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Boat that drives on land is no novelty

Customers with waterfront property enjoy the convenience of a RIB with retractable wheels

Former Coast Guard cutter commanding officer Jon Hoflich realizes that the Sealegs line of boats he's selling has an unusual marketing hurdle to clear. The New Zealand-built RIBs have retractable wheels that allow the owner to drive the boat onto a beach, up a launch ramp, into a garage or over surprisingly rough terrain.

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"There is a freak factor we have to overcome," says Hoflich, 31, the new vice president in charge of North American sales. "Everywhere I take it, I get looks and people coming up to ask about it."

New Zealand entrepreneur Maurice Bryham, who founded Sealegs Corp. and invented the boat, introduced the first recreational model in June. Sealegs retails fully rigged at $85,000 for the 20-foot model and $112,000 for the 23-footer.

In September, Sealegs launched its 500th vessel. Ninety-nine percent are still in service, which Hoflich says is a testament to the company's early investment in engineering and its consistent, efficient production procedure. A new boat can be built and launched in about eight weeks.

"We're hitting a tipping point for awareness," says Hoflich, who is based in Boston and showed the craft at fall boat shows in Newport, R.I. (where it was named Best New Powerboat Under 30 Feet); Fort Lauderdale; Boston; and Annapolis, Md.; and also this winter in Miami and Seattle. Sales offices are in the works in Seattle and Chicago.

The 500-boat mark answers the toughest question Hoflich fields from potential customers: How can a boat with retractable wheels be dependable in the long term? "It signifies we build a reliable boat," he says.

Hoflich notes the single-piece 5-mm 5083 marine-grade aluminum hull, with seven longitudinal stringers and 12-mm keel plate and heavy-duty, six-chamber hypalon 866 tube, as evidence. And given its New Zealand heritage, 95 percent of the Sealegs are in salt water. The boats come with a standard worldwide three-year warranty.

This is not a gimmicky toy, he says; it's the right boat for the right person, particularly people with waterfront property. About 90 percent of his customers live on the water and buy a Sealegs as a second boat.

"This is a game-changer," Hoflich says. "It's what I call non-agenda boating because most of my customers are still working and time is a major factor. Regardless of the tides, they can get out to the 16 inches of water necessary and quickly be on plane and running."

With a standard 150-hp Evinrude E-Tec, the boats top out anywhere from 40 to 48 mph.

Customer Jim Bicknell, 57, has a home north of Cape Cod Bay in Duxbury, Mass., which is known for big tidal swings.

Bicknell says he used to go boating only when the tide came in and covered what otherwise are expansive sand flats. He keeps his primary boat, a 2008 World Cat 32, on a mooring. Within every 12-hour tidal swing, he says, are only about three hours of sufficient water depth.

Bicknell took delivery of his 20-foot Sealegs in May. Now he goes out whenever it's convenient.

"This takes the tides completely out of play," he says.

Bicknell found himself taking family and friends out this summer about four times a week for fishing or a swim.

"I've used my Sealegs more in the past month," he said during the summer, "than I used my other boat all of last year."

Bicknell first saw a Sealegs last winter at the New England Boat Show in Boston.

"A friend told me, 'It's the coolest boat you'll ever see, but no one will buy it,' " Bicknell recalls. "I looked at it and thought, 'How can I not buy it?' "

Time to boat is always an issue for Bicknell, an owner of a fuel oil, air-conditioning and plumbing company. He initially thought that his Sealegs would serve as a versatile tender to take him over the sand flats to his power cat. He quickly discovered that he could just keep going and explore local spots he had never before considered.

The New Zealand-built Sealegs RIB, introduced in the North American market during the summer, gives owners boating options they previously didn't have. Under way, all three wheels are elevated above water and offer no drag.

"It gives you a lot of flexibility, so you tend to use it more," says Bicknell, who used his Sealegs this summer to deliver the wedding party of a family friend to the church.

"Everybody I've ever taken out, I get a chuckle or a broad smile - it's universal," he says.

Kevin Beaulieu, a 44-year-old financial adviser who lives in Warwick, R.I., says his 20-foot Sealegs was an impulse buy of sorts.

"I didn't know I needed it until I saw it [online]," Beaulieu says. The father of three young children -  ages 10, 8 and 4 - spent the summer storming beaches that are too shallow for his True North 34. "It goes anywhere," he says, adding that his children brag about their father "having the coolest boat in the world."

The Beaulieu family lives on a peninsula in Warwick, and he keeps the Sealegs in his back yard.

"The family jumps into the boat on the lawn, and we are in the water in about 90 seconds," he says. He estimates that he puts five times as many hours on the Sealegs as he does on his True North and a Colgate 26 sailboat.

The Sealegs' ease of use allows him to take a 20-minute ride after work, and he used it four to five times a week.

The all-wheel-drive terrain system incorporates motorized aircraft-type wheels with four-ply tires and stainless-steel hubs powered by a 24-hp Honda 4-stroke engine that can drive the boat on land as fast as 6 mph in forward or reverse. Marinized hydraulic cylinders raise and lower the wheels. The use of hydraulics over electric wheel propulsion is the key to long-term endurance, Hoflich says.

To help convince skeptics that the boat can dramatically expand customers' on-the-water options, he's recruiting "ambassadors" - passionate Sealegs owners who are willing to give potential buyers sea trials (and earn a small commission).

"It's a de facto owners club," Hoflich says. "It seems when they buy the boat, they become advocates for it."

Hoflich says he has a three-pronged plan for success: "Build awareness, earn credibility for the vessel and deliver excellent customer service."

The boat's rugged design and innovations were derived from the military, which comprises about 10 to 15 percent of the company's market. The three key markets, Hoflich says, are customers with waterfront homes, the military and megayachts. Hoflich plans to give future advertising a "family lifestyle" theme.

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters section of the December 2010 issue.