7-foot-by-5-foot-4-inch L-shaped air mattress, the Rock N’ Tow’s surface angles upward about two-thirds of the way back to provide lounge-style back support. Inflatable dividers serve not so much as armrests but to secure and separate riders. Each features double-web foam handles for passengers to hang on, with knuckle guards below to prevent abrasion to both skin and the tube’s cover. EVA foam pads likewise cushion and prevent abrasion below each seat.
The Rock N’ Tow’s pronounced rocker, or that tip-to-tail curvature, gives this tube a playful personality right from the start, because the front can lift and the back dips whenever tension eases on and off the towrope. Underway, that rocker also greatly reduces this inflatable’s wetted surface, meaning there’s less water resistance than would be found on a simple flat tube. Even a gentle whip from the boat driver sent the Rock N’ Tow accelerating rapidly out into the flats, often skidding on only a fraction of the tube’s base.
Our testers gave the Rock N’ Tow an enthusiastic thumbs up, noting that the mild unpredictability of the rocking added to the excitement of the ride. The curve, they noted, also seemed perfectly placed, ready to rock riders back but recover just in time to avoid a spill — and another scream.
Radar Liftoff ($220)
Much of the Liftoff’s appeal may be found in its simplicity. With so many inflatables going over the top in terms of extras, the Liftoff sticks to the basics. It’s essentially a 6-foot- 2-inch-by-6-foot-2-inch filled-in doughnut, devoid of any angles and lacking the multiple extras that so many manufacturers seem intent on adding to the mix. Even the colors and graphics were the simplest of the bunch. Rather than eyeball-searing colors and wacky words and pictures, the cover offers screened images of, wait for it, pineapples on a solid-color background to boot. The only real tweaks to the simple shape are a squared-off tail (Radar notes it provides better stability in rough water and when being whipped outside the wake) and an inflatable wedge on both the left and right side that offered a welcome dose of security to our passengers. Testers noted the placement of the latter was especially beneficial for the legs to keep them from flying off the surface when aggressively sliding.
Though seemingly simple, our test crew found the Liftoff could also be big fun. Yes, its flat profile could occasionally result in the unpleasant splash to the eyeballs, but the inflatable’s versatility could please both timid and aggressive riders. The former could enjoy its stability; the latter could use body English to easily accelerate and maneuver the tube across the water.
Rather than individual sewn-in pads to provide rider comfort and protect against abrasion, the Liftoff features Radar’s marshmallow soft top, a foam-backed neoprene that covers the entire top surface of the tube. Our test crew found it ultra-comfortable, noting that the nylon of other models could occasionally chafe.
WOW Big Ducky ($330)
If our youngest teens (or response to Boating’s social media posts) are a reliable indication, Wow has a big hit on its hands with one very big yellow duck. As the name implies, the Big Ducky’s unexpected highlight is a good old-fashioned, bright-yellow rubber duck, although this rubber ducky is far from the bathtub toy you may have played with as a kid. Instead, it’s large enough for an adult to ride on and anchored to an inflated platform that can add two additional riders lying on their stomachs. The duck wrangler gets the best seat in the house, enjoying a sculpted, padded EVA foam perch between the duck’s head and tail. Double-web foam handholds await on each side of the duck’s face. An additional handhold is offered behind the head. Prone riders also get small inflated side bumpers to help secure them in place.
While at first glance the Big Ducky seemed like it may actually offer the tamest ride of the inflatables on hand, on the water it became one surprisingly fun fowl. Kids chalked it up to the inflatable’s smooth skim across flat water in the corners, its unexpected launch off the wake and, thanks to an extra-deep base platform, the absence of spray for riders closest to the water. Mostly they loved the novelty factor of being able to ride atop one giant yellow bucking bronc… er, duck. Yes, with a duck hogging a fair chunk of real estate, outer passengers can feel a tad cramped at times, but that just made time in the saddle all the more special.
That monster-size duck also paid practical benefits on the water because the Big Ducky was by far the easiest towable to see for other boaters.
O’Brien Challenger 3 ($350)
The Challenger 3 is part of O’Brien’s cockpit series, so named because of the tublike design that recesses riders within an inflated perimeter collar much like the cockpit of an old-school rubber raft. That raft, however, never offered this much fun — or comfort. Check out the Challenger’s cushy inflated backrest. Extending the entire back half of the tube and wrapping around outer passenger’s shoulders, it offers the back support that makes extended rides more enjoyable. Below, that cockpit floor is inflated for additional comfort as well as to cushion the jolts from wake encounters. Six padded grab handles (with EVA knuckle guards, of course) keep riders confident they’ll stay aboard should things get a little wild.
That recessed profile and surrounding collar, however, guarantee even those wilder rides never get too intimidating. Our pair of 10-year-old testers noted the Challenger offered a sense of security unmatched by the other designs in our test, allowing them to kick back and relax as the flat-bottomed tube skidded outside the wake into the flats. Even the family dog hopped aboard for a pass. The seated positioning, however, does limit rider control of where the tube heads. Count on the driver to provide some turns to direct the tube out and over the wakes.
Though relatively large in size, the Challenger inflated — and deflated — speedy fast thanks to O’Brien’s proprietary Lightning Valves. The extra-large opening eliminates the need for adapters that choke air flow and allows for rapid inflation with either an electric inflater or your basic shop vacuum. Deflation is even faster because the valve’s sizable air-retention flap flips inward to rapidly evacuate the tube’s contents.
What to Look For
Inflatables have come a long way since Grandpa’s big black inner tube, with its unwieldy dagger of a valve stem. Today’s inflatables offer complex shapes, durable exterior covers in eye-popping colors, and hidden valves that promise lightning-fast inflation and deflation. Here’s what to look for.
Heavy-duty nylon covers with double-stitched seams protect the more delicate internal bladder from damage and punctures. In addition, covers improve performance by smoothing the inflatable’s surface, serve as a mounting point for grab handles and sewn-in reinforcements, and act as the canvas for bright colors and high-visibility graphics.
Heavy-Duty PVC Bladder
The core of the modern inflatable is the heavy-duty PVC bladder that gives the tube its shape, softens the ride, and even provides better handling characteristics.
Grab Handles/Rider Pads
Better tubes offer rounded, padded grab handles constructed with double webbing for a comfortable, secure handhold. Look for neoprene or EVA pads below the handles, both to prevent knuckles from scraping against the nylon and the nylon from extended wear. Those same neoprene or EVA pads should be featured below a rider’s seat and in other high-wear areas.
High-Speed Inflation Valves
Styles vary, but the common theme is rapid inflation via one-way valves that don’t allow air to escape during inflation, and the ability to open or remove that valve to rapidly deflate the tube when it’s time to be packed away. Valves should be located below flaps and closed with zippers or hook-and-loop fasteners to avoid scraping passengers and maintain the inflatable’s sleek appearance.
Self-Bailing Drain Vents
Water inevitably makes it between the bladder and nylon cover, meaning drain vents — typically made from mesh and protected below a stitched-on flap — are essential. Most are located at the tube’s rearmost edge, allowing the inflatable to naturally drain when stood upright.
Molded Tow Connector
Molded nylon tow hooks allow for quick attachment and removal of the towrope. Hooks should be attached to webbed strapping sewn to the cover with reinforced stitching.