Rainbow Bob's pickup can haul a goodly load of low-cost "boats," purchased from area truck stops, tire dealers, farm co-ops and service stations. The "Superstar" rope seat boosts the Bowlings' profits.
MARY B. BOWLING
When my husband Bob and I finally made our move to a country home deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we were immediately faced with the need to find a way of supplementing our suddenly reduced — as a result of our relocation — income. Part-time work was scarce (in fact, employment of any nature was pretty danged hard to come by). From what we could see, the area's biggest industry was tourism since the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers lured in great crowds of sweltering city dwellers on sunny summer weekends.
Those wide, mostly shallow rivers can sure look appealing on a hot afternoon, too. However, (as we'd discovered to our own disappointment), the few waterside businesses that offered rental canoes and/or kayaks charged pretty hefty prices and a lot of would-be river rats were left stranded on the banks for lack of cash. Well, where there's an unfulfilled urge, there's usually a way to turn a profit. Perhaps, Bob and I decided, we could bring in weekend money by selling inner-tube rafts to the shore-bound sailors!
Investigating Business Potential
We promptly scrounged half a dozen used floaters from a local gas station, patched and inflated the tubes and invited a few friends to join us on a "reconnoiter day" by enjoying trips down several sections of both the Potomac and the Shenandoah. While doing so (and having one heck of a good time), we noted the best places to park when putting in for a downstream ride, the water levels at which each section of the river could be best enjoyed, the locations of dangerous deep spots, underwater hazards, and rapids that should be avoided, the approximate time required to drift each different tubing "trail" and the best techniques for coming through the faster (but still safe) sections without bumping our bottoms (well, at least not too often). Our toes were shriveled by the end of the day, but we were confident that we could both sell our "poor people's rafts" and give the purchasers the information they'd need in order to have safe and pleasant excursions.
Getting Down to Business: Decoding Local Laws
As we were checking out the waterways, we'd asked various riverside vendors about licensing requirements, and later drove to the county seat to obtain the necessary Business Franchise Certificate — from the State Tax Commission — at no cost. Then, with legal matters happily out of the way, we set about locating a supply of low-cost tubes.
After calling area truck stops, tire dealers, farm co-ops, and service stations, we visited the first of the potential suppliers and were able to purchase 12 more junked tubes — of various sizes — for $2.00 each. We patched the leaks and, since the thought of hand-pumping the pile of deflated rubber rings was far from appealing, asked the owner of our neighborhood gas station if we could pay him for the use of his air hose. The gentleman told us to use the compressor without charge, but we insisted that he agree to accept payment if our business prospered.
Our initial stockpile, then, consisted of 18 rafts. We priced small ones at $4.00 apiece, marked the river-runners from truck tires up to $8.00 each and decided to let our single "monster" tractor tube go for $15.00. After color-coding the valve stems to identify price categories (using nail polish), we packed the goods — upright and in rows across the bed — in the back of our pickup truck, tied them in place and set off to a previously spotted double-wide shoulder on a heavily traveled riverside road. For a total investment of $46.00 ($24.00 for tubes, $9.00 for patches and glue, $3.00 for nail polish, and about $10.00 for the gas used in our preparatory trips), we were in business.
Opening a Tourism Business
That Saturday was hot, humid and sunny.
"If we can't sell tubes today," Bob noted, "we might as well ditch the whole idea."
Once at the roadside, we propped our biggest offerings against the side of the truck and put up a makeshift sign. Before long people were stopping and buying: Within four hours we'd sold out! Our first day's gross was $121, which left us a net profit of $75.
During the week that followed, we busily searched out and purchased another supply of tubes (our average cost over the season worked out to about $2.50 apiece) and tried to devise ways to enhance the desirability of our products and up our profit margin. Soon we hit on the idea of fashioning seats for the fanny soakers.
Canvas and webbing — though we knew they'd produce classy perches — were eliminated on the grounds of high cost. Rope, however, proved inexpensive (we paid $3.00 per 100 feet of cotton clothesline) and completely workable. With the addition of about a dollar's worth of rope and perhaps 15 minutes of labor, we were able to increase the price of any tube by $3.00. The modified rafts sold like bug burgers at a bullfrog's barbecue, too . . . with some folks even buying two, so they could pack along coolers, fishing gear and the like.
