COLIN JONES sets out on a voyage of discovery around 22 RIB builders, to find out if they have anything new to offer cost-conscious divers
Divers have a reputation in the small boat trade for being a tricky bunch. Their reputation is generally caused by lack of funds, but it is also a result of some of them seeing the price tag, rather than the value.
In a line-up of the 'Best Boat in the World', costing £5000, and a real 'nail' at £4900, many divers would choose the latter. Tales abound of clubs choosing a cheap, badly-built trailer, when £50 extra would have purchased a beautifully-designed and built Roller Coaster breakback, which tows like a dream and lets you launch and recover the boat in a spoonful of water.
The good news for divers is that many companies have not increased their prices this year - some models have even come down in price. Some interesting new construction techniques are being pioneered, and designers increasingly seem to be using better quality solid and inflatable materials. There is also an emerging second-hand market; and at least one company offering a re-tubing service. Another trend is that many divers are buying much smaller RIBs - around 4.5m - which they can use as a family boat, but can also dive a pair from.
Avon has spotted this growing niche and has a new range of smaller, large-tubed RIBs. Because you sit well down in the boat, these give a ride which feels very safe. These newcomers are not specifically aimed at diving but, running on small, economical engines, they make great holiday and ski boats, and inshore dive taxis.
The Avon range of lifejackets is also worth a look. They are small, light and comfortable to wear. They are good for the diveboat coxswain, because they do not interfere with arms, or snag the chest when lifting divers' gear into the boat. The Avon 5.6m diveboat has been slightly modified, and there have been some interesting David Martin additions and accessories. The 5.6m with twin 50hp Yamaha 4-stokes looks a marvellous combination.
BWM has a new address and some new boats. These have been specifically aimed at divers (they are very wide), and are unashamedly advertised as 'budget' models with a price and specification to match. Bluewater Maritime is also continuing its traditional range and has good, water-side facilities for those who wish to examine and compare quality and efficiency levels before they reach for their cheque book.
Bombard seems to keep a very low profile in UK. Nonetheless, the company had some new boats at the Boat Show at Earls Court in January. They are sporting new colours and offering steering console, double seat and a bow locker as standard.
Capaldi has maintained the 1995 price for its well-crafted Rimini range and has plans for a larger model this summer. The company's smaller RIBs are no longer being distributed through Sowester dealers. If you are interested in the portability of an inflatable, the Capaldi DS series is worth considering. Typically, a 4m boat has a beam of 1.75m and would go well with a 20-40hp outboard. It comes in at 1000, with a solid floor, 48cm tubes and an inflatable keel.
Chinook 's boats have always been well received in Diver reviews. The models are unchanged from last year, despite being taken over by Delta.
Cobra has also deemed it unnecessary to change an already good design, and has introduced a racy new boat.
The Nautique is a sporty-looking Cobra, already operated by a couple of Mediterranean dive schools. The boat has plenty of Mediterranean-style lounging area and an efficient stand-up console. This is a versatile craft with an excellent inboard installation, whose gas extraction and water ingress protection are particularly well-designed.
The Picton range also continues in production and is still very competitively priced.
Crompton Marine is the only real newcomer to the leisure boat-building market, but has long been building RIBs for commercial use. One of the range has already been reviewed by Diver (February, 1996), whose liking for it was shared by the members of one particular club, who recently rang me on a brain-picking exercise, then rang again to tell me about it after a demonstration.
The Crompton people are real RIB enthusiasts and talk like it. Their biggest boat, with its multiple spray rails and very deep-V hull, is reminiscent of the Classic Avon 8m Searider. It has a sharp, full-length deadrise (real Don Shead stuff) which might not be the fastest onto the plane, but gives a superb ride when the waves get bigger.
Delta reports that it is so busy with commercial contracts that diving has had to take a back seat. This should not be surprising when you look at some of the enormous Deltas with powerful inboard diesels and spacious cabins. There will obviously be an amount of Delta expertise injected into Chinook, but there are no plans to continue Delta leisure craft. However, if you want one of the enduring Five-Dash-Five series, it can be ordered to suit.
Flatacraft is now well established in the dive market. The arrival of another quality builder with a specialist boat is always to be welcomed. A competitive market can only be to the benefit of the discerning buyer.
Flatacraft has always had interesting and practical ideas on seating and internal layout, so the 7.3m Divemaster is worth adding to your short list.
Humber must have discovered a neoprene mine and some new techniques in order to keep up such a creative flow! The company is currently producing some of the most interesting products around at some of the most competitive prices.
The range contains models to suit all budgets. Customising is no problem either - some orders specify consoles and plenty of grab handles; while others invite the builder to add them to suit. Very practical.
Mach has now been going for a couple of years, long enough to have ironed out most early production bugs and to give potential clients confidence that they are here to stay. So far, I have not had the chance to get one on the water, but from a shore examination they look good.
Northcraft has added a longer dive boat to its range. In addition to the company's British commercial contracts, it has managed to pass all the French Affaires Maritimes homolgation tests, which are required before boats can be sold in France.
Osprey has held most of its prices very close to their 1995 levels and is offering some varied and interesting packages. The Viper is still extremely popular. The company's close links with Northern Diver surely presents a clear opportunity for one-stop dive kit and dive boat shopping?
Revenger has two new boats for this year. New? Well, very nearly new. The original Revenger Challenger was a spacious and very fast 28, but this has now been adapted to 25- and 23-foot models. The Challenger hull was decided to be so well-proven, that to create a totally new design was thought to be pointless.
Revenger is very meticulous about testing and getting the customising right first time. It is perhaps not too surprising, then, that the Challenger 27 (aka 28) won the 1995 RYA Motorboat of the Year award.
Ribcraft has a couple of new RIBs. With a new Portland dive school running a selection of Ribcrafts, there is plenty of opportunity for evaluating and trying a boat before you buy.
Ribtec has a fleet of boats going right around the World - on a freighter - because Ribtec has been chosen as service boats for the next Global Challenge and will be shipped from place to place to meet the fleet of yachts.
The company also has an interesting boat with a Volvo inboard - possibly the way in which clubs might want to develop their fleet, given sufficient funds.
Selva has not changed its boats, or its prices. This year, the company's development has concentrated on outboard motors - including the new Seagull Sport range.
South Coast RIBs has moved away from fitting out other makes for racing and has a new Scorpion, suitable both for racing and diving. It is being built with a revolutionary 'egg-box' module, computer designed to fit the hull exactly and to prop up the deck at all points. This method is claimed to solve weakness in the deck and stringer joints.
Tornado has a new range of sports boat, which could be triple purpose dive, cruise and ski machines. The company has not slimmed its traditional range. Tornado continues to build tubes in polyurethane, which seems to please its commercial, police and military customers, and is now strengthening its hulls with some very advanced grp materials.
It has also (finally) produced a clear price list and catalogue. This makes it obvious that you are buying a bare boat and will need to finance the extra specifications - console, steering etc. Valiant is a new company set up by former Narwhal technicians, who have transferred their operations from Spain to Portugal.
The quality of the boats looks good, and they were well-received at this year's Boat Show.
Winsor has not changed models or prices this year, but is concentrating on customised inboard petrol and diesel installations. Like many of its competitors, its RIBs are getting bigger and bigger. The latest is a 10m Ocean for a commercial diving client.
Zodiac has introduced a new YM range, probably aimed at the yacht market, but the 500 and 600 models could be used for diving. The Cherokee has double seat, console and extra locker as standard. A number of models have removable tubes.
Divers currently have plenty of choice when it comes to buying a boat. There are very few bad boats on the market, and in general RIBs are not a rip-off.