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2007 cataraft shootout

by mania

Welcome to the Whitewater Addiction 2007 kayak cat boat shootout! Our contenders include AIRE, Hyside, Jack's Plastic, Maravia, NRS and SOTAR. We give you the skinny (and the fat) on these fine boats to help you make the right choice before you spend your kids college fund.

If you aren't already a cat boater you probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Catarafts were popularized by the Russians who used them as paddle boats to do all sorts of crazy stuff. One of the big advantages is there is no floor to get sucked on by holes or pushed over by big waves. This doesn't mean they won't flip but you have to try harder.


There are several considerations when building a cataraft. I say building because most people don't try riding the tubes Slim Pickens style. You're gonna have to think about a frame unless you are getting a Culebra or Shredder. The first thing you should think about is use, in other words, what type of water will you mainly be boating? Besides this you will have to think about length, tube diameter, rocker, capacity, weight, material and price. Let's take a closer look!

thumbnail of SOTAR

Frames and Oars

Frames are almost always steel or aluminum. Aluminum doesn't rust and is generally lighter, but usually costs more. Steel can be bent and twisted almost any which way for a nice custom frame. Consider a breakdown frame if you ever want to fly or pack in somewhere.

Most cats have to be rowed so you will need to decide on the type of oar system (open or pins) plus you will endlessly fiddle with the correct spacing and height of your oars to your seat. This is quite a religious debate but I know plenty of excellent oarsmen on both sides, so don't stress about it too much. Personally I like to be able to twist the blade as I am making a stroke, so I use open.


Will you be the lone gear/beer boat for a Grand Canyon voyage with 12 kayakers or will you be 'gettin busy' on the North Fork of the Payette? This makes a pretty big difference in the type of cat you will want. Smaller cats are going to be better for creeks and technical whitewater while the bigger ones will make nice big water boats. It only makes sense, however, let me make one thing absolutely clear (repeat after me): CATS ARE NO GOOD FOR CARRYING MORE THAN A FEW PEOPLE! Think of a motorcycle, no matter how big it is its best with only one person - that's the way a cat is. If you want to carry people get a raft, that's what they are for.

Length, Diameter and Rocker

The length and diameter of your cat tubes are important for several reasons including carrying capacity, hole punching ability and maneuverability. The longer your tubes are the more you should be able to punch big holes, but you will sacrifice maneuverability. Let me be honest and say I can't imagine ever wanting an 18' cat for anything except the Futaleufu.

Tube diameter is a closely related parameter. Increasing the diameter increases the carrying capacity or float. You will also need longer oars since you will be higher up.

Rocker is the amount of curve in the bottom of your tube which can help with turning but may not track as well. More rocker can also help you out if you like to surf.


This is going to be determined by the length and diameter of your tubes as well as what kind of frame you have. Some people build floors for their cat frames to carry more. To me this kind of defeats the purpose of a cat but to each his own.

Lets talk about passengers. Remember cats don't make good passenger boats because there is generally no where for them to sit unless you add a seat for them. Seats are heavy and asses are even heavier. Some oarsmen put the passengers in front so they can help paddle. Some put them in the back so they don't get in the way. The bottom line is you want the center of mass to be near the center of the boat, somewhere between the rower and the oars. This helps with stability and makes turning easier. Remember each passenger is equivalent in weight to ten cases of beer, and they bitch a lot more, so if I take them at all I like to put them up front and put them to work. Another trick is to put your water jugs right under the oar towers, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to turn your boat.


Many people believe bigger is better and hardly give tube weight a second thought, after all they are carrying two passengers AND ten cases of beer. As a class V boater I absolutely consider every piece of gear and how much it weighs. When it comes time to portage or pull off that must make ferry, you will thank yourself for shaving pounds. If you are really clever you might find a way to fly a small cat as carry-on luggage. Each piece must be less than 50 lbs and within certain dimensions so good luck.


The two main types of cataraft materials are hypalon and some type of poly-vynal-nylon with or without a protective coating such as urethane (the stuff they make condoms out of). Hypalon is generally considered the longest lasting but will weigh more and not pump up as stiff as the plastic boats. The plastic boats are lighter and stiffer but might not wear as well. A urethane coating can add to the durability but also weight and cost.


