Inflatable Sailboat History: When Were They Invented & How Have They Changed?

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Inflatable Sailboat History: When Were They Invented & How Have They Changed?

Today’s inflatable sailboat is regarded as the most versatile and accessible way to get sailing - regardless of where you live or the space you have. But, it wasn’t always this way - in fact, the earliest inflatable boats were comprised of animal skins that had to be constantly re-inflated. So how did we get here? You’re about to find out!

Below, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history of the inflatable sailboat. You’ll learn where it was born and how it has transformed over the years. Certain manufacturers like Grabner played a key role in pushing the boundaries of what was originally thought to be possible - and you’ll learn all about this evolution. We’ll also give you our opinion on where we think the future of inflatable sailboats will take us. Let’s dive in!

The History of the Inflatable Sailboat

Before we get into the inflatable boat history, we want to set the stage for this conversation by highlighting a few problems with traditional sailboats. After all, every new idea is born from an issue or shortcoming with existing solutions - and inflatable sailboats are no different. Here’s what spawned the need for inflatables on the market.

The Problem With Traditional Sailboats

Traditional sailboats are expensive - and this has always been the case. The process of manufacturing these boats is one thing, but then you have to deal with shipping them - which is where a lot of the extra cost comes from. 

And once you have the sailboat, the expenses are far from over. You also need to consider how you’re going to transport the boat to and from the water or pay for marina storage and boat slips. And don’t even get us started on the cost of maintaining a fiberglass or other hardshell sailboat. 

All of these costs add up - and this isn’t the only reason the demand for an inflatable alternative was born. Traditional sailboats are great for experienced sailors - and that’s really it. There was a need for something more versatile. We’ll explain how inflatable sailboats solve all these challenges and many others later on. But now, let’s start our lesson on the history of inflatable sailboats.

When Was the Inflatable Boat Invented & Who Came Up With it?

The earliest inflatable boats are traced back to the BC era, when animal skins were stitched together and constantly inflated by mouth. The goal at this point in time was simple - just to cross rivers or lakes. But today, we’re going to talk about inflatable sailboats specifically.

And for that, we need to go back nearly 50 years. During the war, SEMPERIT produced rubber boats for use in the war. When the war ended, the focus turned to pleasure boats for consumers - and this was when the first inflatable sailing catamaran was developed. In 1962, the SEMPERIT Kat 360 was born. It quickly gained popularity in Europe, being sold to Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and eventually, the USA. 

In the 70s, the next SEMPERIT iteration - the Kat 416 - crossed the English channel. This was a key moment in proving that inflatables could perform as well - if not better than - their hardshell counterparts. Today, you’ll find SEMPERIT boats still in use - some of which are more than 40 years old and still maintain their quality. But, you won’t find new SEMPERIT boats on the market anymore. We now need to introduce another key player that is carrying the torch.

In 1975, Grabner was born. Today, this company is recognized as a key player in the inflatable boat world. But that’s not how things started. At first, this Austrian company specialized in the production of life jackets. By 1980, Grabner had nearly 100 employees and focused mainly on the surfing industry. However, that industry began to collapse - and it was around this time that Grabner purchased the SEMPERIT boat factory in Kirchberg (Upper Austria). 

After a year or so of intensive product development, Grabner’s first-ever inflatable boat collection was presented. Within 2 short years, the production needs had doubled - and it was around this time that advancements in design, materials, and technology began to take place.

Advancements in Design, Materials, & Technology

When Grabner purchased the METZELER production plant, they became the only manufacturer of hot vulcanized quality boats in Europe. And in 1999, another key advancement was made. A twin steering rudder was constructed for these boats and the tubes were elongated.

It was also around this time that we saw a shift in the aesthetic design of these boats. Early on, the sails were white. But eventually, vibrant and colorful designs became the accepted.

One reason Grabner is still here today as one of the premier inflatable boat manufacturers is the company’s commitment to listening to customers and continuing to improve their products. In a very short time span, many new options and features were added to these boats. However, this increased the weight of the boat to over 200 pounds. Along with this increase in weight came an increase in price. 

In 2005, Grabner worked to address this issue by replacing a rigid hardwood surface and plywood seats with dual aluminum. There were also special profiles developed for the frame, mast, and boom at this point too. The weight was reduced - and the boat was stronger. But perhaps more importantly, single parts were reduced - contributing to easier and quicker setup.

