The Many Purposes of the Traditional and Modern Raft

People using modern and traditional raft.jpg

The raft is a very primitive boat, and one of the earliest boats used by our ancestors. It also has a very firm footing in the history of early America. Pioneers used rafts for exploration, transportation and to aid them in trade. Although traditional rafts still exist, and are used all over the world, modern rafts have a different design and different uses. What are rafts used for?

Traditional rafts are flat-bottomed platform-type boats that were once extensively used for fishing and basic transportation. Traditional rafts are still used in some places today. Modern rafts have a slightly different design and are made from different materials because they are used for speed watersports (being dragged behind a speedboat), riding whitewater rapids, river exploration and, in some cases, as lifeboats.

Historical rafts

A raft is a basic boat that can be described as being any floating structure that has a flat bottom and a flat deck.

Early rafts were so primitive that they could be made without tools, using only construction materials found in the natural world.

Basically anything that is buoyant and capable of floating can be made into a basic raft. By using rope (or other similar binding material) to tie several pieces of buoyant material together, a simple flat raft can be constructed.

The most common primitive rafts were made of bamboo sticks, wood logs or reeds which were fastened together with braided plant fibers.

By using braided fibers from plants (such as vines) several pieces of a buoyant material, such as logs or bamboo sticks, were lashed together to make rafts for fishing and for transportation.

In some cases several rafts were lashed together to make permanent floating structures for bridges or even for living on.

Although most ancient rafts were flat-bottomed, oblong or square shaped basic boats, in some areas they evolved to have curved bows and sterns so they could better deal with choppy water.

Below are images of a traditional flat raft and a traditional raft that evolved to have curved bow and stern for better dealing with waves.

If you need a more in-depth explanation of what a raft is read this article.

Traditional flat and curved rafts
Traditional flat and curved rafts used for fishing

Historical uses of the raft

Traditional open water fishing and transportation rafts are manually powered by either pushing the boat with poles or using paddles. However some rafts have a different purpose and so are instead pulled by a rope.

In waters close to a village, such as a large pond or lake, one end of a rope can be secured to a permanent point, such as the shoreline, and the other end left on the raft. The raft operator would push out into the water, with the rope and sufficient slack, and then simply pull himself/herself back to shore when needed.

In a similar way some ancient people would attached a rope to permanent points at either side of a river, or other water body, and use it as leverage to help pull the raft from shoreline to shoreline. In this way it acted as a primitive ferry – something that is still done today.

For manually powered traditional rafts, used for transportation and fishing, the rafts are very lightweight. This meant that floating downstream was easy for our ancestors as a downstream current can simply carry the raft. Poles and paddles could then used simply for steering. Traveling upstream to fishing grounds and shoreline points proved more of a challenge though.

As a raft has no keel, and only a very basic hull shape, it tends to simply move with the water around it making it difficult to keep it moving in a straight line. This means the need for steering is a constant and is almost always difficult. Poles and paddles were used to propel the raft forward but this requires a lot of energy, something our ancestors were more concerned about than we are today as they needed to reserve their energy to hunt and farm for their food.

As primitive technology improved sails were added to the raft design to reduce the effort involved with paddling against the current (something modern paddlers still have to deal with today). This allowed raft operators to venture further out into the water for better fishing opportunities.

Although rafts are used in the ocean they are flat-bottomed boats which means they are most effective in calm waters. Heavy swell, choppy water and large waves will not sink a raft but they are not friendly to raft operators. A traditional raft has no sides, so it will merely allow the water to pass over it and as long as the material it is made from remains waterproof and does not become waterlogged it will remain floating.

However, although a traditional raft is less likely to sink in choppy ocean waters than other types of flat bottom boat, such as Jon boat for example, and can be used for ocean fishing the people on the raft may not be able to stay onboard in very challenging conditions.

There is a notable instance, called the Kon-Tiki Expedition, where a Norwegian explorer navigated the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands in a raft, in an attempt to prove that the islands could have been accessed by ancient peoples.

Although the Kon-Tiki expedition raises some interesting points it is unlikely that primitive rafts were used for extensive ocean-going long haul journeys.

It does show though that even early rafts could be used on ocean waters though making them useful saltwater fishing vessels.

Traditional rafts uses today

Although traditional rafts are not a common sight in America they are still used extensively across the world.

In rural areas of many countries, with Brazil being a prime example, traditional log rafts are still used as a form of basic transportation and to fish in the sea, though most are equipped with sails and even rudders to help with navigation.

Modern rafts

The modern raft differs quite a bit from its traditional ancestor. Modern rafts are constructed from modern materials and can be either inflatable or rigid boats.

Inflatable rafts are almost always made from rubber. Hard shell rafts will have construction materials that include: urethane or hypalon or PVC.

Modern rafts have a different hull design from traditional rafts that make them better suited to modern uses.

Although the modern raft is still a flat-bottomed boat, unlike a traditional raft the modern equivalent has sides. This makes a modern raft look more like a typical boat and allows it to perform more like one.

Modern uses of the raft

A modern raft has a different design from a traditional raft not just because there have been vast improvements in design technology and construction materials but because a modern raft has different uses from a traditional one.

While traditional rafts were working boats, modern rafts are almost always used for recreational purposes with the exception of lifeboats.

Although some larger vessels will keep rafts as lifeboats, instead of the traditional rowboat, most modern rafts are used on rivers for recreational purposes and for extreme sports like riding whitewater rapids. Being resilient, lightweight and very buoyant modern rafts make excellent whitewater craft.

In some places, such as the UK, modern rafts are also used for fly fishing.


Many ocean-going vessels that do not have enough space, or weight capacity, to carry traditional lifeboats will use modern rafts in their place. Most ships will use plastic rafts attached to the outer hull in the same way a traditional lifeboat would be.

However, it isn’t only ships that use rafts as lifeboats.

Airplanes will usually store inflatable lifeboats onboard because they are extremely lightweight and do not take up much space. Modern inflatable rafts found on planes will be self-inflating.

Recreational rafting

Modern rafts are very popular for watersports. It is not uncommon to see people using a raft for activities that are usually reserved for other watersport “vessels”, such as tubing. Instead of a tube being pulled by a motorized boat an inflatable raft is used instead.

Inflatable rafts are also sometimes used for “snow tubing” where the boat is used as a type of sledge and launched from a hill in a snow-filled, or icy, area.

However, by far the most popular use for the modern raft is river, or whitewater, rafting. Although traditional rafts were used to ride rapids, in order to get from one point to another, modern rafts are much better able to traverse this type of volatile water environment.

There are lots of places throughout the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia that offer whitewater rafting experiences.

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