• by Virginia Koetzner

It Started With The Avon

If you are old enough to remember wooden dinghys and rowboats, you’ll also remember weekends spent at anchor that involved at least two round trips ashore if you brought the dog along. These dinghys were heavy and had to be painted every year. They were so awkward that, when backing into a slip, most boating couples had a sequence they followed. As he turned to back into a slip, she had untied the dinghy and walked it forward to tie it to a bow cleat. This sometimes turned into a comedy routine (for those watching, not the participants) if the wind blew him off course and he had to start over or she wasn’t paying total attention.

Avon started manufacturing their inflatable dinghys in the late 1950s. These inflatables gave boaters freedom and flexibility. You could blow it up when you needed it and deflate it while traveling. The rigid hull version of the inflatable, now called a RIB, came about as a team effort at Atlantic College in South Wales. They tried attaching flat plywood bottoms to old, ripped inflatables to repair and improve their sailing club rescue boats. The flat plywood bottom was not strong enough. They tried making a vee bottom. The vee stayed together but gave them an uncomfortable ride and they rebuilt it, with the vee forward, smoothed out to a flat aft section, and that worked. The first fiberglass bottoms were not strong enough but they kept working on it and after a few failures, a fiberglass bottomed twin engine 21’ RIB, the “Psychedelic Surfer,” was one of the few finishers in the 1969 Round Britain Powerboat Race. Fast forward to here and now – the technology is in place to meet US security and commercial boat needs.

The rigid hull inflatable boats made today have aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fibre composite hulls. Although there has been a tight squeeze on government agency spending. there is one hot market today – money is available for municipal and military security vessels. After 9/11, the emphasis has been on security. Government accountants figured out that the warships, destroyers and other big support vessels needed extensive maintenance, cost a lot to buy and operate, needed big crews and by their very presence near a foreign country, announced that something big was about to happen. New, smaller boats, especially the RIB boats, are lighter, more cost effective and don’t need big, highly trained crews. The RIB boats fit perfectly into the new defense picture and their arrival may have helped change military thinking from “big is good” to “small is cheaper” about readiness and preparedness for wars.

SAFE Boats International of Bremerton, Washington, makes RIB boats for the Coast Guard and other US military agencies, as well as the 27’ and 31’ RIBs sold to the Suffolk County Marine Police. A new 31’ SAFE boat is expected to be delivered this November, joining five other 27’ and 31’ SAFE boats used on the north and south shores of Long Island. All, including the new one, have twin 300 hp Mercury Verado 4-stroke outboards that are very fuel efficient and quiet. They are capable of doing over 60 mph, important when lives are at stake. These SAFE boats are Sgt. John Vahey’s favorite boats, one of which he used last February to rescue two of the passengers from a Piper 4-seat aircraft that ditched in Setauket Harbor. Sgt. Vahey likes a boat he can depend on to handle well with a small turning radius at high speeds, especially with the chop on the Great South Bay and transiting the inlets in rough weather conditions, something these boats have to do daily to check the shifting bars that bring hazardous breaking waves to new locations every day.

All the Marine Police boats have shock absorbing seats for the crew and have been certified for medical transfer by New York State. They are all equipped with medical oxygen, first aid kits, backboards and defibrillators, survival suits for the crew, blankets for victims, an automatically deployable life raft, extra PFDs, an EPIRB beacon, strobe lights, marker buoys, life rings and rescue ropes. All the boats were recently upgraded with new Furuno color radar and Simrad color GPS chart plotters, as well as marine VHF radios, police radios, hailer, siren, blue law enforcement strobe lights and FLIR (forward looking infrared) for searches and patrol at night.

SAFE Boats celebrated their 2000th delivered boat in May, 2016, with an event that included Customs and Border Patrol officials, congressional staff members, local government officials, equipment suppliers, local business people and the media. The Air and Marine Operations of the Customs and Border Protection agencies expect to take delivery of 52 of SAFE’s new 41’ boats to meet emerging Homeland Security mission requirements. The contract for these boats is valued at over $48 million. Although the 41’ will be configured for different missions, it will provide a safe working platform with excellent sea keeping capabilities.