In 2009, the Happy Cat Racing catamaran was born. Grabner was on a mission to push the limits of what was possible in an inflatable sailing catamaran. And through advancements, it was around this time that Grabner sailboats came to be known as a formidable alternative to heavier, more expensive sailing catamarans. One of these advancements was the V-shaped, 3d tubes - these cut the water much better. And, Grabner began offering laminate sails for the highest sailing performance possible. 

In 2011, the Happy Cat Vision was born. And this boat was regarded as the first inflatable sailing catamaran that had everything discerning sailing enthusiasts expect from a catamaran for easy and convenient travel.

In fact, two Italian sailors put this vessel to the test. They boarded their Happy Cat Vision and crossed from Genoa to Tunis with just a bit of packaged food and water. Their record-breaking trip spanned more than 700 kilometers miles and took 8 days and nights. And when it came time to pack the boat up in an airplane, it became evident that the small packing size of this boat was yet another advantage. And what’s more, it became evident that this inflatable boat could contend with traditional catamarans.

Just a year later in 2012, the lightest inflatable catamaran to date was released - the Grabner Happy Cat Ultralight. It weighed right around 100 lbs. In 2015, The Happy Cat Evolution was born - and was built for optimal performance. 

Where Inflatable Sailboats Sit Today

Today, Grabner continues to improve upon their designs. They don’t just create inflatable sailboats - they’re known as the manufacturer of the best inflatable canoes as well. Over the past 50 years of creating inflatable catamarans, the brand has cooperated with experienced sailing experts and sail designers to ensure you - the customer - have the best available technology on the water.

And while most of today’s inflatable sailboat history lesson has been focused on Grabner, they aren’t the only key player responsible for getting inflatable sailing catamarans to where they sit today. Tiwal is another world-renowned manufacturer that created its first inflatable dinghy in 2012 - and this company still holds a piece of the market share today. DinghyGo is another brand that was born in the last decade after Grabner paved the way. 

In the present day, inflatable catamarans are the premier choice for sailing enthusiasts of all walks of life: whether you’re young or old, learning how to sail an inflatable catamaran for the first time, or a seasoned sailor. The fact of the matter is these boats are a superior choice to their traditional sailing catamaran counterparts. Why? 

  • They’re more affordable to purchase, ship, and store. This is due to the lightweight nature of these boats and the cheaper materials used. And you can store your boat under your bed, in a closet, you name it.
  • Inflatable boat maintenance is far cheaper and less time-consuming (and these boats are stronger and longer lasting, too).
  • They are more versatile and capable of being used on many types of water and in different ways. From small ponds and lakes to coastal sailing. You can even go sailing with a dog, the family, or solo - nothing is off-limits! 
  • They offer incredible sailing performance - with certain models keeping up with their traditional catamaran alternatives. 

Learn more about the comparison between inflatable vs traditional sailing catamarans in our blog. For now, let’s bring this conversation to a close by discussing the future of inflatable sailboats.

What Does the Future Hold for Inflatable Sailboats?

In looking ahead to the future, we expect inflatable sailboats to become more popular. More and more people are discovering how accessible sailing can be with these boats. Whether you live in a rural area or the city, you can own an inflatable boat. And as more individuals become aware of that fact, we expect popularity to rise. 

We also anticipate inflatable boats becoming better and better. Just look at how far they’ve come in the last 50 years. As companies develop and experiment with new materials, designs, and features, stronger and better-performing boats will be released. It’s exciting to think about what inflatable sailboats will look like 50 years from now!

Wrapping Up Our Inflatable Sailboat History Lesson

There you have it - our detailed overview of the history of inflatable sailboats. As you can see, these catamarans have come a long way over the last 50 years and counting. And we suspect this evolution will only continue in the road ahead as materials and designs get better and better. 

At this point, you’re probably eager to experience the wonders of inflatable catamarans firsthand. And for that, you can rely on our sailboat buying guide. There, you’ll gain insights into which type of inflatable catamaran is right for you. Once you’ve got an idea of which you should go with, head over to our site and find the perfect inflatable sailboat for sale. We carry all the top brands - including Grabner boats, but also Astus Boats, XCAT catamarans, Mini Cat Boats, and a whole lot more. 

And because we’re passionate about helping you experience sailing as much as we do, you can always count on us for a personalized recommendation. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

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