Rigid hull inflatables: bigger is better

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When it comes to boats these days, “supersize me” seems to be the trend. This year saw introductions of a 53-foot center console with quadruple 557-hp engines strapped to the stern, a 31-foot pontoon boat with triple 300-hp outboards and a few big sportfishing yachts powered by as many as 5,200 ponies.

Protector Targa 30

Even rigid hull inflatables seem to be getting in on the “bigger is better” action. A Google search shows 24- to 46-foot center console and enclosed pilothouse RIBs with as much as 1,200 hp and top speeds near 70 mph. Impressive, but can these big-boy RIBs perform as well as traditional fiberglass boats?

That’s what we aimed to find out by running three models from 30 to 36 feet — two pilothouse boats and a center console. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at the reasons you might want to consider a RIB over a traditional fiberglass hull.

First and foremost, all that air in the tubes (also known as sponsons) makes for an innately stable craft with lots of reserve buoyancy. That not only means less rolling in a sea or when folks hop aboard, but the buoyancy also provides enhanced cornering performance. Force a big RIB hard into a turn, and those tubes “push back” and engage, allowing tighter, more aggressive cornering at higher speeds. They also help to deflect spray, keeping passengers dry. Safety is another factor worth considering. Even a RIB that has taken on water from hull damage or swamped because of mechanical failure can remain afloat, thanks again to those inflatable tubes.

The sponsons also permit designers to create hull shapes with steeper deadrises and narrower beams that can cut through a nasty chop with a smoother ride. “When running in rough conditions, the hull hits the water first, and the higher the deadrise, the smoother your entry,” says Protector rep Andrew Carleton. “The problem is that at some point you need the boat to stop going down and come back up. That is where jarring and banging can occur on traditional fiberglass boats. With a RIB the hull enters the choppy water in the same fashion, but the air-filled collar flexes upward and provides a soft, controlled transition.” 

Perhaps the most recognizable benefit of owning a RIB is the forgiving nature of the tubes. Bumping into a dock, other boats — anything, for that matter — is much less of a problem when you’re dealing with a boat that’s surrounded by air-filled tubes. Still, most folks have at least a few concerns about overall durability.

Tubes made of modern materials, such as Hypalon or PVC, can last almost indefinitely with proper care and maintenance. Sponsons are much more difficult to puncture than you’d think, and since they are generally multichambered, one puncture won’t deflate the entire tubing system.

To see how these attributes work in the real world, we put three RIBs through their paces — pilothouse models from Protector and Ribcraft, and a center console from Fluid Watercraft.

Protector Targa 30

Protector makes no qualms about its primary mission: to design and build rugged RIBs that can take owners anywhere, in any conditions. That’s not surprising, considering Protector builder Rayglass originally created the craft for the New Zealand Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue missions.

Protector starts with a 3/4-inch, solid, hand-laid fiberglass hull with a beefy stringer system. The decks are also solid fiberglass, as is the transom — an area that is cored in many of today’s boats. The Targa 30’s tubes are made of Hypalon and hand-glued to the hull. Protector believes that gluing the tubes creates a more robust attachment and helps transition energy from the tubes evenly along the hull.

Inside the pilothouse and on deck are very unfussy accommodations, but she’s outfitted for a mission that’s more about getting you there than entertaining guests. Still, the Targa 30 is comfy enough, with twin shock-mitigating Stidd seats behind the pilothouse windshield — each with a small bench seat behind — and a large, cushy bench seat at the transom. In the cozy but nicely trimmed cabin are two settees that can be expanded into a sleeping area with filler cushions. The head is cleverly concealed beneath one of the settees. At the forward end of the cabin is a large watertight hatch providing access to the foredeck.

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The Targa 30 we ran on Chesapeake Bay was outfitted with twin 300-hp Mercury Verados, though Protector says she can safely use Verado 350s. Trimmed out with the throttles down, the boat easily reached 54 mph over a 1- to 2-foot chop, with a fuel burn just under 60 gph. Most folks will likely cruise this boat in the 35-mph range; this is where fuel burn settles down to about 22 gph. I was impressed by how quiet and secure it felt inside the Targa pilothouse as we blasted across the waves.