SAFE is the sole manufacturer of foam-stabilized watercraft in the US. SAFE has exclusive patents for the full-sized foam collar system for flotation, stability and fendering. Not a pneumatic tube system as some RIB manufacturers use, SAFE’s collar system SAFE’s collar system will not be susceptible to temperature fluctuation, bullets, striking docks, buoys or pilings. It can’t deflate because it’s 100% foam. A novice can make any SAFE collar repair within a few hours. The polyethylene foam used in SAFE boat collars, was designed to insulate the Alaska oil pipeline and is impervious to petroleum products, solvents and extreme weather conditions.

At San Juan Yachts they believe a yacht is a work of art. This philosophy is who they are and drives everything they do. When business slowed down for their 30 to 48 foot Down East style cruising boats with high end fit and finish, they turned their attention to building a RIB. Their 32’ pilot house cruiser has 300 hp Mercury outboards that cruise at 30 knots with a top speed of 55 knots. The boat’s 10 foot beam compresses to 8’4” when its tubes are deflated. The beam and 7000 pound weight make it very trailerable. It has a separate electric head, 6’2” headroom, two bunks, galley, diesel heater and joystick piloting.

MetalCraft’s new 34’RIB is designed to be versatile and customizable. These rugged new hulls will open new commercial and military markets for the company. With a background of providing search and rescue RIBs and fireboats for the US Navy, the new RIB is available in multiple collar configurations. Engine options allow for 300 or 400 hp. It’s available as a center console or with a cabin and in just minutes it can be reconfigured to a two seater from a twelve seater. The customization possibilities allow the builder to start working on the hull and accommodate change in the manufacturing process.

The US Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and foreign agencies, oil and gas companies and search and rescue groups have been ordering Willard RIBs. Willard is a major supplier to the US Navy and has built almost 2000 boats in their Anaheim, California and Virginia Beach, Virginia plants. They have developed more than twenty different models from 6’ to 60’. The 11 meter Willard boats going to the Navy will be equipped with twin Cummins diesels, some 300 hp, some 400hp, paired with Hamilton water jets.Willard offers familiarization courses customized for the crews that will take delivery and use these boats. Collaborating with the agencies they build for,they’ll design programs to teach operation,maintenance and repair of their boats.

The ultimate in RIB boats is the extreme RIB. Your choice in hull material in most RIB boats is fiberglass or aluminum. Using carbon fibre composite for extreme RIB hulls provides a high power to weight ratio that results in amazing fuel consumption figures for standard power or exciting speeds with additional power. The benefits of extreme RIB boats have been described as a different ride – responsive, as in feeling one with the boat, and like floating on an air cushion. One of the properties that carbon fibre hulls offer is the reversing of energy when it comes in contact with a solid object, offering a less jarring ride.

If a RIB is something you’d like to see in your slip, keep in mind they are expensive for what they offer. These boats are made for maneuverability, high speed and low fuel consumption, so the tradeoff is – you don’t look for the carpet, the drapes or the coffee maker on a RIB. www.Yachtworld.com’s list of used RIB boats includes a 2013 25’ RIBCRAFT for $99,500 and a 2014 21’ RIBCRAFT for $63,900. Another source for used RIB boats is Boats & Harbors (sometimes available at Island Fish Net Supply on Railroad Avenue in Sayville). A spring edition of Boats & Harbors turned up a few used RIBS, some of which were manufactured by SAFE RIBCRAFT, Willard, Zodiac and Bollinger.

Buying a used RIB means getting a surveyor to look at the one you like. You can look for previous repairs yourself by looking for patches and glue stains. Look for cracks where the foam collar joins the boat’s hull. You’ll want a surveyor to have experience with RIB boats so he can predict possible expensive repairs to the tubes.

In a tight market, US boat builders are having a good year. RIB boats built by SAFE Boats International in Washington, RIBCRAFT in Massachusetts, Willard in California, ASIS in Maryland, MetalCraft in New York and Brunswick Corporation are thriving as some of the major players in the RIB boat building business, providing boats to US and foreign military agencies.

The RIB manufacturers have seen the handwriting on the wall. The message is clear – there will be more orders for these popular little boats and larger ones. The government agency search and rescue boats have good access to bring victims into the boats, they make boarding of other boats safer and easier by virtue of the foam collar that acts as a giant fender and stabilizes the boat in bad weather conditions, and best of all, these boats are virtually unsinkable. They can fill with water and stay afloat.

The manufacturers are committed to satisfy their military and commercial customers. They are listening and getting it right the first time and are providing on-time deliveries.


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