AIR CHAMBERS & VALVES
The original “donut dinghies” had one air chamber. They were round because they were simply truck tire inner tubes with covers. Tire tubes are made of heavy black rubber. That rubber is bulky and heavy but more resistant to minor punctures from stickers and fin spines than thin vinyl or urethane bladders.
Today’s flotation craft come in a variety of shapes and offer a number of different types of air chambers and valve options. Some float tubes still have only one air chamber even if they are one of the open front models. Others feature two or even three air chambers. There are arguments both for and against multiple air chambers. Obviously, it is more bothersome having to maintain air pressure in more than one air chamber. However, having more
than one provides an extra measure of safety in the event of a leaky valve or a puncture. It is better to limp back to shore, sagging on one side, than to sink your whole rig. The air bladders in today’s tubes and toons can be made from several different materials. The old black butyl rubber is rare even in the round tubes currently available. Most will be either vinyl or urethane. Urethane is more expensive but it is also tougher and less prone to either pinhole leaks or seam failure.
Some modern craft feature heavy gauge PVC air chambers that are very tough. Others have self-sealing air chambers that will withstand incredible abuse…either from fish or from the environment. If you are a river runner, or plan to launch and beach through heavy water or snaggy shoreline, you should look for tougher covers and air chambers. As with air chambers, there are a lot of different types of air valves. The type and size of the valves on your system can make a big difference in maintenance, efficiency and in your own sanity.
Truck tire inner tubes have a standard tire valve. Most people are familiar with them but they are becoming increasingly rare. They require a compressor or tire pump to fill and standard tube patching kit for repairs. All that stuff is almost obsolete. Modern air chambers of vinyl and urethane have a number of different air valve options. Some can be inflated with lungpower. Others require special pumps, connections and fittings. Be
sure you acquire the necessary means of inflating your new craft and practice doing so before you hit the water for the first time. Most toons and tubes can be quickly inflated with one of the two-way hand pumps available
in sports outlets or wherever floatation craft are sold. These usually come with several different connectors to accommodate the standard size valve openings. However, some tubes or toons have unique designs that require special adaptors. If you buy such a craft the adaptors are usually provided but it is not a bad idea to purchase an extra and keep it where it is easily available (and remembered). It is also a good idea to buy a repair kit with any special tools necessary for removing valves and air chambers for repairs. See the chapter on Care, Repairs & Modifications for the various maintenance items in your floatation system.
Much of the previous discussion, regarding covers and seams, is applicable to air chambers as well. Maintaining proper inflation levels and avoiding excess air pressure will go a long way towards preventing leaks or seam splits on your air bladders. Air bladders have many enemies. Hooks, knife points, fish teeth and spines, gaffs and other pointy things can all put holes in your craft. Depending on how large those holes are you may be
able to safely return to shore before sinking…or there may be a sudden whoosh of air through a large slit or split. That can ruin your whole day and you might have to walk back to shore. (joke) It should not be necessary to advise against carrying uncovered hooks and lures in your tackle pockets. Keep them in fastened lure boxes. Even carrying your pointy things in plastic bags is better than having them loose but a hard container is better.
Ditto for knives. Never leave an opened pocketknife or an unsheathed blade loose in your pockets. They can cause damage both to you and your craft. Better to keep knives outside the pockets, attached to a vest or belt and securely sheathed. Some tubers and tooners set up tool racks on their craft and keep knives sheathed in one of the slots.
Floatation fishermen who pursue spiny-rayed fishes…like bass, crappies, sunfish, catfish, etc….put their craft at risk for incidental punctures. Many of us have had to make unscheduled trips back to the beach after an air chamber had a deflating encounter with a fish spine. Small spiny sunfish seem to have an unerring ability to flip off a hook and to position themselves spines-down before they bounce off the top of your craft. If you fish for these stickery little tykes from your tube or toon you will almost certainly have cause to curse them. Tiny pinhole leaks caused by small fish spines often will not be noticed until sometime later, when you suddenly realize that the cover on your craft is wrinkled and that you are sitting lower in the water. Then you remember the bluegill that bounced off the front of your craft and the silent prayer you said about not getting a hole in it. Your next words might not be so prayerful. The spines of flopping catfish or other larger species can create more serious holes in your air chambers. If you can actually hear the loss of air or see a big trail of bubbles escaping from
your craft you need to kick up a roostertail and beat a hasty retreat toward shore. There is a saying that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That is really true in keeping fish from poking holes in your tube or toon. Your craft will stay afloat longer if you control fish with teeth or spines to keep them away. That means playing them out and then scooping them in a net or grabbing them with a pair of fish grippers. If you bring them aboard set them only on your apron or your lap and don’t let them flop against an air chamber even while wrapped in your net.
Better quality tubes and toons have lots of tough PVC on at least part of their covers. This stuff is great for reducing harmful encounters with pointy parts of fishes or fishing tackle. If your craft does not have this extra measure of protection on the front portion of the air chambers you can add protective “aprons”. On my older model round tubes I simply draped a piece of fitted Naugahyde over the front part of the tube. I know it saved my craft from lots of little holes because I bounced a lot of fish off it. You can also insert pieces of protective material between the air chamber walls and the inside of the cover. Use tough puncture-resistant stuff like PVC, Naugahyde or even a piece of cutup inner tube rubber. It does not have to be perfectly cut and fitted but should cover the most vulnerable areas without wrinkling. That can cause a wear spot on the bladder. Protective aprons can prevent having to end a trip too early on account of air loss.
There are other ways your inflated craft can sustain punctures too. If you plop your ride down on the ground, either in a parking lot or at the water’s edge, you risk punctures from unseen stickers, bits of glass, nails, fishhooks or other pointed objects. PVC coatings on the bottom of your craft might help avoid minor stickers but will not prevent cuts from sharp bits of glass or metal. No matter what kind of covering you have it pays to be careful when setting your craft down. It’s a good idea to have a “drop cloth” or “tarp” upon which to set your tube or toon while getting set up to launch or to leave. Whenever you will be placing your craft on the ground take a quick look around the area where you will be placing it. If you see a lot of pointed stuff find another spot. If you need to transport your craft some distance from your vehicle to the water do not drag it over the ground. Even if your cover is well made, with thick PVC undercoating, dragging it over rough dry surfaces will wear through the cover over time.
You can simply carry most float tubes either balanced on your head or with pack straps. Pontoons are bigger and heavier. If you are with a fishing buddy you can help each other get your toon to the water without having to drag it. If you are alone, and if your craft is too large and/or heavy to carry, you should use wheels to get it to the water without dragging. There are several commercially made wheels for pontoons on the market but you can make your own with a bit of basic mechanical ability and the right materials. See the chapter on Transportation & Storage.