And although all of this performance is great, the Targa 30’s ride is what really sets her apart. The water wasn’t as stirred up as Carleton had hoped, but the 2-foot chop gave some decent clues as to how well the RIB might perform in nastier seas. Trimmed out at 50 mph, the ride was extremely smooth, with the whitecapped waves passing under the hull almost imperceptibly.

Cornering performance was impressive, measured against any type of boat. With the helm hard over, the Targa 30 literally balanced on her inner tube, spinning easily within a boat length. The boat never felt a bit out of control.

Carleton says Protector has customers all over the United States, but there are pockets of popularity you might expect for a boat such as this — for instance, the Atlantic off New England and the exposed passages of the Pacific Northwest. Based on our short time with the Protector Targa 30, its rough-water appeal was obvious, and it seemed a tough, fast and fun boat for a multitude of coastal areas. — G.R.

LENGTH: 30 feet, 6 inches BEAM: 9 feet, 6 inches HULL DRAFT: 2 feet, 1 inch DEADRISE: 23 degrees WEIGHT: 7,900 pounds FUEL CAPACITY: 130 gallons PRICE: $249,000 (fully rigged, with engines and electronics) CONTACT: Protector Boats, Warren, Rhode Island, (508) 332-8381. protectorboats.com

Fluid Watercraft 360CC

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You might not have heard of South Africa’s Gemini Marine, but the builder has been turning out rugged RIBs — under the Fluid Watercraft name in the United States — for commercial and recreational use for 30 years. We took the 36-foot center console 360CC for a spin on Chesapeake Bay.

Fluid Watercraft’s RIBs feature tubes constructed of high- quality, durable Hypalon. The deep-vee hull is a single skin that’s hand-laid using multidirectional cloths and polyester resin. A structural fiberglass grid is attached to the hull before the solid, one-piece fiberglass deck is installed. There’s not a splinter of wood in the 360CC. High-density, closed-cell PVC foam is used for coring, primarily at the transom. The result is a structure that’s solid, stiff and durable. And that’s just what you feel when you hop down from the dock onto the 360CC’s deck.

It feels roomier than expected, which makes moving around a breeze. At the helm is a solid leaning post with an aft-facing seat module. There’s a bench at the stern and additional seating just forward of the console. The console unit is certainly sturdy, but it seems to lack enough space for the 15-inch multifunction displays that most owners will want on a boat such as this. Still, everything is nicely at hand, and the engine gauges are easy to read.

Standard power on the 360CC is a pair of 300-hp Yamaha F300 4-strokes. Our test boat was powered by twin F350s — the maximum power rating for this model. And boy, is it fast. The Fluid Watercraft representative who was aboard says the top end at wide-open throttle is 68 mph. Fully trimmed with the throttle mashed into the dash, we hit 63 mph. At this speed the two big V-8s consume about 52 gph. However, the 360CC cruises comfortably at about 40 mph, where fuel burn settles into the high teens to about 20 gph.

All that power and a stable hull with 23 degrees of transom deadrise equates to some thrilling handling. Pressing into a turn, we spun around as if on rails, and the boat never lost her footing. The harder we pressed the helm over, and the more power applied, the better the 360CC stuck to the water. On a river with a light chop, there was no chine walking, even at 60 mph, and with the engines trimmed way up there was still plenty of control.

Although the 360CC may not appeal to hard-core anglers looking for a dedicated fishing boat, it’s a good candidate for folks poking around the center console market in general. With a fast top end and incredibly good handling — as well as a roomy deck with plenty of space for family and friends — the 360CC should appeal to a wide range of folks with varied boating interests. — G.R.

LENGTH: 35 feet, 5 inches BEAM: 10 feet, 4 inches HULL DRAFT: 1 foot, 10 inches DEADRISE: 23 degrees WEIGHT: 6,450 pounds FUEL CAPACITY: 210 gallons PRICE: $195,000 (as tested) CONTACT: Fluid Watercraft, Edgewater, Maryland, (410) 212-3214. fluidboats.com

Ribcraft Express 32

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Ribcraft USA’s new Express 32 is the largest model the 14-year-old company offers. Ribcraft says its boats are built to “exactly the same standards” whether they’re for commercial or recreational use.

That starts with a vinylester-infused hull with two longitudinal and five transverse stringers. Like other top RIBs, there is no wood in its construction.