Occasionally, when replenishing our supply of rafts, we were lucky enough to locate a tube from a mammoth piece of agricultural or construction equipment. The huge floaters are rare (after all, they can cost upward of $150 new, so most folks patch them when they spring a leak), but we found that such giants — when equipped with rope seats — easily brought in from $20 to $40 apiece and we made an attempt to have at least one "super tube" on display whenever we set up shop. They're great attention-getters . . . and surprising numbers of folks were willing to pay premium prices to buy the "Potomac Cadillacs."
Recycling Inner Tubes
In order to give our customers the best possible deals and to maintain our supply of bargain boats, we soon began offering to buy back undamaged tubes (at half price) at the end of a day. That practice let folks enjoy a day on the river for an out-of-pocket expense of as little as $2.00 apiece and often allowed us to get two or three (or more!) sales out of the same boat in the course of a weekend.
Finding an Air Supply
After our first month in the tubing business, we felt that we were putting too much demand on our friendly service station owner's air pump — despite the small payments that he'd finally agreed to accept — so we purchased a used electric compressor for $90. If you decide to try the tube sales business, it would be best to get free air at first if possible. But once your enterprise is established, we think you'll find the convenience provided by a low-cost compressor (which, naturally, you'll be able to use for a number of other household tasks) well worth the price.
Figuring the Facts of a Seasonal Business
Since river rafting is strictly seasonal (we haven't run across any Polar Bear Club tube riders yet), we were visibly on the job only during summer weekends and holidays. At such times, we generally operated from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with our busiest period falling between noon and 3:00 p.m. Of course, there's more to our enterprise than the actual onsite sales work. Once every two weeks, either my husband or I would spend half a day picking up tubes and patching equipment. We put in another eight hours, weekly, mending and inflating the wares. Yet for that little bit of effort, it wasn't uncommon for us to net $150 on one weekend. (We actually took in $310 in the course of one very busy two-day selling spree!)
Part of the reason for our success, we believe, was our concerted effort to build and maintain a good reputation. We made it a point never to miss a sunny weekend, and to tell our customers just how long we'd stay in place on a given day, for the convenience of any of them who might want to sell tubes back to us. We also encouraged the use of life jackets and told folks where such equipment could be rented at a reasonable price.
We were careful, too, never to sell "leakers" knowingly. Although our official guarantee covered only "two minutes or two miles," we went out of our way to satisfy anyone with complaints. As a result, we never had a discontented patron and every one of those happy tube riders served as a floating advertisement for our venture!
With our second season coming up fast, Bob and I are more than eager to get into business again. After all, we've had an entire winter to dream up ways to improve our little enterprise. For instance, we plan to offer life vests for rent or sale this summer, and even hope to run a shuttle service along the most popular routes, picking up rafters at the end of a run and driving them back to their vehicles.
Now not everyone has the good fortune to live next door to two floatable rivers, it's true. But should you be located within an easy drive of at least one appropriate body of water, there's no reason why you can't start your own shoestring marina. And, if you do, you ought to have plenty of customers. After all, riding a tube beats watching the tube . . . any day!
If you'd like to try tubing on your own nearby river or stream, these pieces of advice could help you have fun and stay safe.
 Take advantage of local knowledge. Ask folks who know the waterway about conditions and hazards. (Canoeists, fishing buffs and children are often the most reliable sources of such information.)
 Wear old tennis shoes. Even the most secluded creeks have their share of sharp rocks . . . while waters closer to civilization may be littered with broken glass, fishhooks, and rusty cans.
 Use life jackets. Everyone should wear a life vest, especially on fast or wide rivers and in rapids. Of course, weak swimmers and non-swimmers should never go out on the water without them.
 Listen, stop and look. You'll hear white water before you see it. In unfamiliar streams, pull over at the first such warning, and walk down the bank to get a good look at the river ahead. If it doesn't look like fun, it probably won't be. When in doubt, portage.
 Avoid rump bumping. As you float through rapids, lift your bottom by leaning back and straightening your legs. The maneuver will raise your center of gravity and decrease the tube's stability, though, so hold on!
 Keep your feet pointed down stream. This technique allows your legs (instead of your head) to absorb the impact if you should happen to collide with rocks or logs.
 Use a safety pin to secure your keys inside your pocket. Double Ziploc-type bags make good waterproof pouches for other small items.
 Take a friend along. In tubing, as in all water sports, the buddy system makes for happy-and safe-landings.