Inflatable Boat Repair: The Ultimate Handbook

how to fix and repair inflatable boat

Whether you seek thrilling water activities or you prefer to enjoy a calm day of cruising —inflatable boats will brighten up your outdoor experience no matter what day it is outside. However, a sudden deflation or a leak can distress your plans.

With a bit of know-how and a few useful tools, your day out on the water can be saved. If your inflatable boat, SUP board, river tube, PVC or RIB has holes or air bubbles going on, they can easily be fixed. All you need to repair an inflatable are some waterproof products — a patch, glue, tape, or a repair kit to patch up your inflatable permanently.

What Kind of Inflatable Boat Do You Have? – And Why Materials Matter

Before inspecting and determining what kind of work your inflatable may require, you need to know what type of boat you have. First and foremost, you need to be aware there are two types of fabric out there: Hypalon and PVC. Each must be treated differently in terms of maintenance and repairs.

To identify the material:

  • Have a look at your boat manual or have an eye on the web, and you will find the answer.
  • Look at the back of the tube fabric (through the inflation valve or where the tear is). Hypalon is dull, dark grey or black, whereas PVC inflatable boats are the same colour on both sides. Although, be careful with this technique if your boat has UV damage.
  • Use a piece of sandpaper to rub the fabric in an inconspicuous area. Hypalon fabric will get dull and produce dust, while PVC scratches but stays glossy.

Hull Design: RIB vs. SIB

A rigid inflatable boat (RIB) is known for its versatility, speed and ability to cope with weather conditions. However, many people incorrectly refer to all inflatable boats as RIBs, not learning about the second type of inflatables – soft inflatable boats (SIBs).

The rigid hull of a RIB makes it safe at high speed and more stable in choppy conditions. RIBs are considered to be far more comfortable as they often have secure seating and storage space. Bonus tip – learn why you should choose PVC inflatable boats over rubber ones.

Meanwhile, the soft hull of a SIB makes them lightweight and easy to transport, but they’re also much more prone to flipping at speed and sit far lower in the water.

Finding a Leak: Two Methods

The best hack to find air leaks is to use dish soap or detergent mixed with water in a spray bottle.

Check the valves first. Spray around the air valve on a suspected air chamber. The number one cause of slow leaks is poorly fitted valves. Unscrew the valve and clean the area. If you see bubbles forming, check your valve fitting and base, so the valve insert is tight and in the correct position.

Fully inflate the boat to find tiny leaks on the boat’s surface. Spray your liquid detergent mixture all over the boat, and foam it up with a rag or big wash brush if necessary. Watch for tiny bubbles.

If you have no success finding a slow leak with air bubbles, inflate the boat to its full pressure and listen for the leak. After narrowing the area down, return with soapy water to precisely identify the leak source. Don’t forget to apply soapy water along all seams.

Patching Your Inflatable Boat – Step By Step

Pinhole Leak, Small Hole or Tear

A small hole or tear in your inflatable doesn’t mean you must replace it. Let’s start repairing!

    • First, dry the area and deflate the tube.
    • Cut round patches. Do not use square patches since sharp edges may start to peel off over time. Always cover the patch with paint tape to avoid glue sticking out all over the patch.
    • Cut out a fabric patch and round the corners. Leave a minimum of 5 cm over the tear.
    • Place the patch over the hole and mark it around the patch with a pencil. If the tear is larger than 5cm, cut out a matching piece of polythene too.
    • For Hypalon patches – lightly rub the back of the patch and the marked repair area with abrasive paper. There is no need to sand PVC fabric being glued together. It is only done to Hypalon boats during repairs.
    • Clean the back of the patch and repair the area with a lint-free cloth, MEK solvent, or isopropyl alcohol. Wait until the solvent evaporates before continuing.
    • Put masking tape around the repair area so that any adhesive can be removed from around the repair site. Use a hair fan or heat gun if the patch needs to be removed or unglued.
    • Prepare the adhesive according to the instructions. For tears over 5 cm, apply adhesive to the back of one of the patches and to the inner tube surface around the repair area. Leave it to dry for around 20 minutes and then apply a second coat and leave it to dry for just a few minutes.
    • Put the polythene on the adhesive so that the patch can be rolled up with the glue sticking to itself. Put the rolled-up patch into the tube through the tear in the tube and unroll. Place over the tear and peel away the polythene to allow the glue to bond. Smooth the patch working from the centre outwards to remove any air bubbles.
    • Using a brush, apply a thin coat of adhesive to the patch and the masked repair area. Leave to dry for at least 20 minutes, then apply a second thin coat, further leaving it to dry for a few minutes until tacky. Apply the patch carefully to the repair area.
    • Carefully remove the masking tape and clean off any excess adhesive with the MEK solvent. If you don’t remove it, the remaining glue will turn brown.
    • If a small leak is impossible to reach, use inflatable boat sealant, which works similarly to car flat tire sealant. Escaping air will direct sealant toward the leak and will seal it permanently.

    • Apply pressure: place a smooth-sided heavy weight on the patch and leave for 24 hours before inflating the tubes. Don’t forget to check the repaired area before launching the boat.

Tubes and Fabric – Restoration and Prevention

In addition to regular inspections and cleaning, don’t forget to apply a UV treatment to your tubes once a month. We recommend 303 Aerospace Protectant. Many products are on the market, but this one is affordable, easy to find, and never disappoints.

Regarding repairs, it’s important to avoid numerous agents not meant to be used on your tubes. Silicone-based products are at the top of the list. Even though the visible residue is removable, you will never eliminate its traces entirely. These traces soak deep down into the fabric, making it impossible for patches, accessories or anything else to stick to those areas ever again. Additionally, Flex Seal – a rather popular product, often flakes off in the tiniest pieces.

Inflatable Boat Safekeeping: We’ve got you covered

Learning about year-round boat maintenance is essential for every inflatable boat owner, regardless of their professional level. Check our inflatable boat manual on proper care and storage to ensure a long service life and stay safe boating outings.

Safety During Repairs

Products with strong chemicals will be used, so keep pets and children away and read the product labels carefully. Solvents and adhesives are known to produce fumes and to be highly flammable. Apart from the safety elements, plan where you will do the repairs. A list of standard safe conditions includes:

  • Humidity level lower than 60%.
  • Temperature between 18ºC-25ºC.
  • Well-ventilated area, away from straight sunlight.
  • No open flame nearby.

And remember: if you’re concerned about repairing your inflatable by yourself, don’t hesitate to turn things over to a professional repair/inflatable boat technician.

Boat Repair Kit

Most of these items are probably already in your home or garage, and you could throw them in a toolbox that you bring to the water. Although, building a dedicated boat toolkit that stays on the boat at all times is always a good idea. These tools will help during an emergency and with basic routine repairs:

  • Adhesive glue
  • The correct fabric patch
  • Polythene for the inner patch (if necessary)
  • Solvent/primer
  • Sandpaper
  • Mixing stick
  • Lint-free cloth
  • Small and stiff glue brush
  • Pencil
  • Masking tape
  • Something to remove air bubbles (e.g. handle of a hammer)
  • A heavy weight to hold the patch down while drying

If you have further questions about PVC inflatable boats, contact our Navigator Team. Don’t let a little leak in your inflatable boat set back your water activities!

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