Power Rafts

Rigid inflatable boats

Gunmetal gray swells roll past the Long Beach breakwater, their tops raked into white water by a stiffening breeze. Overhead, a roiling sky promises worse to come. It's the kind of day that sends sensible small-craft boaters to shore. But Debbie Andrews, a quality-assurance inspector for Willard Marine, which builds commercial as well as Navy boats, is just getting started. She clings to a handhold on her 18-foot motorboat as it accelerates over the crest of a wave, hangs airborne, and drops with a crack before veering into a stomach-twisting "hardover" turn that nearly topples her out of her motorcycle-style seat. Her job is to run boats as hard as she can. "I keep trying to break 'em," she says, "but I haven't succeeded yet."

Andrews is no reckless yahoo. The boat she's testing belongs to a tough breed of small motorcraft specifically designed to handle just this kind of rough water. Called rigid inflatable boats, or RIBs, they combine the hard hull of a traditional motorboat with the stability and buoyancy of an inflatable craft. Originally intended for heavy duty in the military, RIBs have a rugged sex appeal that has set them up as the next big stars.

The RIB idea was born of strictly practical concerns. When the British coast guard found that rough stone beaches shredded the underbellies of their rubber rafts, they lashed plywood sheets to the bottom for protection—then realized that, while they were at it, they might as well build full hydrodynamic hulls. Since then, RIBs have flourished in such workaday chores as Coast Guard rescue, Navy SEAL insertion, and maritime patrol. Andrews' boat, a Willard Marine Sea Force 540 ($60,000), is destined for the U.S. Navy, where it will patrol the fleet, guarding against terrorist attack.

Now RIBs are coming into the mainstream, with sleek recreational models that combine the elegance of a Thoroughbred with the machismo of a warhorse. Up to 55 feet in length and equipped with two 1,000-horsepower diesel engines, top-end RIBs are poised to replace the ubiquitous cigarette boat as the epitome of the well-muscled glamour boat.

"Sure, a rigid hull can go faster on smooth water," says Italian RIB builder Fabio Buzzi, whose company, FB Design, counts Ross Perot among its enthusiastic customers. "But in waves a RIB loses much less energy. Every time the boat goes down, the inflatable collar absorbs kinetic energy, then gives the power back. It's like a ball bouncing on the floor."

Not only are RIBs more efficient in high seas, they're safer. The inflatable tubes, or sponsons, provide enormous lateral stability and so much flotation they render the boat virtually unsinkable. In a very rough sea, these small boats are among the most seaworthy craft afloat.

Their toughness pays off at dockside, too. "They can take a lot of abuse, and they're very easy to maintain," says Franco Rossi Sr., president of the Florida-based Nautica, whose $400,000, 41-foot-long model represents the pinnacle of American RIB building. With sponsons made from Hypalon, a synthetic rubber, and hulls of fiberglass or Kevlar, RIBs need no special care and can be left tied to a dock or trailered, as convenience dictates.

In Europe, RIBs already enjoy wide popularity. Years ago they became a staple on the offshore racing circuit, proving ideal for tearing around in the bitterly cold, choppy waters of the North Atlantic. Italian and British boat builders then took the concept and wrapped it in a layer of high technology and aesthetic refinement.

Arguably the most ravishing RIB afloat today is FB Design's RIB Tecno 42, a sleek 42-foot vessel with a gracefully upturned bow and streamlined hull concealing twin 750-horsepower engines. Rocketing over rough seas at more than 80 miles per hour, this Lamborghini of the waves is capable of dishing out more than the human body can handle. Motorized seats equipped with four-point harnesses electronically adjust to hold their occupants at the optimum angle, allowing them to endure forces up to 10 Gs. Price tag for the whole package: $575,000.

This high-performance machine isn't for everyone. "Our average customer is in his fifties and sixties and affluent. He wants something that's different but isn't going to give him a lot of headaches," says Rossi. "Like the guy who buys a Hummer. He has money, and maybe he doesn't need a Hummer, but he wants a Hummer."

Out in Long Beach harbor, Debbie Andrews is already living the full RIB experience. She tightens her grip on the tubular steel handhold as the boat lurches into a "crash stop," the engine roaring in reverse. Then it plunges forward again, leaping off in a cockscomb of foam.

Asked whether she likes her job, Andrews throws back her head and lets out a deep laugh. "Oh my God," she says. "You have no idea."

Where to Buy

Unlike in Europe, where they've been all the rage for decades, RIBs in the United States are just starting to come of age. The two largest domestic manufacturers of recreational RIBs are NOVURANIA (2105 S. U.S. 1, Vero Beach, FL; 772-567-9200; www.novurania.com), which mostly produces yacht tenders, and NAUTICA INTERNATIONAL (1500 S.W. 66 Avenue, Pembroke Pines, FL; 954-986-1600), which builds tenders, military RIBs, and rip-roaring muscle boats like the 1,200-horsepower RIB 41, capable of speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Both makes are available through boat dealers around the country.

Few foreign RIB manufacturers have dealers in the United States, so if you want one of their boats you'll have to buy it overseas, then have it shipped back. The full range of global RIB offerings can be seen on the Web at www.ribmagazine.com, a U.K. site that includes reviews, news, and contact information. In addition to having won numerous international offshore racing competitions, the boats of FB DESIGN (situated about 25 miles north of Milan on 73 Via Provinciale, Annone Brianza; 39-0341-260-105; www.fbdesign.it) also happen to be among the most stylish.