It is a broadly accepted truth that a thing designed to do two jobs is (1) flawed in both regards; and (2) as ugly as Hell. We’ve seen plenty of evidence for this in the world of amphibious vehicles, with grotesque toad-like creations that drive like pushchairs, swim like swamp donkeys and cost a fortune to own. And yet if the following five amphibious craft are anything to go by, it appears that technical sophistication, designer acumen and manufacturing processes have brought us to a stage where that tired old truth no longer holds sway. Well at least, not entirely...
(1) Sealegs 7.1
Let’s start with a proper useable everyday boat that puts hydrodynamic performance right at the top of its priorities list. Like all Sealegs craft, the 7.1 is a heavily built aluminium RIB with three fat offroad tyres on hydraulically operated legs that retract from their upper positions (two at the transom and one at the bow).
Powered on the water by an outboard motor and on the land by a small Honda inboard engine, it is in use all over the world both in commercial roles and among a select few lucky boaters with waterfront houses. When you drive it, it is dynamically indistinguishable from a conventional heavyweight RIB – and while its land performance is largely restricted to creeping up a loose beach and then dropping its belly to enable the occupants to disembark, it remains a remarkably complete piece of work. There is a larger, more recent 7.7 available, but as an all-round driver’s package, the 7.1 remains the best boat in the Sealegs fleet and probably the best purist amphibious RIB in the world.
(2) Gibbs Quadski XL
At last – having made several previous references to rumours surrounding the appearance of a more versatile, two-man Quadski, the XL version is finally here. Powered by the same 175hp BMW Motorrad K1300 engine as the original one-man craft (and coupled to the company’s own patented water jet propulsion system), the new XL model weighs around 50kg more than old craft but is apparently quicker to climb onto the plane.
The Gibbs HSA (High Speed Amphibian) system again offers a combination of soft ride and sharp handling with rear-wheel-drive on land, plus a rapid (four-second) transition to jet propulsion on water. It’s around 25 per cent wider than a comparable three-man personal watercraft, which makes it look a little bulky and makes performance (just shy of 40 knots on both land and water) moderate rather than thrilling but by amphibious standards, the Quadski XL remains outstandingly capable. The original Lotus-lookalike Aquada may have started it all for Gibbs, but this latest Quadski is the best, most useable and most capable leisure boat the company has yet produced.
(3) MSV Explorer
The MSV Explorer is a magical bit of kit – not least because it looks, feels and behaves like the kind of craft an imaginative, childlike mind might attempt to create if given free and uninhibited rein.
Not only can it negotiate beaches on its tracks, but it can offer a surface cockpit plus a two-man subsurface pod with 360-degree visibility. In the water, twin horizontally mounted Torqeedo thrusters enable six knots ahead and four astern while a pair of independent 24-volt lithium battery banks offer the capacity for up to 100 hours between charges. The heavy-duty rubber Cat Tracks use an “Electro-Bio-Hydraulic” system and 360-degree rotation to enable great manoeuvrability and the ability to climb over rough terrain and up steep beach inclines. And while you’re not gonna be hammering up the fast lane of the M6 en route to fresh cruising destinations (or taking it out in rough waters), as an example of how thrilling a product can be when imagination, technical sophistication and committed investment work in harmony, the MSV is a very welcome piece of work.
(4) Watercar Panther
Described by its manufacturers as “the most fun vehicle on the planet”, the Watercar Panther is probably the most mainstream-looking (and therefore most popularly palatable) amphibian money can buy.
Based around a lightweight body and hull built from fibreglass on a tough offroad chromoly chassis, the Panther is filled with 32 cubic feet of closed cell Styrofoam for extra buoyancy and strength. As for power, that comes from Honda’s ultra-reliable V6 VTEC engine, hooked up to Watercar’s patented transfer case, enabling drive to be directed either to the rear wheels or to the jet drive. With a claimed water speed approaching 40 knots and road performance not far short of 60mph, the figures are impressive – and so too is the attention to detail. The internal fit-out uses marine vinyl, stainless steel and epoxy coatings to make everything properly resistant to the ingress of saltwater - and the fact that Watercar has a bedrock of experience encompassing 25 years and 35,000 units makes this Panther look like a very sage amphibious offering indeed.
(5) Gibbs Phibian
If you want a tough, open-decked fishing platform in amphibious form, you can’t do much better than this. Built by British company Gibbs (of Aquada and Quadski fame), the Phibian is designed to achieve serviceable everyday road speeds, plus useful offroad performance and water speeds of around 26 knots.
Popular with commercial, military and law enforcement bodies, the very robust, practical Phibian has sufficient torque and ground clearance for a variety of terrains and inclines. That ground clearance also enables the use of a proper hull shape on the vehicle’s underbelly. The push of a button sees the wheels retracted and within ten seconds, the transition from land to water is complete. The use of carbon-fibre makes this truck surprisingly lightweight but if you’re after something less... well less like a massive house brick, the smaller Humdinga might be the better option. Even so, a payload of a tonne and a half, plus space for three crew and 12 passengers and broad, easy-access doors on both sides make the hard-core Phibian a much more serious proposition than the flawed and fragile novelty amphibians of the past.