I have owned a RIB for almost a decade. I’ve used it on the Great Lakes, and on the Chesapeake and Penobscot bays. I have run it from the Jersey Shore across
Raritan Bay to Manhattan on the ugliest of days, flying off ocean swells, safely landing in the troughs and arriving in the city faster than I could have gotten there by car. Despite its small size—15 feet, 5 inches—Bob is one of the most seaworthy boats I have ever used.
As it turns out, I may have been going easy on Bob.
“Eighty percent of our customers use our RIBs a lot harder than you and I would,” Matthew Velluto, director of business development for Ribcraft, tells me as we tour the company’s Marblehead, Massachusetts, facility—which builds a majority of its boats for commercial use, including for the U.S. Navy. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me and my family,” Velluto adds.
RIBs have come a long way since the first was born in 1964 at the United Kingdom’s Atlantic College. The school’s headmaster and his students installed a plywood bottom on the sailing program’s inflatable chase boat to prevent the fabric bottom from abrading. They quickly realized that a flat bottom pounded mercilessly, so they built a shallow-V prototype out of plywood. The college displayed a V-bottom inflatable at that year’s London Boat Show; soon after, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) trialed the design. The final result was the Atlantic 21 that would be used by the RNLI until 2007 and would also be adopted by other national lifesaving organizations.
The first commercially available RIB, the 13-foot Avon Searider, made its debut at the London Boat Show in the late ’60s, and within a decade, RIBs would spread to Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and mainland Europe. They were slower to catch on in the United States.
But times have changed, as my tour of the Ribcraft facility makes clear. The company makes 23-foot RIBs for the U.S. Navy alongside recreational models from 16 to 41 feet in length. One of those models is the Ribcraft 9.0 and we drive to the Marblehead harbormaster’s dock to take one for a ride.
At 29 feet, 7 inches long, this 9.0 is a far cry from a commercial RIB. It is built the same way, but there is comfortable seating all over the boat, and inside the console is an enclosed head. It has a powder-coated aluminum T-top with a fiberglass hardtop, a radar, a Mercury Joystick Piloting system and a 16-inch Garmin MFD screen. On her stern are twin 350-hp Mercury Verados.
The owner, Velluto says, has another boat, but the RIB is now his primary boat. “It’s easy for him to take out with the grandkids and the kids,” he says. “They can take it tubing, make a lunch run from the Cape to the Vineyard, go day cruising, or simply take it for a joyride.” Velluto says Ribcraft also has a lot of customers who fish—and who, despite the boats’ inflatable tubes, don’t hesitate to use gaffs.
“If you use the same common sense that you use to not hook yourself, you’re fine,” he says, adding that “it’s hard to puncture these boats.” Ribcraft uses 1670 Hypalon—the heaviest grade—for its tubes. All of the company’s RIBs also have multiple chambers in the tubes; the 9.0 has seven. Even if all of them are holed, the boat is designed to float on its fiberglass hull.
The inflatable tubes make RIBs capable of carrying great loads. The 9.0 is rated to carry 20 people, but there are a couple of downsides to tubes. They take up interior space and they also age faster than the fiberglass hull, which means the tubes eventually need to be replaced. Hypalon tubes can last a couple of decades. PVC tubes, which are more prone to ultraviolet damage, can last a decade or more. There are many upsides though, including lower weight, lower freeboard, higher speed, lower draft, stability, a dry ride, safety and seaworthiness.
We take the 9.0 through Marblehead’s crowded harbor and as we pass the iconic lighthouse, Velluto opens up the throttles to show off the 9.0’s open-water capabilities. Intermittent swells roll in from the Atlantic as he makes high-speed runs in 3- to 4-foot seas. The 9.0’s sharp bow slices through the tops of waves while the tubes and full-length lifting strakes keep the ride flat and dry.
RIBs are light for their length—the 9.0 weighs about 4,000 pounds without engines—so they take to the air more easily than hard-sided boats. Even though Velluto is going 35 knots, nobody has to brace themselves when the 9.0 lands. Even on the bigger jumps, the tubes prevent the boat from digging in, and speed remains constant.
“RIBs are incredibly forgiving,” Velluto says. “They’re predictable. You can hit a wave funny and it’s gonna land the same way every time.”
RIBs are fast. The 9.0’s top speed with the twin 350-hp engines is 53 knots, and in October, Technohull launched a RIB that the Greek builder says will top 100 knots.
For seaworthiness, you can’t beat a RIB. This summer, an Italian skipper singlehandedly took his RIB from Sicily, via Greenland, to New York City. On a previous trip, he’d also crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil.