If the sky is the limit for you, you can get almost anything you want such as a multi-colored boat from Maravia. You can save a lot by being less picky and getting a tan boat from SOTAR, for example. If you really want to save some bucks look for a used rig, you might even get a frame and oars with it.

The Contenders


thumbnail of AIRE Ocelot

First up is AIRE because they begin with an A. AIRE boats are a PVC shell with zipper over an air-tight Urethane bladder. This makes them fairly indestructible and they say, easy to repair. I have never had to repair one in two years of commercial use so I guess that's a good thing. The bladder system does add to the weight, so as long as you have a nice boat ramp its no problem.

AIRE lengths and diameters are fairly standard and they have a bigger diameter option with the Lion model. This seems to be the trend as people do not listen to me and keep trying to carry more beer and people on cats. The Ocelot and Jaguarundi deisngs have been slightly tweeked for 07, with a half inch more diameter and more volume in the tube ends (to supposedly ride up and over waved better). Word on the street is AIRE has some new prototype cats being tested by some lucky Idahoans.

Airtight Inflatables

Airtight is the maker of the famous Shredder all inflatable cataraft. Very popular back east for R2ing rivers like the Gauley. These cats are made of Hypalon and can be a bit 'floppy' but seem to perform well. I did see an R4 model on the Gauley but could not find specs on it. Sorry.

If you thought the Sotar website was bad wait til you see this one.


Next up is Hyside with several hypalon models and a terrible naming system. I am also not sure why their tube diameters jump around as you increase in length. One would think they would steadily increase? Anyway I have fond memories of rowing a Hyside cat down the Royal Gorge and not being able to flip it when I was learning that run.

Hyside recently added a urethane coating to the bottom of all their cats, to make it 'slicker'. If you are a hypalon elitist then this might be the brand for you!

Jack's Plastic

thumbnail of JPW Culebra

Jack's boats are very popular around here in the Southwest and I have personally owned two models and tried out the Culebra frameless cat on more than one occasion (thanks Jack). These boats perform very well and have been tested on such difficult runs as the Upper Animas. Jack uses an extra layer of PVC to protect the bottom of the boat rather than any kind of coating. This did not always help as I had sometimes developed pinhole leaks and rips even through the extra layer.

The frameless Culebra and Culebra Grande remove the hassles of the frame and oars while retaining the advantages of catarafts. Jeff Hammond and I took one down the class V Upper Taos Box and we can say with confidence that its a great idea. They are starting to catch on out East as a stiffer replacement for Shredders.


Ahhh the Cadillac of the inflatable world. These babies are costly and very close to being indestructible, due to an outer coating of urethane over what they call thier class VI fabric. My 14x22 never had one leak, but took extra effort to roll up tight.

Maravia has a boring but easy naming system and tubes come in the expected sizes. If money is no object get these, you won't be disappointed.


thumbnail of NRS Kodiak

NRS believes that bigger is better if their boat specs say anything about them. The Kodiak model is absolutely huge and should be able to carry a hot tub along with 6 passengers and 14 cases of beer. They used to have a smaller model called the surf cat which was my very first cataraft, but these have been discontinued. The tubes are Hypalon and have a plastic cone on the end for extra protection should you poke something with it, such as a kayaker begging for one of you beers. If you like hypalon and carrying fire pans, dutch ovens and groovers, these boats are an excellent choice.

NRS tells me they are working on a cat made out of the Nylon used in their lightweight Bandit kayaks - shaweet! I don't know yet what sizes but hopefully this will fill in some of the lighter/smaller gaps in their lineup.


SOTAR materials use a fabric they call Lexatron which is a polyurethane nylon. From what I know the boats are very durable and light weight with good prices. SOTAR offers four versions of their cats, SF fish cats, ST (standard), SP (tan), and SL (asymmetrical). The tan is cheaper because I think they get a deal on it. Beggers can't be choosers.

One very cool thing about SOTAR is they will design a boat to your specs. Also they now have the lightest cats for the size ever since Wing Inflatables moved on to more lucrative things. If you like your boats stiff and light you should try one. I would love to own one but I don't get my special discount on them.


