As a toddler, Britain’s Prince George might still be unsteady on his feet – but he’s had his Sealegs for more than a year. That’s not to say he’s ready to ply the oceans in the wake of his grandfather Charles’s naval exploits, just that he’s the proud owner of a miniature version of a Sealegs amphibious boat, which he was presented with during the 2014 royal tour of New Zealand and Australia.
As inventions go, the full-sized Sealegs is one of those ideas that makes you wonder why someone didn’t think of it sooner. It’s a high-speed craft which can be driven out of the water and onto the land, thus eliminating many of the tiresome elements of boating such as finding a suitable launching spot, wrestling with recalcitrant trailers or having to keep a weather eye on the tides.
The Sealegs was originally devised a decade ago by New Zealand co-founders Maurice Bryham, an engineer and entrepreneur, and David McKee Wright, who had been CEO of various companies from venture capital firms to technology companies, and the pair enjoyed a degree of success in supplying their invention to rescue services and the military. It was not until more recently, however, when a firm called Avenport Investments took a major share in the company, that the civilian potential of the craft was fully exploited, bringing Sealegs to the attention of private buyers from far and wide. Now, says Avenport CEO Eric Series, individuals as diverse as the King of Morocco, designer Philippe Starck, survival expert Bear Grylls and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen are all Sealegs converts, as are the owners of more than 15 private islands around the world.
As with most inventions, Bryham reached his eureka moment as a result of trying to solve his own problem – he just wanted to be able to launch and retrieve a boat from his beachfront property without having to deal with all the usual problems, but he also didn’t want the vessel’s sea-going capability to be in any way compromised.
After various prototypes, the idea developed into the Sealegs system that is available today – namely a range of rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) that are powered on water by a conventional outboard motor but which feature an additional, 690cc Honda inboard engine. At the time-honoured “push of a button”, this raises and lowers a trio of hydraulically powered wheels, two at the back and one at the front. The inboard engine also propels all three wheels, enabling the Sealegs to emerge from the water onto dry land and to ascend steep slipways or cross pebble beaches at a maximum speed of around 5mph.
The Sealegs is not, of course, the only amphibious vehicle on the market, and is certainly not the most exotic. There is, for example, the WaterCar Panther that touches 44mph on the water and more than 55mph on the road; the Hydra Spyder can hit over 125mph on tarmac thanks to its V8 Corvette engine; and the Suzuki-based Dutton Surf, made in the UK by West Sussex-based amphibious vehicle designer Tim Dutton.
Perhaps the best amphibious car of all, however, was the Gibbs Aquada, also from New Zealand and developed by entrepreneur Alan Gibbs. I tested it for this magazine more than 10 years ago and was left impressed by the way its nifty hydraulics enabled all four wheels to fold into the V-shaped hull, reducing drag and turning the Aquada into a genuine, 30-knot speedboat that could also reach 100mph on land. Although Richard Branson used one to cross the English Channel in record time (one hour 40 minutes), production proved limited and ceased in 2004. The technology has been carried on in the Gibbs Quadski, a $40,000 glorified jetski with the benefit of four retractable wheels.
Where the Sealegs scores, however, is that it doesn’t pretend to be a highly competent on-road vehicle. Essentially, it’s a pure, high-speed RIB that offers the added benefit of being manoeuvrable on land – a combination that, it seems, a large number of boat users have always been longing for.
One such person is 53-year-old City banker Maurice Hochschild who owns a Sealegs 7.1m RIB that he keeps at his home on the south coast of England.
“The only negative aspect of the Sealegs is that it is expensive to buy compared with a conventional RIB of the same size,” says Hochschild, “but this is more than made up for by the sheer convenience of being able to drive it straight out of the sea and into our garden.
“We live right next to the water, and the Sealegs copes easily with climbing the 25-degree shingle beach outside our house. The wheel system just makes the boat so versatile and convenient because it can be launched very quickly, and it also saves money on marina charges, docking fees and even servicing. When the engineer comes out to check it over, he arrives in a van and does the work on the drive.”
Hochschild’s enthusiasm for his boat, which he uses as a leisure craft for fishing, family outings and the occasional trip between Portsmouth and Bournemouth, has even rubbed off on his neighbours, both of whom have also purchased Sealegs RIBs.
And, having spent a day with a Sealegs off the south Devon coast, I can certainly see the appeal. The version I tried was a model called a Sealegs Strata 770 that features an all GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) hull, but the amphibious technology was the same as that used on the regular production RIBs that range in length from the £84,000, 6.1m versions to the 7.7m models that cost up to £200,000 and are available in either open form or with an enclosed cabin.
In any size or format, the Sealegs is an ideal craft for exhibitionists because it invariably causes heads to turn and jaws to drop when it is ploughing towards the shoreline, apparently poised for a certain and ignominious beaching – only for its wheels to drop, allowing it to glide Bond-like onto terra firma and drive nonchalantly up the beach.
Indeed, the Torquay harbour master was so enamoured with the abilities of our Sealegs that he invited us to drive it up the slipway and park it ostentatiously on the road while we soaked up some of that famous “English Riviera” sun outside a nearby café.
And no one who has endured the anxiety of launching and mooring a conventional boat, watched in trepidation as children or elderly passengers attempt to make the leap of faith from choppy waters to dry land, or miscalculated their tide times and ended up marooned in the shallows, could fail to be impressed with the sense of freedom that the apparently simple addition of three driven wheels adds to the boating experience. As Hochschild observes, the system just makes boating so much more convenient.
Eric Series believes the Sealegs technology has a bright future both in the leisure boat industry and for professional applications. “Licensing the technology is probably where the direction of the business lies, because everyone who has experienced Sealegs quickly realises that it takes many of the difficulties away from boat ownership in a single stroke,” he says.
“Although it was initially adopted for professional use, it seemed obvious that there was value in introducing it to people in the luxury sector and we have been lucky to have some great ambassadors for the product, such as Bear Grylls and Philippe Starck. The latter loves designing boats and created his own customised 7.1m Sealegs for use at his home on Cap Ferret – it has an all-black exterior and special trim and it is, he says, the only amphibious boat he has tried that actually works.”
As the technology develops, Series believes a Sealegs with electrically driven wheels will soon become available, and the firm is currently developing a 10m version for the military market.
Perhaps more important, however, is the question of whether or not Prince George’s recently arrived sibling will find a rocking horse or pedal car quite so appealing when she sees her big brother charging across Windsor Great Park’s Virginia Water Lake at the helm of his complimentary Sealegs “mini”.