Newbie Guide to Inflatable Racing

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Steyn Basson, a competitor with many years experience in the sport of inflatable boat racing, gives us a walk-through on how to get started and kitted out for one of the most exhilarating sports – South African boat racing.

Inflatable Racing
Inflatable Racing

First of all you need to carefully decide whether this tough sport is really for you. It is extremely draining, physically and mentally, and the constant beating of the boat against your ribs and limbs at extreme speeds far out at sea is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s simple, really, you’ll either love it or hate it… You might even think the people participating are completely bonkers! But should you love it, the sport has a way of never leaving you, and evidently so, since the age of participants vary from 16 to roughly 45. In the Trans Agulhas, the veterans have even clocked in at 55! Teenagers from the age of 16 (co-pilot) and 18 (pilot) are also allowed to race.

There are five different types of racing: Surf Circuit; Flat water circuit or Dam racing; Long haul (sea); Flat water long haul or dam racing; and Ultra Long hauls (Trans Agulhas and Trans Atlantic).


To be able to race, you need to join a club and get licensed. To start as a pilot you have to start racing in a club race first. The chairman will then assist you in the procedure of obtaining your licence. Visit for information on the club nearest you.

The best way to go about it is to start out as a co-pilot to learn the ropes – make sure you download the SAIBA (South African Inflatable Boating Association) rulebook to get you up todate with the rules of the sport. It is during this period of co-piloting that you’ll realise that you love the sport – or you’ll decide that it is too tough. Let’s say you instantly fall in love and you would like to pilot your own rig: the first step is to find a co-pilot who is absolutely committed and preferably light in weight – the lighter the crew, the quicker the craft.


Step two is to find some sponsors. To race competitively, you need money. A normal season (including the Trans Agulhas) can cost you in the region of R60 000 in running costs. Should you be fortunate enough to find some backing, it is of the utmost importance that you act professionally at all times when representing your sponsors. The top teams in South Africa all carry full sponsors and one will find that these teams are professional; their vehicles, boats and equipment are neat; they’re clothed in similar sponsored clothing; etc. Sponsors want representation – get this right and you’ve got a good chance!


Next on the checklist is to decide in which class to race. There are three different classes: Standard, Blue Print and Modified. Standard class: These boats basically come with a standard motor with some slight modifications. Rulings on these can be found in the rulebook that you may download from the SAIBA site. This is usually the class newcomers enter as boats are affordable, reliable and relatively low maintenance. Blue Print class: These motors are allowed to be modified to a certain extent, i.e. bored, rev limiters cut, lighter pistons, porting, skimming, etc. Rules on these can also be found in the rulebook. Modified class (Being phased out): This is not recommended for beginners. These motors are high maintenance and tend to break regularly as they are heavily modified and constantly put through their paces. It makes for a very expensive career in the sport. There are no limitations except that the cylinders are not allowed to exceed 850 cc’s. This class is only open for the Trans Agulhas and other special events. It is not recommended to buy a modified motor for racing.

Tip: Go to one of the technical mechanics (Tim Bosson, for instance) to make sure your motor is legal. Should you be caught racing illegally, you will be fined R5 000 and all points will be lost for the season. The implications of this means that your money and effort thus far would have been wasted and your sponsors aren’t likely to be proud.

The motors currently raced are 50 HP Tohatsu’s and Yamaha’s. Yamaha engines under normal conditions are pretty reliable but their key is that they’re easy to fix if you have problems; and according to many in the sport, Tohatsu’s are often seen as the faster engine.

Boat manufacturers

Next up, you’ll need a rig. First, let’s start with the boat: There are different manufacturers and each boat have their pro’s and con’s. Have a look at race logs to check what the top teams race in – however, you will need to pick what suits you as races are won by the crew and the boat in perfect unison. A good second-hand inflatable is suitable when you’re just starting out. The best option is to buy a complete new rig, but this could be very pricy (+- R75 000) while a secondhand rig would price around R25 000 – R30 000. If you are a beginner, it is imperative to get an expert’s first-hand opinion on the boat you are interested in. There have been unfortunate cases where unsuspecting newcomers buy dud rigs and then have problems which ultimately force them to quit racing. Trailers can be bought second-hand or, if you have the means and the know-how, you can build one yourself. But keep in mind to build in a box for storage and extra space.

