Words by Grant Spolander. Pictures by Grant Spolander and Craig Fox.
On an even keel
few years back, I joined Kingsley Holgate on a trip through Mozambique. After spending several hours behind the wheel of a Defender, we arrived on the banks of the Zambezi late one night. It had been a long day, and I thought we’d make camp for the night; but instead we inflated two Rubber Ducks and cruised down the inky-black waters of the Zambezi.
There were no houses or settlements in sight, and apart from the light of our helmsman’s torch as he scanned for sandbanks, we were engulfed in darkness. After travelling downstream for many kilometres, we docked on a narrow island with the treacherous Zambezi swirling past us on either side; and, before long, we were eating, drinking and laughing around a campfire. It’s a memory I’ll never forget, of an epic experience that brought together two activities: 4×4 exploration and a waterbound adventure. I was reminded of this special pairing after reviewing the 3.85-metre, portable folding boat that is featured here. It’s loosely punted as the 4×4 of the boating world, so, this month, instead of featuring a 4×4 test or trailer review, we put the Porta- Bote through its paces. Is it truly what it seems to be, a dexterous craft that can spice up your next overland adventure?
The Porta-Bote is available in various sizes: 2.85-, 3.27-, 3.85- and 4.28 metres. The product is American-designed and manufactured, and has been around for roughly 40 years. The boat is portable to attract buyers seeking a craft for lakes, rivers, dams and estuary use. In other words, the Porta-Bote competes with Rubber Ducks, and to a lesser degree, small trailer-transported boats.
Nuts & bolts
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Porta-Bote is how it is assembled, and – more important – how it remains waterproof once assembled. Well, the secret lies in the fact that the Porta-Bote doesn’t clip, bolt or slot together, but is permanently joined via four, full-length, flexible hinges. The Porta-Bote is divided into four sections: the bottom two panels (which constitute the hull) and the remaining port- and starboard gunwales. Each of the four panels – and hinges – is made from a co-polymer polypropylene, the same material commonly used in bulletproof vests.
According to the manufacturer, each hinge is watertight and capable of stresses equal to 90 000 pounds per square inch. The hinges are also designed in such a way to ensure that the higher the pressure on the hinge, the greater the seal. What’s more, the hull material is UV-, salt-, acid-, heat- and fatigue resistant; and the hinges have been tested to the level of 500 000 opening and closings without failure. The boat’s remaining components include the transom at the rear, tubular anti-rub rails on either side, and variously-proportioned bench seats. Also, depending on the size of boat you opt for, it can have three or four seats. We reviewed the 3.85-metre unit which has three bench seats rather than four – as seen in the 4.28-metre model.
The Porta-Bote folds completely flat. In short, the gunwales fold in first and then the hull closes like a clam / shellfish. Once folded, it’s just 115 mm thick and 600 mm wide – regardless of model or length. With the seats and transom connected, the 3.85-metre boat weighs approximately 35 kg. Once assembled, the Porta-Bote measures an impressive 1 520 mm width (maximum) with a mid-ship depth of 560 mm. To put that into perspective, two adults can sit comfortably on the middle bench without their shoulders touching.
In my view, the most compelling argument for a boat like this is its manageability. I’ve had past experience with high-density fishing canoes, but these units are heavy and awkward to carry. By comparison, the Porta-Bote felt completely manageable; I had no problems either taking it off or putting it back on my Jeep’s roof-rack by myself.
Even when fully assembled, the Porta-Bote is easy for two people to carry. It’s also helluva tough, so you can launch the Porta-Bote anywhere – drag it over rocks, push it through reeds, or drop it off a fairly high embankment. The only problem we had with its transportability was the lack of carry handles. If I had things my way, I’d include two rope handles on either side of the boat – this would make it far easier to carry, pull, drag, and launch off tricky terrain.
Again, the fact that this boat is so light and easy to push around makes it ideal for the off-road enthusiast, especially given that most overlanders will be launching their craft where no slipway facilities are available. I was particularly impressed by the ease with which you can handle the Porta-Bote in relation to its size. Although the Porta- Bote is showcased as a portable, folding boat, it shouldn’t be confused with other dinky crafts. Once assembled, this boat features incredible space and comfort, far from the likes of any pencil duck or fishing canoe. When you consider the Porta-Bote’s functional dimensions, bone-fide water use, and the ease with which it can be handled, the benefits of this craft become obvious. But there’s a catch. Although the Porta-Bote occupies marginal roofrack space, there is the small and not-so-spacefriendly matter of the bench seats, transom, oars and motor.
All these items have to be packed somewhere. So, although the boat itself is compact in size and proportion, the remaining items are bulky and disjointed. However, the local supplier is currently designing a rip-stop carry bag which should hold these items, hopefully in the neatest, smallest way possible.
