Born from the simple premise that there is nothing quite as much fun as messing around in small boats, Auckland entrepreneur Greg Sowden appears to be gaining traction with his innovative inflatable catamaran, the Takacat.
The concept has had many guises over the years but Sowden’s determination and persistence to refine the concept to cater for a wide range of applications is beginning to pay dividends.
His foray into inflatable boats began like many other Kiwi enterprises — in the backyard of his North Shore home. With little more than a concept, Sowden knocked together a 3m inflatable catamaran with the essential Takacat ingredients: two inflatable hulls joined together with a solid fibreglass floor and raised bow.
“It was as heavy as hell,” says Sowden, “and a far cry from the practical, stylish inflatable I’d pictured. But it was innovative and it performed much as I thought it would, providing excellent stability and an exhilarating, fun ride.”
Sowden’s next move was to find a local manufacturer to design and build a production mould for the hull and strip-out weight through better composite engineering.
“There was no shortage of manufacturers capable of doing the job but the costs were prohibitive,” admits Sowden. “I would have gone broke before I’d even started. It was back to the drawing board.”
Driven by his own conviction and a determination to prove the Takacat, Sowden took his concept to China, where, he says, inflatable boat manufacturers were far more realistic in their expectations and better geared to accommodate his design ideas.
“My biggest concern was protecting my intellectual property but this was a waste of energy,” Sowden continued. “If they wanted to knock off my designs they would and there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do about it.”
He says his first production cat was a crossover between the Freedom and Explorer, which form two of Takacat’s three-model range that have evolved since.
“I initially brought two boats back from China to gauge interest in the concept,” said Sowden. “These were quite similar to the racing Thundercat and performed well, but the consensus was that they were overbuilt and too heavy for the tender market.”
Design and engineering changes delivered the weight-savings Sowden was seeking, and in 2007 he took the plunge and established Air Yachts Ltd and imported his first run of the flagship Freedom range.
The Takacat Freedom series incorporates Sowden’s unique ballast system, designed to improve the cat’s stability when at rest by flooding waterline chambers glued to the underside of the inflatable pontoons.
The idea, he says, is that the chambers fill when the cat is at rest and drain again once it is moving. This creates enough stability to allow passengers to move around the boat without any fear of capsize.
“The Freedom has been designed as a general-purpose boat to meet a wide range of activities including fishing, diving and water sports,” Sowden explained. “To meet these needs it has to be stable. The flooding chambers achieve this yet add no additional weight. They also reduce the cat’s leeway or drift when stationary.”
The Takacat Freedom, available in 3.9m, 4.2m, 4.5m and 4.8m options, also features what Sowden describes as a secondary wave-piercing inflatable under-tube attached to the main pontoons.
These 150mm diameter tubes promote better hydrodynamic lift for easier planning and less wetted surface area when the cat is planing. It also reduces the boat’s wake considerably.
“Rather than pushing through water, the cat slices through it and is effectively supported on a cushion of air trapped under the fibreglass floor,” Sowden says. “This makes for a very soft ride and excellent directional stability even in difficult conditions. The secondary pontoons also provide an element of sacrificial protection for the main D-tubes, though this is not their intended purpose.”
The Freedom and Explorer ranges are similar in most respects and built on Takacat’s solid fibreglass floor, transom and raised bow sections, featuring an inbuilt fibreglass anchor locker.
The fibreglass hull creates the strength and rigidity to support the large 550mm twin inflatable tubes and delivers all the attributes of a conventional rigid inflatable boat with all-round better stability.
Sowden initially offered Explorer series Takacats with removable floorboards to reduce weight and better promote their use as a tender, but says this was false economy because of the additional stresses placed on the floor fabric when removing and replacing floorboards.
“Wear and tear aside, the weight loss was minimal and we’ve found that owners generally won’t roll their tenders up unless there is no other way of carrying their inflatable on deck,” said Sowden.
“The Explorer range was never envisaged as a tender for small boats. We’ve recently released the Takacat Lite expressly as a tender for smaller vessels. These have inflatable floors and roll-up quickly and easily,” he adds.
Sowden says the key remaining difference between the Freedom and Explorer models is the secondary underwater pontoon: “The Explorer is more conventional in that it has a standard pontoon, which makes it more suitable for beach launching and shallow-water applications because of its reduced draft.”
Both the Freedom and Explorer have between four and six separate air chambers in each pontoon depending on model size, with the 4.5m and 4.8m models each rated for five passengers and a maximum 50hp outboard.
“One of the advantages of the Takacat is its ability to carry larger four-stroke outboards delivering the kind of grunt needed to tow skiers and biscuits,” Sowden explains. “Generally speaking the larger models perform very well with 30 to 40hp and will easily attain 25 to 30kts.”
Sowden says Takacat has developed a range of moulded console options providing a variety of seating arrangements including single-, two- and four-seat configuration to increase the boats’ appeal and function.