We’re not quite that ambitious. We’re going for a lunch run. Velluto points the 9.0’s bow across the bay and at 30 knots we head toward Manchester-by-the-Sea. Still exposed to the Atlantic, we encounter 3- to 4-foot waves, but the ride is easy. At the Manchester harbor, Velluto uses the joystick to push the boat against the dock. It’s a nice feature that feels far more upscale than the RIB’s utilitarian reputation might lead some boaters to expect.
Over lunch we talk boats. Velluto can talk RIBs until the cows come home. He’s been with Ribcraft USA since the company’s founding in 2001 and he’s seen RIBs evolve from utilitarian, purpose-specific commercial boats to all-purpose recreational boats. “Today’s RIBs are an SUV married to a sports car,” he says. “You get maneuverability, stability and performance. You get greater speed with less horsepower, and with similar horsepower you get better fuel economy. RIBs now have fresh design, teak decking, lots of lights, lighting, sound systems, heads and premium seating. You can do everything in a RIB you can do on a hard-sided boat, and more.”
Velluto might sound like he is trying to sell RIBs—it is his job—but what he says matches my own experience with Bob.
We finish lunch and return to the 9.0. I take the helm, head for Salem’s harbor and take the boat through some high-speed turns. At 30 knots I head back to Marblehead. The sun pops out and the fall air warms up again. It’s a really sweet ride.
I still love Bob, but this is making me think about an upgrade.
RIBs are more versatile than ever. Here are six new cruise-worthy models over 20 feet.
BRIG Eagle 6.7
BRIG builds 21 models from 9 to 33 feet. Based in the Ukraine, the company’s latest RIB, the Eagle 6.7, replaces the Eagle 650 with a redesigned deep-V hull, SeaDek flooring, an optional Bimini top, a foldable swim ladder, a built-in cooler, a glass console dashboard with space for two 9-inch displays, and a foldable table. The 6.7 is 21 feet, 9 inches long and can carry up to 11 people. Recommended power is a 150-hp Honda 4-stroke outboard. An optional 225-hp Honda is also available. The 6.7 made its American debut at the 2019 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Zar 95 SL
Italian builder Zar Formenti’s latest model, the Zar 95 SL, is 31 feet, 6 inches long and powered by twin 350-hp Suzuki 4-stroke outboards. It has a cabin with a full-size berth, air conditioning and a separate head and shower. The bow and stern have upholstered seats with tables that transform into sun pads. Aft are a two-burner gas grill, a sink and a two-drawer refrigerator. Options include a T-top, teak decking and underwater lights. Top speed is listed as 60 knots with a cruise of 42 knots. The Zar 95 SL made its American debut at the 2019 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Technohull 38 Grand Sport
RIBs have always been fast, but Greek builder Technohull says its 38 Grand Sport has a top speed of more than 100 knots. The 38-foot, 4-inch hull can handle two Mercury Verados ranging from 300 to 450 hp, or three 450-hp motors in the super sport version. With a sharp bow and a deep-V hull, the 38 Grand Sport is intended for offshore performance at high speeds. She has solid teak decking, an electric toilet, an external shower, an optional cabin in the bow, LED courtesy lighting and an adjustable swim ladder. The first two hulls were launched in October.
Zodiac Open 6.5
Zodiac became synonymous with inflatables when Jacques Cousteau used their boats in his 1960s television show. The French builder, now known as Zodiac Nautic, has a factory in South Carolina. The Zodiac Open 6.5 has a self-bailing, 21 foot, 6 inch, deep-V hull for fishing, waterskiing, diving, wakeboarding and other activities. It has a tilting console to provide access to belowdecks stowage, a bolster with integrated stowage, and a three-person aft bench seat with a cooler beneath. Among the options are T-tops, bait boxes, hand showers and rod holders.
Williams Evojet 70
British builder Williams started building wooden boats, but since the early 2000s has specialized in jet-powered RIB yacht tenders. Its latest model, the Evojet 70, is 22 feet, 9 inches long and is the builder’s largest model to date. It can carry as many as 13 people, has a folding carbon fiber hardtop to reduce its airdraft for boat garage stowage and is highly customizable. It’s powered by a 230-hp Yanmar 4LV diesel with jet propulsion. An optional 250-hp diesel engine is also available. The Evojet 70 made its debut at the 2019 Monaco Yacht Show.
Airship RIBS is an Ohio-based custom builder. Its latest model, the 340, replaces the 330 and has a twin-step hull with a redesigned transom. The 34-foot hull has a self-draining cockpit, a bow sun pad, LED navigation and courtesy lights, a cooler below the bow console seat and a porta potty inside the center console. It has pop-up stainless cleats, a transom shower, and a stainless tow bracket. Among the options are SeaDek flooring, fish lockers, underwater lights and a hardcover T-top. Power comes from twin 400-hp Mercury Verado 4-stroke outboards.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.