Tag Archives: Mercury Air Deck review

Mercury Air Deck Dinghy Long Term Review—Just Say No

It looks like the writing is on the wall for Eaglet, our Mercury dinghy. At just seven years old, I expected quite a bit more use from her, but we’re starting to suspect that she doesn’t have another cruising season in her. Since buying pretty much anything is much cheaper and easier in the US compared to down in the islands, that means we’re probably going to be buying Eaglet’s replacement sometime this summer. So for those who are considering a dinghy purchase, here’s our long term review of life with an air deck inflatable.

When we bought Eaglet, we had a short list of requirements. We wanted a CSM (Hypalon) boat, because they’re supposed to last much longer in tropical sun. Our home state of Florida is pretty tropical most of the year, and we had plans to eventually go cruising, so we wanted the durability of CSM rather than PVC. At the time, I was reading that PVC dinghies will fall apart after about 5 years in the islands, while a good Hypalon boat can last 15 years or more.

We wanted a fairly light boat, because we knew we’d be lifting it onto our foredeck for passages. We also wanted to be able to roll it up for convenient storage, but we didn’t want to have to find a place to store a removable plywood or aluminum floor. And we had hopes of being able to get the dinghy to plane so that we could travel faster and thus further, which ruled out a flat-bottomed sport boat. It needed to have a V hull.

Some of these requirements are sort of contradictory. But our research indicated that an air deck inflatable would check all the boxes. Rather than using plywood or aluminum for the dinghy floor, it has a high pressure inflatable floor, similar to an inflatable standup paddle board. The floor requires 10 psi, which is actually quite a challenge to pump up using the included manual air pump. With the floor and keel inflated, the boat has a V shaped hull, and thus should plane. But with everything deflated, the boat rolls up and stows easily. No heavy wooden floor meant it should be easy to winch onto the foredeck. So in 2011, we bought a new Mercury 270 Air Deck dinghy.

Life was good for a while. Eaglet was light enough to hoist with our spinnaker halyard, and when the floor, keel and hull were deflated, it could be rolled up into a fairly small bundle for transport or storage. She would plane with one person, but our six horsepower Tohatsu couldn’t coax her up on a plane with both Rhonda and I onboard. Maybe an 8 horsepower might have worked, but a 6 hp was what we had, so we lived with it.

But then one day, the floor went flat, rendering the boat practically useless. The bottom of the boat is too soft and flexible to walk on with the floor deflated. It cost almost $400 to buy a replacement. It was at that time that I discovered that while we had paid the money to buy a CSM dinghy, the air deck was actually PVC. Nowhere in the online literature or advertising for the boat did Mercury ever mention this little fact.

Less than six months after receiving the new air deck, it also went flat. It failed at the exact same place as the first one. The floor has about a 5” hole in it (I call it the doughnut hole) to access the valve to pump up the inflatable keel, and the tape around this hole had developed a leak. Since the floor came with a 12 month warranty, I was able to get a replacement, but it required me to pay to ship the flat one to the warranty center.

Attempting to repair the leak at the doughnut hole. The repair didn’t work. I really didn’t think it would.

After another 7 or 8 months, floor number three also went flat, failing again in the same area. Since the warranty period for the floor dated to the purchase of the first replacement, it was now beyond 12 months from the original purchase, and was no longer covered by warranty, even though this particular floor was less than a year old. Funny how that works.

Doughnut hole closeup

So now we’re looking at having to spend  yet another $400 for air deck number four. And we probably would, if we had confidence that the boat would hold up. But about a year ago, we noticed that the outer skin of the tape strips used to hold the seams of the boat together had started peeling off. At first it was localized enough that I actually tried gluing the peeling skin back on, but it would just peel off again after a month or two.

Then it began spreading to larger and larger areas, and I finally gave up and just starting cutting off the flapping ribbons.

Then the underlying layer of reinforcing fabric starting peeling loose, leaving just a gray rubber strip. It’s beginning to look like it’s only a matter of time before a seam splits.

So at this point, it seems like good money after bad to buy another air deck for poor old Eaglet. Our time in the Bahamas has taught us that a rigid floor RIB is really the way to go, as it’s much better at covering large distances. They’re a bit heavier, but only by 20 or 30 pounds, so we should still be able to hoist it onto the foredeck for passages. And now that we’re full time liveaboard cruisers, we really don’t need to roll up and store the boat in the off season.

So in the final analysis, we’re giving the Mercury Air Deck inflatable dinghy a thumbs down for reasons of poor durability. For starters, Mercury should be more upfront about the fact that the CSM boat you’re buying is actually a CSM/PVC hybrid since the inflatable floor, a critical component, is only available in PVC. Next, a CSM dinghy that’s only used about six to seven months of the year and then kept under a cover the remainder of the year should not start falling apart after seven years. It should have lasted at least twice that long, in our opinion. And finally, you shouldn’t have to buy a new air deck every 18 months or so. The warranty center said the floor should last 10 years. I just laughed. Maybe if you never inflate it, possibly. But in actual use, they blow the same seam just slightly after the warranty runs out, which tells me we’re either dealing with a significant design defect or a deliberate revenue generating strategy.

So if you’re shopping for a dingy, we recommend taking a pass on the Mercury Air Deck. It’s just not worth it.

