One is the loneliest number.
Well, unless you’re skipping across the wakes solo on an inflatable tow toy, then let’s face it: One might be lonely, but it’s still pretty darn fun. But as any kid who has ever invited a friend along for the ride knows, two can be double the fun. And three? Judging by the teen trio riding a collection of tubes in this year’s annual inflatable roundup, the equation turns exponential. That’s probably the reason inflatable manufacturers keep producing bigger and bolder rides. In terms of rider capacity, fun factor is far from finite.
To prove it, we assembled a quiver of truly unique three-passenger inflatables from brands HO, Radar, O’Brien and WOW. One offered arguably the best bang for the buck, one was laid-back until it wasn’t, one was some kind of rocking inflatable cage match, and one was, well, a magical unicorn. Behind an equally unique tow vehicle—Sea-Doo’s new Switch pontoon—all provided near-endless fun in our idyllic yet rough tropical setting. They all proved durable and well-made, with heavy-duty PVC air bladders protected by durable nylon covers that easily handled the occasional scrape across the beach or bump into the boat without any fear of a rip or puncture.
While we pushed each tube to its passenger capacity, all offered great fun with just one or two riders. Three might be a triple threat, but our test crew will attest that things can get tight at times for full-grown teens and adults. A rider on the outside of a tube flew off and into the water more than once.
But hey, it’s tubing. That’s all part of the fun.
HO Sports Unicorn
HO bills the Unicorn as having a “kid-friendly animal design,” and the description is right on target. The Unicorn quickly caught the attention of some youngsters set up near our photo shoot, as well as adults who just couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of riding a brightly colored unicorn across the water.
That unicorn’s head and tail add another dimension to what otherwise would essentially be a 64-by-75-inch D-shaped, deck-style tube. Namely, while outer passengers will assume the typical prone position, a central passenger can sit upright using the inflated tail as a supportive backrest, grabbing the reins—a pair of padded handles astride the head—to keep atop the little critter while underway. Like any deck-style tube, the Unicorn can trot happily in the wake during straight passes, but crank an S-turn (or three) and it can’t help but gallop outside the wake with ease.
The main deck fills via a Boston-style valve. The head, tail, and a pair of wedge-shaped bolsters designed to keep riders’ legs from slipping off fill separately via traditional pool-float valves. A pair of padded grab handles with EVA knuckle guards are placed in front of each prone passenger. But while the Unicorn’s added side bolsters work when riding in relatively calm conditions, the outside rider occasionally didn’t find them enough to keep from being bucked off once the Unicorn really starts sliding. Clearly, the magical Unicorn has got some spunk.
If you’re looking for the best bang for the buck, a strong argument could be made for a basic, deck-style inflatable like Radar’s Orion 3. An oversize version of Radar’s popular two-passenger model built to satisfy consumer demand, it doesn’t offer a cushy backrest, cute animal character, or any real bells and whistles. The Orion is just a classic 75-inch round inflatable with room for up to three riders lying side by side in a prone position and six padded grab handles arrayed across its front. Radar’s Marshmallow Soft Top, a comfy neoprene material, covers the upper side of the tube and all but eliminates riders’ elbows and knees chafing against the surface when bouncing along behind the boat. The convex shape of the aptly named Spoon-O-Vation bottom reduces drag. It also allows the tube to have a clean connection with the wake, grab air in the right conditions, and carry a lot of speed out into the flats.
While the Orion is certainly capable of a relaxing ride, the listed features mean this inflatable practically begs to slingshot (responsibly) across the wakes. It’s one of the best sliders in the bunch and can be subtly influenced with body language. The only real downside is that the completely bolster-free deck surface offers little to keep the outside passenger in place when the Radar accelerates outside the wake.
With its single bladder, the Orion 3 was the simplest and quickest tube to fill, a bonus if you’re attempting to inflate it on board the boat or at the launch ramp. It’s two-piece Boston valve is simple to use, but don’t lose it.
This year’s entry from WOW was surprisingly subtle in appearance. OK, who are we kidding? This is WOW we’re talking about. You can’t miss the Joker, with its bright contrasting colors and acid-trip graphics. However, it’s not a case of a graphic designer run amok. On increasingly crowded waterways, the Joker is easy to spot from a distance and stands out in high contrast from the background.
The Joker featured the most interesting design of this year’s foursome. The bottom curves with considerable rocker for minimal drag and a rocking ride from side to side. Up top, a pair of arches run front to back connected by twin crossbars. WOW calls it the Power Tower. We call it a feature that gives the Joker plenty of options. With EVA foam deck pads on the main deck and grab handles at the ready both high and low, passengers can lie across the bottom or sit, kneel or stand. With the rock-and-roll bottom profile and raised tower, standing riders have great leverage over the tube as it skids back and forth across the wakes. Riders’ only real concern was possibly briefly tangling in the Power Tower should the tube flip, but it remained stable even in the rough waters we encountered.
Inflated, the Joker stretches the tape at 79-by-74-by-53 inches. WOW’s two-part speed valves offered easy inflation and deflation, but the Joker proved the longest to fill and empty due to the multiple bladders required by the rockered bottom and Power Tower. Tip: If you notice that a tower bladder is twisted, save yourself a headache and access it via the cover’s zippers to straighten before you fully inflate it.
O’Brien Baller 3
With its couchlike design, the Baller 3 was tempting to chill on even before leaving the beach. Its 70-by-78-inch D-shaped bottom offers plenty of room to stretch the legs, and a plush backrest offers comfy support. Underway, however, this big comfy couch loves to rocket across the wake and into the flats. As it does, riders will appreciate that the backrest wraps around to the sides and keeps them from a premature slip into the drink.
The Baller features two unique tow points, one to tow the tube like a couch, and one that turns riders into a waterlogged Ben-Hur championing a chariot. Our three-person test crew noted how that split personality added to the fun, and it gave differing body parts a break in our wind-chopped test conditions. In both positions, O’Brien’s Softec nylon offers a softer feel than a traditional cover, eliminating chafe with a stitch-free finish topside and without added neoprene pads or EVA knuckle guards. The grab handles in the chariot position, however, could use additional padding. More than one test rider longed for a more comfortable grip after extended bouncy rides across the waves.
Like almost all O’Brien tubes that have debuted of late, the Baller features the brand’s proprietary Lightning valve, a wide-mouth design with a clever internal flap without loose parts that both fills and empties the internal bladders with—you guessed it—lightning speed. When packing the tube away, just push in the flap and the air gushes out of the bladder.
Driving Do’s and Don’ts
Always use a dedicated spotter. Establish basic hand signals between riders and the spotter—faster, slower, stop—before leaving the dock.
Stay a considerable distance from objects like docks, pilings, bouys and other boats. Keep in mind that a tube can travel well outside your wake. As the driver, it’s your job to keep riders safe. Watch your speed. A mere 8 -mph is often enough for kids. For adults, 15 to 18 mph should be your target.
Recklessly powering into a turn can accelerate an inflatable to dangerous speeds and increase the chance of injury. A gentle series of S-turns is typically all you need to send a tube back and forth across the wakes and out into the flats.