The setting is late-winter Melbourne with Port Phillip Bay being whipped into a white-cap lather by 24-knot north-westerly winds. I’m standing on the windswept shore at the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron looking out over the water. Beside me is Peter ‘Sarge’ Sargeant, Australian rep for Kiwi amphibious boat pioneer, Sealegs.
The squalls are buffeting us as we lean into them, hair tossed and faces stung by occasional blasts of wind-borne sand.
“Good day for it,” comments Sarge drily. “Yeah, if you mean hiding in the clubhouse with a hot coffee,” I replied.
Parked next to us was Sealegs’s latest entry in the amphibious boat market, the 7.7F Wide Console. Having tested an earlier, smaller version, I was familiar with the Sealegs unique modus operandi. Fundamentally, each Sealegs is a Rigid Inflatable Boat, based on a comprehensively braced aluminium hull combined with Hypalon inflatable pods, but with three wheels attached, giving them the ability to be driven to water.
AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Based in North Auckland, the NZ company has earned a raft of awards and accolades since it unveiled its first RIB-based, three-wheeled craft back in 2004.
In Australia, Sarge explained that of the 150 craft sold here so far, the split is about 80 per cent private ownership, 10 per cent government bodies/rescue organisations and the remaining 10 per cent commercial operators.
“For private buyers it’s all about having easy access to the water,” he says. “They generally have coastal access from their properties and see the Sealegs as offering ease and convenience, without the need to tow a trailer or find a boat ramp.”
The 7.7F Wide Console is a brand new release for Sealegs and, together with its 7.7C Cabin version, is the largest model in the range. Our test craft was built to 2C Survey specifications and includes an almost full-width console and windscreen for protection from the elements. And on this particular day, it was a welcome addition.
ALL WHEEL DRIVE
Among the many unique features on the Sealegs 7.7F is a full-time All Wheel Drive system designed to work on difficult terrain such as soft sand and corrugated beaches. It also has a differential lock system that can be used in particularly tough situations.
A typical day out on a land-based 7.7F begins by switching power on via the twin batteries and battery switches. To activate the hydraulic drive to the wheels, a 24hp Honda engine, located underneath the rear seat, is fired up. Using the dash-mounted joystick, it’s then simply a matter of selecting forward or reverse to manoeuvre or drive the boat to water. Top speed on land is around 10km/h. The 7.7F also boasts XRT (Extended Run Time) as standard, which increases the range and running time of the hydraulic wheel drive from 10 to 30 minutes by incorporating an oil cooling system. It’s worth noting here that Sealegs are not considered registerable road vehicles, so it is not legal to drive them on public roads.
The transition from land to water is seamless, particularly when undertaken by an experienced operator like Sarge.
Once in the water the outboard is started and placed in gear, with the wheels continuing to provide forward motion until the boat reaches deeper water. Once it’s properly afloat, the wheels are simply retracted using a switch on the dash and – voila – the Sealegs is now a regular RIB!
Our test rig was more than adequately powered by the new 200F four-cylinder, four-stroke Yamaha attached to a generously proportioned rear pod. Alternative power options include a 150hp single or a twin 90hp setup. The 200F’s mid-range power, in particular, was impressive and once we found a relatively flat stretch of water, it pushed us to a respectable 38 knots (70km/h) at 5430rpm.
A sealed, under-deck fuel tank with 180lt capacity should provide good range.
Out amongst the white caps the benefits of the console and screen were immediately apparent. The near-1600kg craft took the 1-2m speed humps in its stride, providing a surprisingly comfortable ride that took the sting out of the heavier impacts. Its overall on-water behaviour was a testament to the rigidity and design of the hull. Maintaining an easy cruising speed of around 18 or so knots (33km/h) seemed about right for the conditions and the only time water intruded into the boat was when I misjudged the occasional landing. Overall for a RIB I’d rate the 7.7 a relatively dry craft, although any wayward water would be adequately taken care of by a quartet of scuppers on the self-draining deck.
Re-emerging from the water after our test run, the routine was simply reversed. As we approached shallower water, the hydraulic system was restarted, the wheels were lowered and the drive engaged once they found the bottom. We continued to use the outboard until, in around 25cm of water, we switched it off and it became a terrestrial vehicle again. Sarge said that it is advisable to keep the front wheel up until the last minute when beach landing in heavy conditions and with a large following sea or shore break. This provides positive directional control in the event the boat starts surfing on the waves.
With power steering standard, changing direction, both on land and water, was effortless. The forward and reverse engagement was also smooth.
There is an impressively large range of optional extras available from Sealegs. Options on the test boat included a foldaway bimini top, LED spotlights on the standard rear hoop and rod rack, while standard equipment included a Lowrance HDS 9in GPS, Fusion iPod stereo, VHF radio, boarding ladder, dual batteries, 866 Hypalon tube upgrade, rope grab handles on the tubes, a double rub-strip and the Yamaha 200F.
Sarge says that some buyers also opt for a windlass and bowsprit for anchoring convenience. Our test craft employed a simple anchor well compartment underneath the front seat.
The skipper and first mate are well-served by a sturdy pair of comfortable and fully adjustable and bolstered pedestal seats.
For a boat of its size, the 7.7 Wide Console is not over-endowed with stowage options. There is a largish compartment under the seat in front of the console and another smaller one under a hatch in the bow deck. There is also storage in the portside locker in the console, but apart from that you’d need to bring a bin or two aboard to accommodate the sort of flotsam that normally finds its way aboard most craft.
Of course, the Wide Console’s all-terrain/all-seas capability comes at a price. As tested in 2C Survey-spec, the 7.7 will set you back $195,000, including GST. Base-spec will relieve you of $175,000. And if you want a Mackay Multi-Link custom Sealegs tandem trailer, you will need another $12,500 in your kitty.
For more information and the location of your local dealer, email Peter Sargeant at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SPECIFICATIONS: SEALEGS 7.7F WIDE CONSOLE
Power as tested: Yamaha 200F
Performance at WOT: 70km/h at 5430rpm
Fuel capacity: 180lt
Capacity: 8 adults as tested
Priced from: $175,000
As tested: $195,000
For more information, go to: sealegs.com.