Josh Makepeace navigates his Tahiti through a rapid on the Rogue River near Galice Saturday during the filming of a training video for Orange Torpedo Trips. - Jamie Lusch

Tahiti Trippin'

Rogue Valley residents know tahitis: the brightly colored, inflatable canoes that fill up local waterways — particularly stretches of the Rogue River.

Locals may not know the boats came of age on the Rogue after being ridiculed as "rubber duckies," fit for little else than plying swimming pools.

"Nobody thought that the tahiti could do it," says Conny Klimenko, director of new products for Coleman and the former president of Sevylor's U.S. operations.

"I also didn't think that the boats would stand up."

Tahiti enthusiasts can thank Jerry Bentley, founder of Orange Torpedo Trips in Merlin. Bentley, at one time a Medford resident, died last year, but he's remembered as the originator of tahitis' leap into whitewater. Five years after the French company Sevylor developed tahitis in 1963, Bentley approached Klimenko at a San Francisco exhibition with a plan to buy the boats and rent them out for river trips.

"I said, 'You're nuts,' " Klimenko recalls. "You're going to drown some people, and we're going to have lawsuits."

Bentley persisted, documenting a year of using tahitis on Oregon rivers, from which he emerged unscathed. He gave Klimenko an ultimatum: sell him the boats or he would buy them from JC Penney. Sevylor provided Orange Torpedo's first fleet of 24 tahitis and collaborated with Bentley through the next couple of decades to custom-design sturdier, self-bailing models.

Forty years after Bentley bought his first boats, no fewer than 20 local companies rent tahitis or offer guided tours in the inflatable craft. Orange Torpedo operates at least one day trip every day during its peak season between June 15 and Aug. 15, says Erik Weiseth, the company's director of marketing.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 tahitis are sold worldwide every year, says Caryn Rohr, who services Sevylor accounts in Oregon for new owner Coleman. At one time, approximately 80 percent of tahitis were sold within the state, she says.

"They're still sold heavily in Oregon simply because they're so popular," Rohr says.

It didn't hurt that Oregon boasts ideal river systems for navigating by tahiti, she says. Rohr and her husband, Jerry, a retired Sevylor account representative, took every opportunity to introduce friends to tahitis on the McKenzie River near their home in Cottage Grove.

"They're great boats for beginners and novices," Caryn Rohr says. "They're very forgiving.

"Obviously, they're affordable for all of us," she says.

The "classic" yellow tahiti retails for about $139. Elite models made of reinforced material suitable for the most extreme whitewater conditions sell for about $300 and up, Rohr says.

This year, a new color joins the host of yellow, orange and blue tahitis — green.

Made of polyvinyl chloride that is free of phthalates, the "Lanai" will make its debut in Joe's and REI stores this season, selling for about $160, Rohr says. While controversial, some scientific studies have linked phthalate exposure to asthma and decreased reproductive function.

The Lanai was conceived at the behest of a major European retailer that promised a $3 million purchase if Sevylor delivered an eco-friendly tahiti, Klimenko says. The material remains too soft for high-performance models, but the Lanai is a start and guided the first steps toward developing an alternative to PVC, he says.

"It's getting to be fashionable ... to support the environment," Klimenko says.

Although Klimenko says outfitters like Orange Torpedo probably won't go green with their boats anytime soon, the Lanai is another choice for individual consumers who may or may not recognize tahitis as the unlikely fad that's truly moved into the main stream.

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