With more than 50 companies now manufacturing rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) in Europe, there are bold claims that they are the newest and fastest-growing sports boat market in Europe.
As to why RIBs are so popular in Europe (and some very expensive and upmarket models at that), I’m at a loss to explain. Web pages for the many manufacturers don’t even try to explain and don’t care to expound on the phenomenon, though there are many theories.
But the situation for RIBs in the Pacific region is different. Even though there are now more suppliers and manufacturers of inflatable craft, and a much larger range and higher quality available than there were a couple of years ago, RIBs still feel, well, foreign.
No matter how they are used – a small tender for a cruiser, as the favoured platform for commercial and recreational divers or simply as a sports boat – lately, RIBs have gone upmarket in terms of overall appearance, quality of design and standard of finish and fit-out.
I have long been of the opinion that, for pure recreational use – and I’m talking boats around five to six metres-plus – the RIB is not the most glamorous nor is it the most prestigious looking boat. Despite everything else that the RIB may have going for it, those big tubes around the outside make them look like nothing more than an overly-elaborate dinghy.
Only later, after I actually piloted a pair of RIBs for myself, would I come to understand that this was an extremely harsh assessment of a concept that has a lot going for it and has (if we are to believe the manufacturers’ claims), established an expanding niche market.
RIBs are exceptionally stable and have a large load-carrying capacity. That’s why they’re the vessel of choice for various branches of the armed forces and for search and rescue services. And that is also why they serve as tenders for many major yachting events, work as dive boats and are indispensable for charter and tourism operators.
You can walk around these boats as you please. Walk along the top of the tubes or jump on board from another vessel and there is minimal effect on the stability of the boat.
RIBs seem to give a skipper more confidence in his driving ability and how well he can handle himself around the marina. After all, there is one huge inflated fender all around the boat, so who cares if you come into the jetty a bit too hard or fast, or happen to nudge the side of the boat in the marina pen next door? No hard surface contact, no damage. You simply bounce off.
My experience behind the wheel has convinced me that RIBs tend to be more forgiving in their handling than conventional boats. Again, that’s something that I attribute to the buoyancy of the tubes and the lift that they give in rough and sloppy conditions.
And finally, RIBs have a far greater load capacity than fibreglass or aluminium boats of the same size. This is probably not all that relevant to the average recreational boat user, but for divers, this load capacity and stability has enormous appeal. Commercial users, such as tourism operators, can get more paying passengers into a smaller boat and use less horsepower.
The extra stability provided by this tube right around the gunwale allows designers to increase the angle of the vee (deadrise). The deeper vee and the cushioning effect of the bonded inflatable tube enable the RIB to offer a better ride in rough water. A conventional GRP or aluminium hull often strikes a compromise with beam and deadrise in order to maintain an at-rest stability.
Single-engine RIBs have been used extensively by offshore powerboat racers in Europe for decades. Designers have been able to maximise deadrise for a better ride and performance, increase waterline length while keeping the beam within trailerable limits and keep the boats directionally and laterally stable.
THE ROLLS ROYCE OF RIBS
Some successful offshore race boats and RIBs have been developed for the recreational boating industry. The Revenger range is based on a very successful and race-proven design from naval architect Don Shead, while the Shearwater range comes from a race boat design from Mike King, of the Isle of Wight.
Melbourne-based distributor, Ribsport is importing both of these brands, which can be classified as the ‘Rolls Royce of RIBs’. This is particularly true for the Shearwater 860, where the price tag says just that. But both the Shearwater and the Revenger back this up with a quality finish, great appearance and inclusions and a wonderfully comfortable performance on the water.
The Revenger 715 and Shearwater 860 have RCD (Recreational Craft Directive) ratings of C and B, respectively. These are European ratings, but they give a fairly clear indication of the capabilities of the craft. Ratings are on a scale from A (the top end), down to D.
A category B craft is for coastal journeys where shelter may not be always available, in waves up to four metres and winds up to force eight. A Category C craft can handle waves up to two metres and a steady wind of force six.
RIBS ON THE WATER
Although the fit-out of each model is different, the performance of the Revenger 715 and Shearwater 860 is, in many ways, similar. Both are very comfortable. Both are extremely easy and predictable to drive. And, on our test, both were very dry, despite the fact that the surface of Port Phillip Bay was whipped up into a frenzy of white caps ahead of a very severe storm front. Our test started in smooth, pleasant conditions, but inside an hour or so turned unpleasant as the gusty winds rolled in.
Both RIBs turned out to be so comfortable and stable in these windy, rough conditions that, as the driver, I found myself throwing caution literally to the wind, and I pushed both boats harder than I ever would have expected.
If the boat was thrown over hard in a turn, the tubes kept it safe and steady. Drop the bow in – and that’s hard to do deliberately – and the tubes flick it up and keep things dry. It’s not hard to understand why so many international rescue organisations use RIBs as their main boats.
Both boats planed very easily and without much throttle. There wasn’t any bow-raising, so it only needed an easy, gentle squeeze of the throttle to get the hulls onto the plane. Top speeds of 36 knots for the Revenger and 45 knots for the Shearwater, were admirable for boats of that size. And, as expected, both boats can maintain maximum speeds in very rough water.
The Shearwater 860 has seating for seven, though the load capacity is greater. There is seating/standing for two behind the helm station; one on the seat built into the front of the cabin, and room for four more on the rear lounge. The aft lounge sits around a teak table and there is a huge amount of storage space in the lockers under the seats.
The helm station is built into the rear of the walk-around moulded cabin that encloses a cosy vee berth that will sleep two, or provide a bit of shelter to sit out of the cold or rain.
Under the raised deck at the bow, there is further locker and storage space, including a good-sized anchor and rope locker. The teak-effect deck gives a very upmarket and comfortable non-slip finish under foot.
The Revenger 715 is a little less glamorous in its appearance and level of inclusions, as the smaller hull limits its capacity to provide a lock-up walk-around cabin. Otherwise, there is still the same seating capacity, plenty of in-built storage, and, again, a good non-slip finish on the floor – although, in this instance, it is an inbuilt moulded finish rather than the teak effect.
Both boats are solid GRP hulls, with ophthalmic gel coat finish, while the tubes are manufactured from high-grade 1200gsm hypalon-coated fabric with thick, heavy-duty rubbing strakes welded into the tubes all the way around the boat. The tubes are divided into five separate air chambers and each has a pressure-relief valve. Both boats have self-draining cockpit floors.
As I stated at the outset, both the Shearwater and Revenger are the ‘Rolls Royce of RIBs’ and their prices reflect that. But then, so too does the performance and the finish.
Revenger 715 Shearwater 860
Length: 7.15m 8.6m
Beam: 2.46m 2.7m
Weight: 740kg 1650kg
Max Power: 150hp 275hp
Test power: 115hp V4 Evinrude E-Tec 250hp V6 Evinrude E-Tec
Price (Boat only): $59,950 $114,950
Price (As tested): $84,950 $149,950
Contact: Ribsport, Melbourne 0423 611 223
RPM Speed (knots) RPM Speed (knots)
R715 S860 R715 S860
1000 4.2 5 3000 15 16.9
1500 5.6 6.5 3500 18.2 21.8
2000 6.8 8.5 4000 22.2 28
2500 9.8 - 4500 25 34.7
2600 - 13 (planing) 5000 30 40
2800 12.2 (planing) - 5500 34.2 46