Yes Virginia there is a whitewater santa. AIRE is now adding 14 and 16 foot catarats to the Tributary series (read cheap). I have not tried the tributary rafts but I have my suspicions about durability and performance on harder whitewater. If you are looking for a bargain cat you should definitely condider these babys.

The Specs

AIRE Wildcat 13' 20" 59 lbs PVC/U 750 lbs $1545
Ocelot 14' 22.5" 71 lbs PVC/U 980 lbs $1745
Jaguarundi 16' 24.5" 84 lbs PVC/U 1534 lbs $1999
Leopard 18' 26" 105 lbs PVC/U 2073 lbs $2199
Lion 14 14' 25" 89 lbs PVC/U 1200 lbs $1999
Lion 16 16' 27" 96 lbs PVC/U 1800 lbs $2199
Airtight Inflatables Shredder 12'2" 20" 35 lbs Hyp 2 peeps $1600
Hyside 144 CATU 12'6" 19" 55 lbs Hyp NA $1766
156 CATU 13' 24" 64 lbs Hyp NA $1983
166 CATU 14' 21" 57 lbs Hyp NA $2025
196 CATU 16' 24" 73 lbs Hyp NA $2329
216 CATU 18' 24" 109 lbs Hyp NA $2885
Jacks Plastic Culebra (Frameless) 11' 19" 45 lbs PVC 2 peeps $1481
Culebra Grande (Frameless) 14.5' 22" 80 lbs PVC 5 peeps $2582
Flyer Cat 14' 19" 41 lbs PVC 3 peeps $1436
Big Brother 14'6" 25" 61 lbs PVC 4 peeps $2201
Daddy 16'6" 25" 68 lbs PVC 5 peeps $2315
Daddy 28 17' 28" 75 lbs PVC 6 peeps $2442
Grand Daddy 19' 25" 85 lbs PVC 6 peeps $2427
El Tigre 17' 28" 90 lbs PVC 7 peeps $2594
Maravia 12x20 12' 20" 50 lbs Poly/U 2 peeps $1932
14x22 14' 22" 60 lbs Poly/U 3 peeps $2127
14x24 14' 24" 70 lbs Poly/U 3 peeps $2192
16x24 16' 24" 84 lbs Poly/U 4 peeps $2431
18x24 18' 24" 98 lbs Poly/U 4 peeps $2861
NRS River Cat 14 14' 25" 79 lbs Hyp 3-4 peeps $1875
River Cat 16 16' 25" 89 lbs Hyp 3-4 peeps $2150
Kodiak Cat 16 16' 27" 105 lbs Hyp 3-4 peeps $2535
Kodiak Cat 18 18' 27" 130 lbs Hyp 4-5 peeps $2860
SOTAR SFC 11 11' 20" 40 lbs Nylon/U 1 peep $900
SFC 13 13' 20" 45 lbs Nylon/U 2 peeps $1100
SPC 13 13' 21" 52 lbs Nylon/U 3 peeps $1575
SPC 14 14' 23" 64 lbs Nylon/U 4 peeps $1759
SPC 16 16' 24" 79 lbs Nylon/U 4 peeps $1919
SPC 18 18' 25" 105 lbs Nylon/U 5 peeps $2239
STC 13 13' 21" 52 lbs Poly/U 3 peeps $2048
STC 14 14' 23" 64 lbs Poly/U 4 peeps $2286
STC 16 16' 24" 79 lbs Poly/U 4 peeps $2494
STC 18 18' 25" 105 lbs Poly/U 5 peeps $2911
SLC 13 13' 22" 47 lbs Poly/U 1 peeps $2246
SLC 14 14' 24" 58 lbs Poly/U 2 peeps $2494
SLC 16 16' 25" 70 lbs Poly/U 3 peeps $2703
SLC 18 18' 26" 86 lbs Poly/U 3 peeps $3152
Tributary 1422 14' 22" 70 lbs PVC 980 lbs $1299
1624 16' 24" 76 lbs PVC 1534 lbs $1599


Okay you are now a catarafter so go get you some whitewater! I hope this article has been useful so remember to buy some books and videos. Later!