Now that you have a boat, a trailer and a motor, the next step is to get fuel containers. There are two types: “papsakke” a.k.a. bladders and plastic tanks. The bladders are expensive and can leak, burst or tear, but it’s soft, providing some cushioning for a hard landing and it allows you to see when you are running low on fuel. Bladders can also handle up to 70 litres which is a huge positive for long distance racing. Plastic tanks are durable, can last a lifetime, are practically unbreakable and are cheap. Yamaha and Tohatsu tanks are usually supplied with the motor. These days, the Hulk tanks are popular with tanks in 12L, 22L and 30L. Most top pilots prefer plastic tanks.

Safety equipment

Safety equipment is essential and you wouldn’t be able to enter a race without it. You’ll need a 1.5 kg anchor with approved chain of 2 m, a drogue anchor (like an underwater parachute), as well as an anchor rope of 50 m. Boats which don’t have red, yellow or orange pontoons should have an ID sheet. Racing helmets should be sprayed in 100% red, yellow or orange, and lifejackets should also be of a bright colour. The helmets should be of the full-face, moto-X type and goggles are a must as well. Other necessary safety items include two space blankets, two 1 000 ft flares, smoke markers, six pencil flares, two litres of emergency water, a toolkit with three extra spark plugs, a first aid kit, and two paddles.

Stainless steel propellers

Arguably, the most important part of your boat is the correct propeller – set up correctly in relation to the motor and boat with regards to the weight in the boat and the conditions. Props differ in pitch and shape. Pitch can be explained when (in theory) the prop does one full rotation, the distance the prop propels the craft forward measured in inches. The lower the pitch of the prop, the more grip and ‘bite’ it has, offering greater low-end torque but a lesser top-end speed. It provides quicker acceleration but slower at full throttle as top revs are reached quicker and easier. In rough water and surf racing, the teams tend to use lower pitch props, for instance: a 15 Yamaha semi-cleaver or a 14 bunny. The higher the pitch, the slower the craft will be on pull-away, but top-end will be faster. High pitch propellers include the 18 cleaver, 18 bunny (Chopper) all the way up to a 20 pitch cleaver.

Always test a prop before buying one second hand. A prop, together with skill, weight and knowledge of water conditions, is vital in performing well. There is a saying that a good prop will never be sold by its owner. Top pilots who retire will sell everything, except those one or two props. Depending on the boat, weight and setup, the first two props I’d recommend a beginner to buy is a 15 bunny, and a 15 semi-cleaver. Next you’ll need a big pitch for flat water long distance racing or flat long distance sea racing; look at an 18 pitch chopper or cleaver. It then needs to be cupped, welded up, balanced and thinned. Speak to the top pilots and gather all the information before buying a prop, as this part of your rig is very technical.

Boat setup

As previously mentioned, the weight, prop and setup are crucial for success. Top teams win because of their knowledge of their equipment, conditions and understanding between the pilot and co-pilot. The motor can shift up and down the transom. The higher you go, the more speed you gain, but the boat becomes unstable and the prop may slip. The lower you drop the motor, the more stable the craft becomes, giving you more drive but lower top-end speed. In rough conditions teams tend to drop the motor to provide stability and constant drive from the low pitch prop. In flat water or very flat sea conditions the motor gets jacked up for more revs and speed.

Trim of the boat determines the angle of attack. This happens when you place spacers between the motor bracket and transom. At the top, the boat will be more negative and stable. This setting is usually when you race head-on into the wind. Spacing at the bottom will render the boat more positive and “flighty”.

Experience is key

Like every sport, you need to train and practice hard. The more hours you spend on the water, the better you can get your setup, you’ll get more experience for water conditions, and your team will become a well-oiled machine. Make sure you get out there! Spend time adjusting the motor to find a standard setup for your boat. According to the conditions of the day, adjust your setup to be more positive (flat conditions) or negative (rough conditions).

Inflatable boat racing is some of the best fun one can have but beware, it is gruelling. You’ll have to give it a try to find out whether it’s for you; who knows, you might develop a taste for the adrenalin and excitement and it might end up becoming your new passion in life!

For more info, contact Steyn Basson on 084 556 4498. For quality second-hand rigs and advice, give Peter Groenenstein a call on 079 184 8513. It’s worthwhile noting that he won the Standard Novice class at the Trans Agulhas 2012/13. SAIBA (South African Inflatable Boating Association) is the governing body of the sport. The committee can be viewed on the website: or you can call (021) 511 2133.


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