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Gear test: modular flat fenders

Boat fenders — not bumpers — are a relatively inexpensive tool that, when used appropriately, can help prevent both cosmetic and structural damage to your boat. Fenders should be capable of cushioning your vessel from contact with the dock, pilings and even other boats when rafted together.

Unfortunately, due to numerous different hull configurations and docking situations, there isn’t always a single fender design that will work adequately. Standard boat fenders are made from rotationally molded PVC, which are then formed into cylinders. They have either a closed eye at each end or a formed hole through the axis that is used for line attachment. There are, however, different approaches to the task.

David Karpinski of Taylor Made says the concept for its flat fenders originated from requests for an extremely rugged and low-profile means of fendering boats while traversing the numerous locks and canals in upstate New York. The Taylor Made modular flat fender was added to the existing line of conventional fenders.

In order to maintain the cushion between your boat and the dock, both cylindrical and spherical fenders require a minimal amount of air pressure, normally about 2 psi. With the proper air pressure maintained, a typical 5-inch-diameter cylindrical fender is expected to compress 30 to 50 percent, according to Karpinski. Although these fenders normally do their jobs well, the possibility of puncture and subsequent air loss does exist — especially in heavy use and commercial applications.

Taylor Made’s flat modular fenders are constructed from rectangular blocks of closed cell ethylene vinyl acetate, commonly referred to as EVA. The company bonds a denser layer of EVA to the outer load-bearing surfaces, which also feature a molded-in textured surface similar in appearance to fiberglass deck non-skid. The fenders are puncture-resistant and won’t absorb water.

The fenders I have been working with (part No. 314) measure 24 by 12 by 3 inches, and have a 5/16-thick outer covering. The four corners of the flat fenders are generously radiused to help prevent snagging. Each fender has two round holes and a slot on each end that will accommodate the included length of line in addition to the hook-and-loop strap provided. This configuration provides several workable methods of securing the fenders to your boat, either individually or joined together in similar fashion to a fender board.

While using a pair of the modular flat fenders, several advantages of the design became apparent. The contact area between the fender and boat is greatly increased over the conventional cylindrical fender. The 12-inch-wide flat fender had a full 12-inch-wide vertical contact area against the hull, while a 12-inch-diameter cylindrical fender only contacted the hull in a 2-inch-wide vertical strip. The larger contact area means less stress on the hull.

The flat profile aids in keeping the fender where it is placed. Many cylindrical fenders tend to roll off to one side or another unless contact with the dock, piling or other boat is perpendicular to the boat’s hull. The Taylor Made flat fenders remained squarely in place without that tendency.

As the flat fenders are designed to compress about 10 percent, not the 30 to 50 percent of conventional air-filled fenders, the boat felt more secure when making contact with the dock. I have always felt that I am being pushed slightly off the dock as conventional fenders regain their shape after compressing. The flat fenders make contact with very little deflection.

When lying against an abnormally abrasive piling, I have attempted to place a traditional fender horizontally between the piling and the boat’s rub rail. Immediately upon contact, the fender rides up and provides no protection, whereas the flat fender remains in place.

With the included hook-and-loop strap, the flat fenders can be linked end to end, resembling a fender board. The strap is long enough to allow the attached fenders to be hinged and stacked on top of each other for storage without disassembly. The strap could be slightly more versatile if there were a longer section of hook-and-loop material, allowing the fenders to be secured more snugly if needed.

In rafting situations the minimal deflection of the flat fenders aids in keeping the boats tied securely together. Also, the large surface area provides protection while avoiding the common fender roll-out or ride-up when placed between vessels with different hull configurations and rub rail heights.

The flat fenders can double as seat or kneeling cushions, especially useful on smaller boats, and their shape makes them easy and convenient to stow when not in use. Modular flat fenders are available in blue or gray, and in three sizes: 20 by 8 by 2 inches, 24 by 12 by 3 inches, and 36 by 12 by 3 inches. They are available from most marine retailers, and discounted prices range from $31 to $83 depending on size.

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