The Fremantle Doctor’s antidote

Barry Wiseman | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 5

Long recognised as capable, reliable and safe rigs for commercial operators, Naiad’s RIBs are gaining traction among recreational boaters tackling WA’s rough offshore conditions.

It’s ironic really. My knees have been damaged due mainly to years of wear and tear onboard monohull vessels, mostly in rough waters off the Perth metropolitan coast. Last summer’s bumper rock lobster season was accompanied by constant south-westerly winds (the ‘Fremantle Doctor’) well before dawn. Heading out at 4.30am every morning for a month in the run-up to Christmas and coping with a short, sharp chop really took its toll on my left knee. Hopes of a simple recovery were dashed when the orthopaedic surgeon confirmed a replacement knee was the only answer.

Six weeks after that surgery, I’m welcomed by multi award-winning RIB designer and builder Rob Kirby, of Kirby Marine at Henderson in the Australian Marine Complex south of Fremantle.

Kirby Marine is one of two boat manufacturers in Australia building New Zealand-designed Naiad rigid inflatable vessels using heavy-duty plate aluminium and multi-chambered air collars. Similar vessels are built by Yamba Welding and Engineering in New South Wales.

In Western Australia, the Naiad name needs no introduction. These vessels and their builder have made the headlines many times in recent years, taking out national and state boat-building awards since Rob Kirby moved away from building conventional mono- and multihull aluminium vessels.

The move into Naiads came in 2000, when Rob Kirby was convinced there was no better craft available to combat Western Australia’s open water along its 21,000km coastline. The south-westerly blows year-round and summer brings hot, gusty easterlies up to 30 knots. After they drop, around midday, you get the stiff ‘Fremantle Doctor’, which sends mariners heading for shore. There have been many, often fatal, disasters at sea when skippers have been caught out and misread the rapidly changing weather conditions.


Initially known as the ‘4WD of the sea’, Naiad’s tough plate aluminium, sharp entry and acute reverse chines provide excellent traits to combat rough waters. But it was the addition of the huge compressed-air rubberised collar that was a breakthrough.

The flexible collar absorbs the impact of the ocean and provides superior buoyancy. As the hull parts the water, the air collar absorbs the impact of the waves, softening the ride for the occupants.

Needless to say, the West Australian marine authorities were very impressed by the capabilities of the Naiad vessels. Nowadays, Water Police, Department of Transport Marine and Safety personnel, Fisheries officers, Parks and Wildlife staff, and the very valuable army of volunteer sea rescue group members, all now operate Naiad RIBs of various sizes and configurations.

The Boating Industry Association of Western Australia conducts regular safety convoys to Rottnest Island, the aquatic playground off Fremantle. These are among the most deadly waters in Australia, with hidden coral reefs. Twice a year a fleet of government agency Naiads escorts mariners to the island and through its many pristine bays, so skippers can familiarise themselves with these popular waters.

Eco-tourism is another rapidly growing on-water experience and thousands of tourists board the Kirby fleet of Naiads operated by Rob Pennicott’s Bruny Island Charters on Tasmania’s east coast. Many would also recall this daring adventurer’s 2011 circumnavigation of Australia in tiny Naiad rigid inflatables. At 5.4m, his two vessels were seriously laden, but performed outstandingly, enabling Pennicott and team to complete the three-month event in aid of the eradication of polio.


Proven workhorses and lifesavers, Naiads are heading for new horizons. Increasing numbers of West Australian recreational boaters, mainly bluewater fishers and divers, are discovering the qualities this vessel has to offer. The days of being just a tender are long gone.

Maintaining the Naiad traits, more and more recreational boaters are consulting Kirby Marine’s design engineer Grant Odermatt to customise their boat’s superstructure and interior.

“Anything is possible using aluminium,” says Rob. “The cabin boats can be fitted with sleeping quarters, galleys and all the facilities you come to expect in a recreational vessel. Cray fishers are ordering winches and pot tippers and we are building vessels to take single or multiple outboards or sterndrive diesels.”

Not resting on their laurels, Kirby Marine is entering a new dimension. A new flexible collar is being introduced that requires changes to the design and construction of the vessel’s sides to help make it more attractive to the recreational sector.

The collar is made from high-impact, closed-cell foam which is then covered with a rubberised material. The D-shaped composite foam can withstand punctures, won’t deflate, adds more buoyancy and still provides flexible protection when coming alongside another vessel or a jetty. Because the inner edge of the ‘D’ configuration fits hard against the side of the vessel, the gunwales can be raised, giving greater depth inside the cockpit and support for passengers to lean against.

“Over the years, we looked at how much people have suffered after they’ve been out on the water, whether it be from the ride or sunburn. It’s a bit like the search for the Holy Grail … we’re seeking to achieve the best boat that will cope with our open waters here on the west coast. We are still working on prototypes and we’re not there yet, but we’re close,” Rob says.

“The bar has been lifted with anything to do with occupational health and safety and, as far as boats are concerned, we all suffer from the same thing. You’re going through vertical acceleration and deceleration all the time on the ocean. Being able to manage that is really important for us so people can really enjoy their time on the water.

“RIBs cheat like no other boat. They have very fine entries, savage deadrise, and what makes them so great is the ability to absorb any impact. They lengthen the duration from the moment of acceleration … just like an airbag in a car when it goes off after the vehicle hits something.”

Kirby’s Naiads also feature special high-speed suspension jockey seats developed by Swedish doctor Johan Ullman, who served in the navy back in the 1980s and treated many sailors suffering from severe back problems after working on rapid-response torpedo patrol boats.

I have been aboard many Naiads, but the most memorable was off Albany on the rugged south coast that cops the brunt of the Southern Ocean. Forty skippers from the West Australian Volunteer Marine Rescue Services had come together to be put through a rapid-response training program. I joined these unsung heroes aboard the 8.5m Naiad Albany Rescue 1 in the rough seas of King George Sound. It was something I had never experienced before – powering on and off to make these vessels skip from wave top to wave top in three- to four-metre seas. Unbelievable.

Time is life or death to these guys and the punishment these Naiads can take is astonishing. No wonder Kirby Marine’s office walls boast Boating Industry Association ‘Boat of the Year’ awards in several categories in successive years from 2008 to 2012, the final year the awards were held in WA.

For more information, contact Kirby Marine, tel: (08) 9410 2270. Web: Or go to: