Wakesurfing is undoubtedly cool, wakeboarding lets you experience the thrills of big air, and good old-fashioned water-skiing will forever be fun. But the most versatile towable remains the inflatable. Once made from literal tire tubes, which is how we still refer to them, today’s versions are more durable and maneuverable, and they amp up the thrill level far beyond the tubes of old. Yes, in the process some offerings have gotten a little, shall we say, unique. (Did we really see a four-passenger stand-up model that looks like a giant traffic cone?) But overall, inflatables have gotten a lot more fun—which, after all, is the point.
How do you choose the best inflatable for your friends and family in this sea of durable, maneuverable, thrilling—and occasionally downright weird—blow-up toys? We’d argue the answer is in the two-to-three-passenger range, where you can find an inflatable that still delivers a fun ride for nearly all ages and skill levels but doesn’t cost more than your monthly car payment—or require a dedicated storage closet just to stow it when not in use.
The five inflatables we rounded up for 2021 fit that description to perfection on paper. Here’s how they shook out on the water.
Radar Chase 3
Don’t let the laid-back, lounge-chair vibe of Radar’s Chase 3 fool you. Though this inflatable may look ready to chill, the Chase 3 can transform into one wild ride behind the boat, skipping across the wakes into a thrilling slide or, with the right wake, launching airborne for a little hang time. Credit the Spoon-O-Vation, Radar’s convex, spoonlike bottom surface that promises to reduce the drag of a conventional flat-bottom tube. Clip a GoPro action camera into the standard mount at the tube’s front edge, and you can capture share-worthy footage of every moment, whether it’s from a first-person point of view or aimed back at the crew enjoying the ride.
While our riders found the most fun in the lounge position, you can also ride the Chase 3 chariot-style. Rotate the tube 180 degrees and use the secondary tow hook, and occupants can ride the towable while kneeling like a waterborne Ben-Hur, holding on to a series of grab handles along the backrest. Whichever arrangement you choose, neoprene seat-padding covers and knuckle guards offer comfort and protect the tube cover from wear. Should you want to kick back on a slow cruise or just use the tube as a float, a pair of cup holders—yes, cup holders—are ready to keep refreshments close at hand.
The Chase 3 features a heavy-duty PVC bladder wrapped in a tough nylon cover to protect against abrasion. The tube’s primary deck, backrest and armrests inflate via a single two-part, screw-in Boston valve, which removes completely for quick deflation. The small, twin bolsters on the tube’s leading edge feature oral-inflation valves (in a pool-toy style). Though easily filled while using the right electric inflater adapter, they can prove a little more finicky to fill and cap without losing air. $379.99; radarskis.com
Connelly Daytona 2
Connelly suggests the Daytona 2 has a Mario Kart feel. We’re not big gamers, but we can certainly understand the reference. Two riders sit side by side on twin red and blue go-karts, with their feet straddling an inflated center column and their backs against an inflated backrest. Twin grab handles on that central column evoke a steering wheel. Below, the tube’s deck-style base is asphalt gray, with a checkered-flag graphic at the Daytona 2′s leading edge. There’s even a speedometer graphic, pegged at a “don’t try this at home” 90 mph. Go, Speed Racer, go!
While the seating arrangement suggests a race, it’s the tube’s flat bottom surface that makes the Daytona 2 a speedy ride, skidding easily in and out of the wakes. Riders did have some leverage to influence direction, but the boat driver has the most control, sending the Daytona on a series of S-turns. Riders initially feared that the seating position, combined with the relatively low position of the grab handles, had the potential to eject riders should those skids become a little too aggressive. But, ultimately, the Daytona 2 proved stable. Still, at 70-by-70 inches, it’s probably best enjoyed by the smaller riders in your pit crew.
Like all of the tubes we tested, the Daytona 2 comes preassembled with a heavy-duty internal PVC bladder wrapped in a durable nylon cover for protection. While the main deck easily fills and deflates via a two-part Boston valve, the central columns and backrests feature oral-inflation valves (think of a pool float), which didn’t always line up well with the corresponding openings in the cover as the bladders inflated. Soft EVA padding is stitched in place on each seat position to offer comfort and durability. Likewise, the fully padded handles are comfortable and backed with knuckle guards to prevent abrasion. When the race is finally done, excess water empties through covered mesh drains on the tube’s bottom edge. $259.99; connellyskis.com
WOW Big Shark
Insanely bright with its high-visibility mix of red, yellow, and the requisite mouthful of pearly white teeth, WOW’s Big Shark definitely won’t be creeping stealthily through the water to any ominous theme music. Instead, the first of two shark-themed models in this year’s roundup is almost impossible to miss. That’s the idea. Sure, those high-vis colors may catch attention on a crowded website catalog page, but they also stand out on increasingly crowded waterways, keeping the Shark—and its riders—more visible while underway.
A modern twist on the banana tubes of old, the 10-foot-9-inch-long Shark positions its two passengers in a line, riding atop this fish’s back bronco-style between dorsal and tail fins. EVA foam pads are stitched onto the heavy-duty nylon cover in each seating area for comfort and to prevent wear, but our riders would have preferred for the coverage to extend the length of their inner thighs. Smaller riders especially found the seating position to be too wide, with their skin susceptible to chafing over time against the exposed nylon. However, the padded, double-webbed grab handles with EVA foam knuckle guards placed in front of each rider offered secure, comfortable handholds.