The heavy-duty tube has seven air chambers, each with its own pressure-relief valve. Ribcraft says the Express 32 will float even if all of the air is removed from the tube — a skipper could limp home on the fiberglass hull, which is attached by a slide-on double-bolt rope.

Stepping aboard for a sea trial near Ribcraft’s plant in Marblehead, Massachusetts, I was struck by the clean, spacious deck and the size of the pilothouse. It felt more like a traditional boat than a RIB. The interior is steered toward comfort, with adjustable port/starboard seats at the ergonomic helm; 6 feet, 5 inches of headroom; a fully enclosed cabin with 6 feet, 2 inches of headroom; twin 6-plus-foot bunks; and a fully enclosed stand-up head with sink, mirror, hanging locker and storage.

The 32 Express has optional heat/air conditioning, and with drop-down canvas or an optional full fiberglass enclosure, it’s designed for all-weather outings. The helm is simple and clean with space for a 12-inch Garmin multifunction display, as well as room for several small gauges. A custom wraparound windshield with a frame and sliding side windows offer nearly 360-degree visibility. The windshield has a wiper and freshwater wash.

‘Zodiac is back’ Zodiac Nautic, the world’s oldest and largest manufacturer of RIBs and inflatables, announced at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in November that consumers should expect a significant revival of the iconic line. “Zodiac is a wonderful brand. I am no miracle worker, but Zodiac is a sleeping giant,” says CEO Dominique Heber-Suffrin, who with partners assumed ownership of the French manufacturer this past summer after years of financial trouble. Heber-Suffrin promised new-boat introductions at the Miami International Boat Show in February, a renewed marketing campaign, new incentive programs for consumers and a reintroduction of the Avon brand. Although Zodiac continues to sell globally, its marketing efforts had faded in recent years. “We kept producing excellent RIBS — we just didn’t tell anyone,” says Gary Durnan, president of Zodiac Nautic North America (zodiacmarineusa.com), which accounts for 40 percent of the company’s sales. Durnan says Zodiac is running at full capacity, producing inflatables and RIBs from 6 to 28 feet, and continues to develop new products and designs. “To put it bluntly, Zodiac is back,” says Durnan. — Rich Armstrong

The remnants of Hurricane Patricia had just passed through the day before my sea trial, leaving behind 10 to 15 knots of wind and a steady chop with 4-foot rollers on Massachusetts Bay.

The boat was rigged with twin 300-hp Mercury Verados and optional joystick steering (with Skyhook technology) for a top speed of about 50 knots. In flat calm conditions fuel burn is about 22 gph at a cruising speed of about 30 knots.

We were the only boat out, and there was no anxiety as the Ribcraft’s deep-vee hull with full-length lifting strakes handled the bay regardless of our speed, which topped out in the upper 30s. The 7,000-pound boat is extremely forgiving, with the tubes minimizing roll at a variety of angles. There was little pounding or launching, and the ride was dry, with no spray on the windshield as we approached the upper 20-knot range.

It’s easy to see why Ribcraft expects the 32 Express to appeal to families, who will enjoy its steady ride and forgiving “fenders.” Ribcraft also offers semicustomization, or “personalization” of its boats with choices for colors, seating options and engine brands. An optional galley arrangement with a propane cooktop, refrigerator and sink, and optional bow thrusters will make it even more family-friendly. — Rich Armstrong

LOA: 32 feet, 3 inches BEAM: 10 feet, 3 inches HULL DRAFT: 1 foot, 11 inches DEADRISE: 60 degrees forward, 21 degrees aft WEIGHT: 7,000 pounds FUEL CAPACITY: 182 gallons BASE PRICE: $275,000 CONTACT: Ribcraft USA, Marblehead, Massachusetts, (781) 639-9065. ribcraftusa.com

So what’s the consensus? If the intended end use is right, large RIBs are every bit as capable as their hard-sided fiberglass brethren. And in some cases they’re downright superior — especially when it comes to rough water. Of course, there are tradeoffs, particularly if fishing or longer-range cruising are what you have in mind. But if a boat with a fast, stable, comfortable ride in a variety of conditions is what you’re after, a big RIB may be your kind of boat.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.