If it Looks Like a Duck, and Floats Like a Duck…it’s a RIB

If it Looks Like a Duck, and Floats Like a Duck…it’s a RIB

‘Once more upon the waters! yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider.’

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1816

Any person who has looked at the history of boats will have seen pictures of man’s first inflatables: the whole skin of some unfortunate beast with leg, neck and tail holes carefully tied with leather thongs. These hides were then inflated – balloon style – by blowing through a hollow reed into the skin until it resembled a truncated Porky Pig sort of boat, the legs sticking out at each corner, presumably for the captain to hold onto. These were not long-term vessels: crossing a river before they deflated was the main aim. Floating around on a prehistoric swimming pool aboard your inflated goatskin while sipping milk from a coconut was not a viable option.

Then, in 1838, Charles Goodyear made the discovery that made mass road transportation possible and gave F1 teams a choice of hard, medium or soft tyres: he discovered (accidentally, it must be recorded) how to vulcanise rubber, making it durable and flexible – fairly important factors in a vehicle tyre. There was some controversy around the development of vulcanised rubber in England shortly after that: one Thomas Hancock had observed Goodyear’s methods in the USA, snuck back over the pond and started his own vulcanisation factory. The back and forth of the legal process does not concern us here, but what did transpire is that the man who engineered Napoleon’s Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, (also known as the Duke of Wellington to his friends), tested the first inflatable pontoons. Crafted by Hancock from vulcanised rubber, the Duke was so impressed with the possibilities that Hancock recorded his success in The Origin and Progress of India Rubber Manufacture in England, published a few years later.

Scottish inventor Charles Macintosh (yes, that is how he spelt his name originally – the ‘k’ was added incorrectly later on by ignorant 19th century blog writers) had already made his name – literally – a household word with his method of sealing a layer of rubber in naphtha between two layers of fabric, creating a waterproof cloth. In 1844 another British navy man, Lieutenant Peter Halkett, developed a type of inflatable boat from ‘Mackintosh cloth’, intended for use by Arctic explorers. The ingenious Halkett boat was in fact a hybrid garment: it served as a waterproof poncho or cloak until inflated, when it became a one-man (or two-man) boat. Halkett didn’t stop there: a special pocket in the cloak held a small bellows that could be used to inflate the boat (our ancient goatskin-floater would have been seriously jealous at this), and there was a wooden blade that, when added to the Arctic explorers walking stick, turned it into a paddle. Still not done, Hackett designed a crafty umbrella that could double as a sail. The fact that there are no surviving pictures or drawings of Arctic or Antarctic explorers strolling along under umbrellas whilst twirling walking sticks might highlight a fault in Hackett’s thinking.

Ideal for adventurous kids and adults alike, you’ll get a dolphin’s eye-view of the coastline as you glide along.

Hackett should have gone down in history, but unfortunately the Admiralty were sceptical about the use of his one- and two-man versions of inflatable raincoats, writing: ‘My Lords are of an opinion that your invention is extremely clever and ingenious, and that it might be useful in Exploring and Surveying Expeditions, but they do not consider that it would be made applicable for general purposes in the Naval Service.’ Sir John Franklin was one such explorer: he provided his entire 1845 Arctic expedition of two boats and 129 men with Hackett Boats. Sadly, Sir John Franklin, his two boats and 129 men vanished without a trace, and this dubious testimonial did not particularly help Hackett’s future sales.

In the USA, explorers who were opening the Wild West found out that rubber cylinders tied in shape of a canoe made great river-rafting accessories, and were instrumental in getting men and baggage across some of America’s largest waterways. These were also the first known examples of boats with separate watertight compartments, a great safety factor on modern-day boats. (Except for the Titanic, it must be said.)

The World Wars and other conflicts, not to mention the development of the internal combustion engine, has seen the inflatable boat become one of the world’s standard vessels. Used for everything from fishing and racing to wave-jumping and ocean safaris as recreational vessels, they have also become irreplaceable in the realms of safety, exploring, diving and other ocean, riverine, dam and lake environments.  Known colloquially as ‘rubber ducks’, inflatables are used worldwide. They have also been modernised in some iterations too, combining rigid-hulls with the inflatable side ‘balloons’ creating a safe yet strong barrier. Known as RIBs, these hulls can take more powerful motors; there is a stronger transom at the rear of the vessel to support the heavier weight of the outboards, and also allowing a cabin of sorts midships.

Which brings us inexorably to Waterfront Charters and their two magnificent RIBs. Spectre and Adventure 1 are classic inflatables, and we use them for a variety of guest-friendly cruises. From the Ocean Safaris, as mentioned above, to our new one-hour child and family friendly coastal cruises, we absolutely love taking these beauties out into Table Bay. They are incredibly versatile: watch the start of the Cape to Rio Yacht race, or accompany stand-up paddlers on their way; utilise the horsepower of the twin outboards to thrill, or sidle quietly past a school of dolphins or a basking whale (at a safe distance, of course) or just feel the sea spray in one’s hair and the thumping of the swells beneath your feet.

Inflatables:  a combination of boating history, magic, exploring and pure fun!