Old-school banana tubes tend to roll, but WOW wisely added large wing-shaped side pontoons to increase the Shark’s stability, for boarding both at rest and while underway. The main body and wings easily inflate and deflate via two-part, plug-style speed valves. Like the bananas of old, the Shark tracked relatively straight within the boat’s wake. It resisted the driver’s attempts to make it skid via an S-turn, but offered a fun, enjoyable ride that should satisfy kids and adults alike. A suggestion? The molded, EZ Tow connector below the Shark’s chin keeps the bow from submarining when underway, but consider adding WOW’s Tow Boss rope system; its large, inflatable bobber at the midline will keep the towrope from getting caught in the water, greatly improving the ride. $279.99; wowwatersports.com
O’Brien Paradise 2
With an idyllic, photo-quality beachfront graphic and comparable name, O’Brien’s Paradise 2 sets the stage for a relaxing day on the water. The cover material even gets in on the action. Unlike the slightly rougher feel of heavy-duty nylon, O’Brien’s SoftTec Ultra fabric is soft to the touch with a neoprene feel, offering an additional level of comfort for bare knees and elbows while still maintaining abrasion resistance. Choosing to fashion the entire top deck of the Paradise 2 out of the material also eliminates add-on wear pads and knuckle guards, and their additional stitching.
Beyond the eye-catching graphic and cushy top surface, don’t expect much in the way of extra features. A classic deck-style inflatable doesn’t really need them. The Paradise 2′s open, 66-by-66-inch deck invites one or two riders to lie prone atop the surface, and six grab handles on the leading edge offer a variety of handholds. The tube’s low center of gravity offers exceptional stability with a fast, skid-happy feel. Riders can exert leverage and use body English to partially dictate the tube’s direction while the boat driver dramatically accelerates motion with the always versatile S-turn. Yes, the prone position doesn’t offer much in the way of shock absorption, but the deep inflatable bladder smoothed out rough water quite well and cushioned bodies during the occasional bounce.
The Paradise 2 features a 26-gauge internal bladder, with the bottom covered in durable, slippery nylon, topped off with that cushy SoftTec Ultra fabric. The tube’s grab handles are comfortably padded. Our favorite practical feature, however, has to be O’Brien’s Lightning Valve. A large valve opening paired with an internal one-way flap, it allows for lightning-quick inflation via a dedicated inflater or Shop-Vac. When the time comes to pack things away, simply push in that flap and the air within rushes out of the tube just as quickly, making the Paradise 2 the simplest of our candidates to prep and stow. $179.99; obrien.com
Forget that chilling Jaws theme. This Shark has got fun on its mind. Essentially a 64-by-75-inch deck-style inflatable interrupted by a cartoonlike head and tail fin, the Shark can accommodate one to three riders. A solo passenger can ride the tube seated with their legs straddling the head and their back resting against the tail; two passengers can lie prone on the broad, flat deck area to each side; or a trio can combine all three positions. Grab handles placed alongside the shark’s head and along the tube’s leading edge, combined with inflatable side bolsters to keep prone passengers from slipping off, ensure all feel secure while this Shark plies the waters.
Underway, our test crew found the Shark to be stable, and it liked to slide, a benefit of its flat bottom surface. Riders could exert a little body English to direct the tube’s motion, but it was the driver who could really send the tube in and out of the wakes with a few well-timed S-turns. Prone passengers took occasional spray to the face, but the only real complaint centered around a prone passenger’s elbows. The addition of neoprene wear pads would add comfort for bare skin.
The Shark features a heavy-duty PVC internal bladder covered in a tough nylon wrap for protection and to provide those bright colors and graphics. The quick-connect plastic tow connector attaches to the cover via a webbed strap. Soft, foam grab handles are covered in nylon for protection and feature soft knuckle guards below. Inflation of the main bladder is accomplished easily via a screw-in, two-part Boston valve tucked below a Velcro-equipped flap. The head, tail and side bolsters, however, inflate separately via oral-inflation valves, so plan to spend extra time and have the correct adapters on hand. $349.99; hosports.com
The Super Air Nautique G23
The Super Air Nautique G23 (nautique.com) is recognized as one of the premier wakesurfing boats around. Testers from our sister publication Wakeboarding say it produces a smooth, clean wave that is as symmetrical as it gets. Whether surfing or wakeboarding, you can customize the G23′s wake thanks to the Nautique Configurable Running Surface and the Nautique Surf System.
For surfing, the Configurable Running Surface works with the push of a button to help flatten lift for smoother starts out of the hole. It also increases displacement at surf speeds, and keeps a level running attitude while on plane. For improved close-quarters handling, opt for the Integrated Steering Assist, which adds a bow thruster to help maneuvering.
The Surf Switch, a handheld controller that the surfer can secure to his or her wrist with a lanyard, lets the surfer customize the shape and size of the wake in real time from behind the boat. Inside the boat, the plush interior seats up to 16 people in comfort and style.