The practical reality of an inflatable boat means that it can be easily moved from one location to another. What's more, you can store it away from the water when not in use.


The Zodiac Story

Good quality inflatable boats are not cheap. Yet, they result in a huge saving on mooring fees and other costs of conventional boating. Certain iconic products that through familiarity, usually based on exceptional build quality, have become the noun that defines the object. Their name is often used as a shorthand description for the generic product. The examples of this phenomenon include Hoover, Durex, Sellotape and Zodiac. Described as heritage or legacy brands that deliver a comfortable, predictable and reliable experience based on proven performance.

My wife spent many happy summers on Spain’s coast and when describing an inflatable boat she uses the term ‘Zodiac’. Indeed, I suspect most of the inflatables she enjoyed were Zodiacs. Owned by those who’d equip them with a Mercury or Johnson outboard for use as a ski boat. For a fun day boat or even as a tender to larger vessels.

These air filled, thermo bonded and tube-gunwaled boats have their origins in the airships of a French company, Zodiac Aerospace. In the 1930s, Zodiac engineer, Pierre Debroutelle, developed early prototype inflatable boats. Primarily for the use of the French Aéronavale, the aviation arm of the French Navy. In 1934 he invented an inflatable kayak and catamaran. In 1937 Aéronavale commissioned Zodiac to produce inflatable pontoons to carry naval ordinance.

Following its development for military use, in the 1950s French Naval officer and biologist, Alain Bombard continued its evolution. Credited with designing the combination of an outboard engine, a rigid floor and the boat-shaped inflatable. Zodiac went on to build the resulting design. To prove its endurance, Bombard sailed a version across the Atlantic in 1952 with friend and fellow naval officer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Later, its excellent performance made the Zodiac, the tender of choice for Cousteau on his iconic dive boat, Calypso.

Practical Perfection

The 1960s saw a growth in the market for the recreational use of small boats. Zodiac answered this demand partly by increasing their own production and also by licensing others including Humber in the UK. Product placement also exposed Zodiac inflatables to viewers in Cousteau’s film The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. An inevitable spike in US sales resulted. From the early 1970s, the modern rigid inflatable boat (RIB) was a development of the classic, almost unsinkable, inflatable boat.

Enhancements include the addition of a rigid floor and solid hull in either Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP), steel, wood or aluminium. Also the addition of a sturdy transom to mount a powerful outboard engine on the rear. Thus making these crafts both quick and very agile. RIBs have proven themselves to be reliable and able to cope with the roughest seas.

I do not wish to sound too purist but the idea of having a solid GRP hull limits the flexibility that the inflatable offers. The time taken to inflate the boat that already has a solid hull seems to mitigate away from the core idea. Why not just have a solid-hulled boat, along with the attendant limitations, in the first place?

RIBs became a favourite with the military, and Zodiac established a separate division, Zodiac Milpro, to service this demand. The product’s durability, stability and manoeuvrability has made it perfect for RNLI and air-sea rescue services. Many kite and wind surfers and those who have drifted out to sea owe their lives to the heroic operations of these services and their trusty crafts.

Keeping the Seas Safe

Illegal drug and tobacco smuggling gangs, intent on landing contraband while avoiding detection in a part of the world many of us know well, made RIBs their vessel of choice. The Customs authorities armed with even more military-grade versions of the RIBs have sought, often very successfully, to thwart the smugglers ambitions.

In the summer of 2018 it was announced in Madrid, as part of Spain’s ongoing war against drug smuggling, particularly on the Costa del Sol and around Gibraltar, that the Spanish Government would take steps to ban the private use of RIBs that were longer than 8m or smaller but with a 150kW engine or greater. The ban came into effect in early 2019.

Invest in Your Own

You will require to own a vehicle with a reasonably large cargo space to complement the user-friendliness of your inflatable boat. You will need to accommodate the uninflated boat, an outboard engine (nothing too small), a fuel tank, folded flooring and life jackets. For the larger versions you may also need to have access to a trailer to launch your craft. Is this starting to sound less convincing as an alternative to conventional boating?

Time also needs to be allocated for the inflation of your boat. As kids we had a bright yellow but very solid Campari inflatable dinghy that was like a tender to our cabin cruiser in locations where nighttime mooring was difficult. It was small and took perhaps half an hour to inflate using a rather pedestrian and whistling foot pump. I appreciate that technology has moved on and with 12 volt air pumps, a fairly large inflatable can be ready to go in a reasonably short time but it’s not a ten minute job. Given the construction of the modern inflatable with its series of stand-alone thermo-bonded air bags, designed to prevent a complete disaster if one of them fails while at sea, there is quite a lot of pumping to do.

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