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Inflatables Are Coming Out of the Closet

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Every year, Scott McIntosh cruises to Catalina, fishes in Mexico, skims down the Colorado River, water skis on Lake Mojave and goes whale-watching off Dana Point--all with a portable, inflatable boat that folds up to the size of an overstuffed laundry bag.

McIntosh is out to prove a point: You don’t have to be rich to own a seaworthy boat that can take you just about anywhere.

For nearly 15 years, McIntosh, owner of a Costa Mesa company that sells inflatables, has been putting together adventurous trips for an informal club made up of inflatable boat owners. The trips sound like something you would do in a big boat rather than a miniature vessel made of rubberized fabric and filled with air.

For example, the most popular excursion is a summer cruise to Catalina Island, a journey more commonly made in boats much more substantial than an inflatable dinghy. The Catalina cruise, which dates back to 1975, drew 25 boats last summer and McIntosh expects even more this year. (While inflatables range in size from 8 to 24 feet, the minimum allowed for the Catalina trip is 13 feet.)

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“We are trying to show the versatility of these boats,” McIntosh says. “In the nearly 15 years, we’ve been doing these Catalina crossings, we have never had an instant of danger. And we’ve come back across in 7-foot seas. The boats are very stable, very safe.”

McIntosh, who bought the 21-year-old Port-A-Marine boat business from his father-in-law in 1980, holds four group cruises each year for owners of inflatable boats. This year’s activities begin Sunday with a whale-watching cruise off Dana Point. About 20 boats are expected to participate.

Last Saturday, club members gathered to hear a representative from the American Cetacean Society talk about the migrating whales and offer tips on how to observe the great sea creatures without disturbing them.

“We have a pre-trip meeting so that we have people responsible out there watching whales,” McIntosh said. “During the 7 years we have been doing these trips, we have failed to spot whales only twice. Seeing a whale from a small boat like that is a thrill.”

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Also planned this year are trips to Lake Mojave and to the Sea of Cortez. Members drive to a prearranged location, inflate and launch their boats for a day of fishing or sightseeing, McIntosh says. (All events are open to any owner of an inflatable boat; however, advance registration is required.)

“We used to do a Colorado River rapids trip,” McIntosh says, “but we don’t do that any more because of potential liability.” However, McIntosh and his wife, Diana, plan to make a trip to the rapids on their own this year.

The group trips began as a way to keep inflatable boat owners in touch with each other and to demonstrate that you can do a lot of “bit boat” cruising in an affordable, portable boat, McIntosh says.

“You can go camping at the river; you can go out in the ocean; you can fish, and you can even water ski with them. And everything is fully portable. They don’t require a large engine, and you can run all day on 6 gallons of fuel. You don’t pay any slip or storage fees and they are compact and stowable. You can put one in your closet.”

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A typical 12- to 14-foot boat deflates to a 130-pound “laundry bag” package. The outboard motor generally weighs another 100 pounds. Such a boat costs between $3,000 and $4,000, including motor. Used boats, however, can cost less than half that.

The popularity of inflatable boats continues to grow as the modern life style changes, according to McIntosh. “For example, in Italy and France, 85% of all registered boats are inflatables. That’s because Europeans live in apartments and don’t have a lot of storage room.”

As more Americans begin to live in smaller spaces, McIntosh predicts, inflatables will become just as popular here. Already, he says, he is seeing a change in the type of customer such boats attract.

Inflatable boats, he explains, don’t just appeal to boaters. Most customers are outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for “a water-oriented piece of recreational equipment rather than just a boat,” he says.

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But McIntosh is quick to point out that an inflatable boat is not a toy. “One of the big inflatable boat manufacturers surveyed its customers and found that the main reason they bought inflatables was because of safety,” McIntosh said. “Inflatable boats are very stable; they don’t tip over. And even partially deflated, they don’t sink.”

McIntosh has seen proof of the sturdiness of one such boat. “During one of our whale-watching cruises one of the boats hit a plank with some nails and was ripped,” he recalls. “Two-thirds of the boat deflated. The boat had four people in it and we have a picture of them standing up in the boat. They were all OK and the boat was still afloat.”

Boating Classes--A variety of sailing classes will be offered by UC Irvine beginning Tuesday at the Intercollegiate Sailing Base, 1801 W. Coast Highway.

Beginning, intermediate and advanced sailing will be taught during 10 different classes. Fees range from $32 to $43, depending upon the class. Further information is available by calling the UCI recreation office at (714) 856-5346.

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Parade Prizes--Top prizes in the 80th annual Newport Harbor Christmas Parade of Lights will be awarded during a dinner Friday at the Newport Beach Marriott, 900 Newport Center Drive.

Sweepstakes winner was frequent past winner Bobby Cornelius for his elaborately decorated 65-foot powerboat the Merry Maker.

On Board the Californian--A day cruise aboard the tall ship Californian in celebration of Orange County’s centennial will be offered by the Nautical Heritage Society beginning on weekends in March.

The excursions are open to the public and will depart at 10 a.m. from Dana Point Harbor, returning at 4 p.m. The ticket price of $65 includes lunch. Call (714) 661-1001 for information and reservations.

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