“This has allowed us to offer further refinements that include a dedicated engine starting battery for larger outboards and secure enclosed storage for tote tanks, dive bottles and fishing gear,” said Sowden.
The Freedom and Explorer range is offered in both PVC (polyurethane) and Hypalon (neoprene), though the latter has several key advantages over PVC and is Sowden’s recommended choice for larger boats.
“Hypalon is more durable and stable in high UV climates and is resistant to petrochemicals,” said Sowden. “It also has greater colour stability and, most importantly, has better adhesion properties resulting in a considerably longer service life than PVC.
“PVC, on the other hand, is hard-wearing and durable but susceptible to UV breakdown, which tends to impact on the adhesive and over time leads to air and water leaks,” said Sowden.
PVC carries a price advantage, which makes for a cheaper product but Hypalon is preferred and carries Takacat’s five-year warranty over the three years offered on PVC.
As mentioned previously, the Takacat Lite series is aimed squarely at the competitive tender market and is an innovative newcomer attracting lots of attention.
Sowden says the key attributes of Takacat design are retained in the Lite series, available in 2.8m, 3.0m and 3.2m options.
According to Sowden, the Lite PVC series derive rigidity from an aero-deck inflatable floor and fabric-covered plywood transom, and are extremely manageable at 35kg, 38kg and 41kg respectively.
“The beauty with the Lite series is they can be rolled up and stowed on the deck of even quite small boats yet offer the same stability and usability of the larger Freedom and Explorer models,” Sowden says. “They’re well behaved and track well under tow and are rated for between 9hp and 15hp, which lends them to a wide range of activities when you get to where you’re going. They’re also a sweet little rower.”
TAKACAT LITE 300
At first glance the Takacat Lite looks well designed, stable and of high-quality construction. It’s not until you jump in that you can really appreciate how stable it actually is.
The catamaran hulls produce less drag and have a shallower draft, which makes for faster planing and require less horsepower to push. Rowing is a breeze and you don’t even have to put your back into it to get going. The Takacat Lite tracks well and is easy to manoeuvre.
It features four internal and six external handholds, plus safety lines front and side, giving you plenty of places to hang onto. There are also two fixed oars, a backside-friendly inflatable seat and two bungs complete with attachment cords so they don’t get lost.
The floor itself is an Air Deck made from an intertwined polyester fibre with a double-sided PVC coating. It’s 8cm thick, inflatable and firm. The low-lying front provides an easy platform to step off onto the duckboard or beach. It also provides an easy entry point from the water in case you somehow manage to fall out of something so stable — I’m sure it can and has been done.
This well-designed tender is completely inflatable (or deflated) so there are no solid seats or floors to disassemble. The pontoon walls and floor are joined, therefore no lip under the inflatable tubes for shells and sand to congregate.
Once deflated, it folds up and fits inside its own bag. Also included as standard are two-piece oars, a repair kit, a foot pump and an air-pressure gauge.
The Takacat Lite is light, and easy to pull up onto the deck. It won’t damage your paintwork due to the heavy rubber strips under each tube and a lack of hard components. The twin hulls also have the added advantage of lying flat on deck. According to some owners it makes a good sun lounger. I can see how the gently curving inflatable floor could be rather comfortable to kickback on. Just add a cold drink and some music and you’ve got it made.
Overall the Takacat Lite 310 is a well designed and constructed tender that addresses the issues of stability, storage and rowing like a brick that come standard with some conventionally designed tenders. The Takacat Lite is so innovative and versatile it could well be the inflatable dinghy of the future.
Less than three years into production and Sowden’s Takacat is finding a market in New Zealand and overseas, where his designs can be found in Greece, Holland, France, Canada, the US, Malaysia and Australia.
Sowden is wary of growing too quickly and happy for now to operate his business from home and channel earnings back into the business.
While consolidating on the Freedom, Explorer and Lite series, he says he’s working on several custom-build projects that could eventually see a 7.5m inflatable catamaran join the Takacat family.
“It’s early days but Takacat is capturing the imagination of several large charter operators who can see real potential for the design to ferry passengers back and forth in shallow waters,” said Sowden.
The builder needs little encouragement to demonstrate his designs and most days can be found on Auckland’s Takapuna beach doing what he loves best — messing around on small boats.
For more information, visit email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.takacat.com
TAKACAT LITE 300
TYPE: Inflatable dinghy
LENGTH OVERALL: 3m
REC. HP: 2 to 5
REC. MAX HP: 8
ENGINE: Mercury two-stroke outboard
RATED HP: 5
Ideal as tenders the Takacat Lite series are effortless to row and roll-up and stow.
Fishing is just of the pursuits you can undertake on Takacat's Freedom Centre Console variant.
Like the Explorers, the general-purpose Freedom range feature a solid fbreglass floor, transom and raised bow sections, including an inbuilt fibreglass anchor locker.
From Trade-a-Boat Issue 428, June-July 2012. Story by Steve Raea. Photos supplied.