Assembling the Porta-Bote is like being a dentist who has a crocodile for a patient. You need an assistant and you need a way to ensure that the croc’s mouth stays open! The Porta-Bote kit includes a perfectly-sized wooden plank to hold the boat in the open position while you insert the bench seats. If you try to hold the boat open without the plank, there’s a fair chance that your grip will slip and the boat will quickly refold itself, swallowing you alive! However, with a little perspiration and some cursing, it is possible to open the boat by yourself while inserting the safety plank; but an extra pair of hands makes the job far easier. Once the plank is in place, it’s simply a matter of inserting the three bench seats and dropping in their safety pins – then you remove the plank. The seats themselves hold the boat in the open position, while the transom adds rigidity at the rear. The only bolts and nuts required are four stainless-steel bolts which hold the transom in place; fortunately, these are tightened using wing nuts. No tools are required to assemble the Porta-Bote!
If you know what you’re doing, assembly shouldn’t take more than five minutes. The job is relatively straight-forward, as it took us 10 minutes to assemble the Porta-Bote the first time we did it – and in true SA4x4 fashion we didn’t look at the instructions. Again, the only difficult part is the initial opening of the boat, which is due to memory resistance within the Porta-Bote’s material. Thankfully, the Porta-Bote is much easier to pack away, mainly because the material has, by then, memorised its open shape and so doesn’t automatically snap closed.
On the water
Because of the Porta-Bote’s hinge movement, its hull has lots of flex. This attribute has qualities both good and bad. On the negative side, the hull’s flexibility absorbs some of the boat’s kinetic energy, especially when there’s chop on the water. Similarly, the Porta-Bote isn’t suited to wave action and doesn’t have the rigidity required to break through white water. For this reason, I wouldn’t attempt a sea-bound excursion in windy or turbulent conditions. The plus side to the Porta-Bote’s flexibility is less apparent, but in my view, far outweighs the negative. When you consider this boat’s intended application – use on dams, lakes, estuaries and rivers – you soon realise how the hull’s flexibility can come in handy. This is a very steady boat on water, and the reason for its stability lies in the hull’s flexibility and its ability to change shape. Unlike a fixed / rigid hull, the Porta-Bote will not tilt dramatically when the cargo weight shifts from one side to the other; instead, the boat’s hinge flex adapts to the weight transfer by moving the hull’s panels independently, and not as one. This unusual feature makes the Porta-Bote great for fishing, especially when you’re standing in the boat and shifting your weight as you cast.
The other extraordinary feature of the Porta-Bote is its buoyancy. It may seem hard to believe, but even when full of water the Porta-Bote will float. What’s more, the Porta-Bote is dead easy to launch, and, thanks to its shallow draft (115 mm), there are not many places it can’t get to. Now do you understand why it’s called the 4×4 of the boating world? We reviewed the Porta-Bote at the Bulshoek Dam, just north of Clanwilliam. This dam is long and narrow (more like a river than a lake) and features two sections: a deeper half where speedboats are permitted, and a shallow area separated by sandbanks. It was the ideal location for the Porta-Bote, which could explore the entire length of the dam unimpeded, even in the shallow areas where most boats wouldn’t dare venture. What’s more, because the Porta-Bote is easily handled, it can be portaged over rocks and causeways to extend your explorations.
The 3.85-metre Porta-Bote has a carrying capacity of 305 kg – a maximum of four passengers. In true SA4x4 tradition we ignored this specification completely, In addition, the Porta-Bote boasts a wide variety of optional accessories, from diving platforms to nose-mounted trolling motor adaptors – and even a sail kit that transforms the boat into a sailing vessel. It’s the Leatherman of boats. Coming back to my previous trip with Kingsley: that night, we slept on an island in the middle of the Zambezi; we also skippered the boats to the river mouth, and visited a remote village (with no access roads) along the way. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I remember standing on a sandbank between the mighty Zambezi and the Indian Ocean and thinking to myself, “How many tourists have seen this place?” It was a rare privilege; an experience made possible only by water passage. So, do yourself a favour, and consider a boat for your next off-road adventure. It doesn’t have to be a Porta-Bote, but if you want something perfectly suited to the task, I can think of no boat more aptly tailored to the overlander’s life.
PRICING AND CONTACT DETAILS
There are dozens of YouTube videos showcasing the Porta-Bote’s many talents and accessories. The boat is also extensively used by various rescue services the world over, including Japan, America and parts of Scandinavia. For more information and full contact details, go to www.kavumbukraft.com. There are three boat sizes available, and each unit includes a 10-year hull warranty and all the necessary components to start your water-bound adventure. 3.27 R19 380 (Only available in white)
3.85 R19 380 (White or olive green)
4.28 R21 660 (Olive green)
WHERE WE STAYED
The Bulshoek Dam Resort is approximately 240 km from Cape Town and roughly 17 km from the historic town of Clanwilliam. The resort boasts a wide variety of activities on offer, including water skiing, hiking, bird-watching, excellent bass fishing and a nearby 4×4 trail called Steenrug 4WD. (027 482 2541).
There are multiple accommodation options on offer, from grass-covered campsites on the water’s edge, to wooden chalets; and two stone cottages – both capable of sleeping 14 people. Camping costs just R60 pppn while the stone cottages go for R200 pppn when booked to their full capacity. For more information, go to www.bulshoekdamresort.co.za or call Hilda on (027) 482 2635 or 072 124 7747.