But I Thought The Odds Were In My Favor…

In my post Disappointing Dinghy Durability, I expressed my disappointment at the air deck floor giving out in our dinghy after only four years. Little did I know that we were only in act one of this little drama. For only two months after the $400 replacement air deck arrived, it too started leaking. Color me unimpressed.

Defender wouldn’t replace the second air deck, because I had used it for two months. It had to to be shipped to a Mercury authorized repair center for evaluation. They gave me the name of the closest one.  So off it went to Solution One Maritime, in Tampa. Who promptly  called me to ask why I was sending them my air deck, since I hadn’t bought the boat from them. Now I might have understood their position if I hadn’t already called them to speak about my floor and get the right shipping address. I pretty thoroughly explained at that time that I had bought it from Defender, and when I made a warranty claim on the new air deck, Defender called Mercury for instructions, and were told to tell me to ship it to Solution One Maritime. One would think that if they were going to have any concerns about the whole thing, this would have been a good time to bring it up. But noooooo, they just said “Fine, send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.”

Fortunately, after much phone tag and the involvement of Mercury, Solution One looked at the air deck, determined it was defective, and sent me a new one for free. It’s currently sitting on deck undergoing what we called a “drop test” in the Navy. That’s where you pressurize a device or system and then monitor it for a period of time to see if it will maintain pressure. In other words, a leak check.

EagletBottom2

Two things that I learned as a result of this process. First, the air deck came with a 12 month warranty, so naturally it was covered when it started leaking after only two months. But when I asked if my replacement air deck came with its own 12 month warranty, I was told no, it is only covered by the remainder of the original warranty. Since it’s winter now (recent mild weather notwithstanding) and the dinghy won’t get any use before next March or April, that’s why I felt the need to do the drop test before packing it away till next Spring. Just to be sure.

The other thing was an observation by the folks at Solution One that this isn’t supposed to happen. They claimed that Mercury air decks usually last 10 years, and the odds were 50 to 1 that mine would develop a leak in only four years. And having another one leak in just two months? Well, they quoted me 500 to 1 odds of that happening. Lucky me. As for the one I just received, well, they quoted me 5,000 to 1 odds that it will also leak.

So if this one is deflated come tomorrow morning, I’m making a stop at the nearest convenience store to pick up some PowerBall tickets. Because I’m apparently on a hot streak, beating some pretty steep odds at the moment.

Disappointing Dinghy Durability

You may remember Eaglet. We introduced her back in The $400 Solution. She’s a Mercury 270 Air Deck, and she’s our trusty tender.

Eaglet1 She’s been transporting us back and forth from our boat to our favorite beach bars for four years now, and has never once caused us to miss a happy hour.

Unfortunately, when we climbed in her a few weekends ago to make the trip to shore, we discovered her floor had developed an extremely severe case of Droopidus Non-Erectus. The air deck lost its stiffyness (yes, I’m making up words. I’m a writer, I’m allowed to do that!).

Eaglet2

Eaglet’s Floppy Floor

Overnight, she’d become a floating trampoline. Boarding became somewhat of a challenge (he said with extreme understatement)

When we bought Eaglet back in 2011, we sprang for the CSM model (i.e. Hypalon, which is actually a trademark owned by DuPont, which no longer makes the material so technically there are no Hypalon boats anymore) rather than the PVC version. We’d read that PVC dinghies (which are actually the majority of inflatable boats out there) only last about four or five years in the hot tropical sun, while CSM boats can go 20 years. SInce we had plans to head for the tropics eventually (and let’s face it, Florida in the summer would meet anyone’s definition of tropical), we figured it was money well spent.

We also decided to go with the air deck model. The high pressure floor was supposed to offer the same firm footing and smooth ride of plywood or aluminum floor models without the weight. Light weight was important, since we intended to hoist the dink onto the foredeck between  uses. It also has the added benefit that you can roll it up when deflated, which we commonly do in the off season.

Interesting thing though about Mercury CSM air deck boats. The boat is made of CSM. But the air deck is PVC. That’s the only way they make them. Which is a little detail that they seemed to have forgotten to mention in the sales literature.

So here we are, a little over four years later, and our floor wouldn’t hold air anymore. Fortunately, it was easy to buy a replacement on Defender. Unfortunately, it cost almost $400. But it’s hard to put a price on good Mojitos at our favorite beach bar, so our water taxi had to be repaired.

Interestingly, air decks infected with Droopidus are apparently a common enough problem that Defender even offers its own knock-off version for those looking to save a few bucks. But we opted for the OEM model rather than going aftermarket. Next time, maybe not. We’ll see.

It turned out to be a pretty simple job to swap out the floor. There are just two little mounts attached to the stern that had to be removed so that the new deck could be installed.

Eaglet3Once pumped up to the 11 PSI called for, it gets super rigid and wedges itself tightly between the boat’s tubes and bottom.

Eaglet4

I think I remember that the air deck came with a five year warranty, so provided I can find the receipt (we should still have it somewhere around here), maybe we’ll see if it’s possible to get it repaired. Or I have this crazy idea that it might be possible to shoot it full of expanding foam. It wouldn’t roll up anymore, but it would never go flat again.

(Update: I later learned that the air deck was only warrantied for 12 months.)

Eaglet5If nothing else,  in addition to keeping it as a spare, it might make a really odd and interesting paddle board!