How a Schoolboy Experiment Gave Birth to Today’s Rigid Inflatables
Life is full of hard luck stories but some of the worst relate to people who have held a fortune in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.
Take the little known story of the Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat. It seems it has been around forever and yet the ubiquitous craft was only ” invented ” in the 1960s and the patent was sold for a mere £1.
The story of how the original RIB came about is quite remarkable and starts at Atlantic College on the South Wales coast. Run by a retired Rear Admiral, the college was heavily involved in sailing and canoeing with parties of students taking it in turns to man their very own inshore lifeboat station. On those occasions when they were called upon to rescue classmates encountering difficulties in the Bristol Channel, it quickly became clear that the all- rubber inflatable safety boats were far too unstable to cope with turbulent conditions.
The boys therefore set about experimenting with rigid wooden hulls married to an inflatable rubber surround. After trying about 30 different versions, they finally arrived at the template for today’s fast and light but sturdy RIBs. This included innovations such as the “wheeled ” steering for the outboard engines and removing the transom to allow water to flow out.
The RIB finally came to the attention of the mainstream nautical fraternity in 1969 when 2 students built a boat for a team in the Round – Britain powerboat race. They managed this in only 3 weeks and the vessel, named Psychedelic Surfer (well, this was still the Sixties), included wheeled steering for the twin engine outboard.
Amazingly, the RIB came in 19th out of around 60 entries and immediately became the talk of the town. It had competed with and beaten off many traditional powerboats which had cost thousands to build. Its ability to cope so well with rough conditions came to the notice of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and it was the RNLI who handed over a nominal £1 for the RIB patent.
There was no way the former Rear Admiral was ever going to accept serious money from a charity even though the patent could have been generating about £15 million a year in royalty income for the college from today’s massive global market for RIBs.
The RNLI was one of the first organisations to see the future of the RIB and in 1972 the now famous Atlantic 21 became part of its fleet. By August 1993 it had made 15,601 launches and saved 4,717 lives.
In the early days, Atlantic College students and staff played an active role in the design work in collaboration with the RNLI and the boat’s origins are still recognised by the organisation today with the name being carried through to today’s workhorses, the B-class Atlantic 75 and Atlantic 85.
Similar “civilian” RIBs clearly remain as popular as ever with British RIB builders. One wonders just how many customers are aware of the somewhat unusual origins of these leisurecraft.