I first met Nick Fox of Amphibious RIBs in 2006 when he began importing a new 6.1-metre boat from New Zealand. Known as the Sealegs 6.1, it quickly proved a success, particularly in the military and commercial markets, where its amphibious abilities made it a rising star for dive, rescue and flood relief work. But it also gathered a very committed following among the recreational fraternity, so it was inevitable that the fleet would expand - and it has done so in the form of the 7.1.
There’s something about Sealegs
Here in Britain, aluminium leisure boats are not that commonplace, particularly where fast planing craft are concerned - but like the Scandinavians, the Kiwis enjoy quite a love affair with aluminium boats. As a building material, it is not just light and strong, but also easy to work, simple to repair and tremendously durable. Of course, it rarely looks as polished as GRP and (when used in lightly constructed bottom-end runabouts) it can be quite noisy underway, as the waves slap and reverberate on the sides of the hull, like dried peas in a tin. However, like the original Sealegs, the latest 7.1 eradicates these problems by virtue of its formidable weight of construction.
Its strong commercial customer base means these things are built to cope with huge amounts of abuse. Sealegs boats routinely carry out 1,000 hours of unstinting operation each year, and they are also designed to accommodate heavyweight loads - not just on the water but also on the land, where the beautifully engineered hydraulic system will apparently lift as much as six tonnes. We can’t verify that for sure, but what we do know is that wherever you look on this boat (from the hull and the mechanical systems to the electrics and the profoundly robust seating units), this is a boat of huge durability and will be well able to handle even the worst abuse leisure boating has to offer.
But of course, engineering of this calibre is never likely to come cheap. It might be called the 7.1, but if you discount the fore and aft wheels, the actual size of this boat from prop to forepeak is closer to 6.4 metres - and that makes it more than double the price of most leisure RIBs of the same length. But you need to remember two things. Firstly, this is not your average RIB. And secondly, value is about more than just the initial purchase price. With colossal quality of build allied to fierce customer loyalty, a Sealegs tends to retain its value in a way very few boats can match, so the ownership experience is actually much more affordable than it seems.
On board intrigue
Once you’re on board, it is patently obvious that just about everything here is custom built. For instance, the screen is hinged so that it can be folded flat to lower the height of the boat when the wheels are in the ‘DOWN’ position, enabling it to be driven straight into most garages. And the aft ladder is another example of purpose-specific design. With large diameter wheels hogging the space on the transom, the ladder has been moved forward and to port, where it curves flush to match the contours on top of the inflatable collar. But that’s nothing compared to the real party trick - the Sealegs amphibious system...
When called upon from the helm, a 24hp Honda generator (concealed beneath one of the seat units) drives the hydraulic system to lift and lower the wheels and to rotate them once in contact with the land. Rather usefully, the two aft wheels and the one forward wheel can also be lifted or dropped independently, allowing you to lower one end of the boat at a time to aid passengers with disembarkation. And while you might think that a land speed of just 6mph is a touch modest, effective amphibious operation is more to do with grip and torque than simple pace - and this is proven when you drive out of the water and up a beach or slipway. With the possible exception of deep, steeply angled banks of shale, the 7.1 will happily negotiate almost any kind of coastal terrain. There’s no concern for your hull or your prop and no fuss, no wetness and no worry over misjudging the tide. You just drive up, drop the belly, disembark and get on with your day.
Of course, the rigorous efficiency of the amphibious trick is nothing if it damages the boat’s performance on the water - but the Sealegs seems to have entirely sidestepped the common amphibious curse of flawed boating dynamics. Despite having three adults and 180 litres of fuel on board, we manage a very quick transition onto the plane from speeds as low as 13 knots - and when we throttle on, the 7.1 gathers pace in a commendably keen manner, taking us to a top end of 36 knots and delivering a useable range of as much as 160 nautical miles.
At 1,150kg in weight, she’s quite a heavy boat, but with the top-end engine option on the transom (in the form of the ever-willing Direct Injection ETEC 150), she’s impressively responsive. And yet her greatest asset underway is not her pace but her tremendous softness of ride. Trim her out and you get an elevated, high-planing attitude, with the waterline way aft and a point of entry well toward the back end of the hull offering a useful softening of the impact each time the boat comes down off the crest of a swell.
It is therefore no surprise that the Sealegs is a very effective boat in a following sea. With a squared off nose, generously proportioned tubes and a secondary buffer in the form of that fat front tyre, there is ample bow buoyancy to cope with a running swell. And even when you turn hard at pace with the waves attacking the beam, the Sealegs continues to feel very solid, very well built and very soundly planted, engendering a sense of comfort and security very rare in an open RIB of this size.
The 7.1 is substantially better than the excellent 6.1, with first-rate ride and handling allied to quicker hole-shot and a rangier top end. The fixtures and fittings have come on too, with high-end touches like the curved tube-top ladder, the classy cleat insignias and a new seating configuration that makes the most of the small deck. You could of course quibble at the limited storage space, the slightly noisy generator, the absence of a trailer in the standard package and the challenging price, but for me, the Sealegs 7.1 remains far and away the best and most realistic amphibious leisure boat money can buy. For more details see Sealegs or Amphibious UK.
Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.