If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work. - Jacque Cousteau
Man’s fascination with flight has long occupied that illogical yet uniquely human part of our history and imagination, especially the blip where we thought heating the air inside a big rubber balloon with open flame was the best way to get airborne. But without that singular passion and dash of the ridiculous, companies like Zodiac would never have been born.
From 1896 through the early 1930s, Zodiac’s relentless pursuit of flight produced 63 iconic airships and was a key component in the success of the French Naval Balloon Command during World War I. The logical leap from airships to boats still defies most, but the company retooled for the water and rode the wave of military contracts through World War II and the rise of recreational boating through the Baby Boom.
It’s no surprise then, that Zodiac is taking another one of those leaps we humans are known for by producing rigid inflatable boats outside the tender market. RIBs have made themselves most useful to yacht owners as a secondary vessel that hangs off the back and conveys the party to shore for some landlubbing sightseeing. But new CEO Dominique Hebert-Suffirn caught the exploratory vision of those airship builders and early clients like Jacque Cousteau. And the new line of Zodiacs is declaring itself as a contender in the primary craft market.
A French national, Dominique heard Zodiac was up for sale and couldn’t bear to have such a quintessentially French company be sold abroad. He gathered a group of like-minded patriots and together they kept Zodiac at home, digging into the early DNA of the company to guide its new direction.
“Our heritage is one of pioneering and exploration. We have always had to innovate because our customers, like Jacque Cousteau, needed us to. Cousteau was one of the great professional explorers and required technology to keep up with him. He knew he could find that technology with Zodiac. And that’s why our claim today is to keep exploring. Our history has always been close to exploration and adventure and we don’t want to change the DNA of the company. We can make all kinds of new boats, but we want to stick to our history and be perceived by our customer base as consistently bringing something forward that will take them further.”
A Sweet Ride
Over the summer, GLB editors were invited to Zodiac’s American headquarters in South Carolina to test drive the new OPEN 5.5 and the supercharged OPEN 7. With four full-sized adults (who’d just spent a week eating in Charleston), the OPEN 5.5 with a Mercury 90hp kept an impressive pace of 55 mph. More impressive was how underwhelming the experience was: it felt just like top-of-the-line day boats designed for big water. When you get aboard something that looks like a dingy, you expect a rough ride. This was quite the opposite.
“You can enjoy the stability of the hull and the shock absorption of the tubes. People like it because they like to change from one activity to another. We’re sharing them on the water today because it’s much easier to understand this feeling here than on paper or at a boat show. We prefer to bring people out on the water and see their reaction, to see what they like and what they want to do with the boat. It’s a lively event!”
Our Coast Guard certified captain took us out to what he deemed the “washing machine” of Charleston Harbor, where three rivers and the Atlantic Ocean collide to create 3- to 4-foot chop. The OPEN 5.5 maintained top speed while gliding above the mayhem. One of our editors perched on the bow for the entire ride, wanting to get a sense of how bad the worst ride could possibly be. She was pleasantly surprised and achieved flight only once (Maurice Mallet would be proud!).
“The RHIB design provides stability when you have fierce conditions, you can still go out and do your job. We have been providing this kind of technology to military and Coast Guard organizations around the globe for several years now. Everyone has been positively surprised that we are bringing this to the consumer market today. We accelerated our efforts in innovation so we could bring new boats to market and after a just few months, we’ve already sold more than a few boats in Europe and Asia. We’ve just begun bringing these to the US. It’s very promising.”
The Sport Utility Vehicle Of The Seas
“I’m a newcomer as a boater,” Dominique admits. “I got my boating license just a few years ago when I joined Zodiac. You cannot run a company without knowing your product, understanding it and loving it. I’ve been out many times on our boats since and it forgives my mistakes. When I go to refill the gasoline and bump into the dock, the tubes on our Zodiacs gently remind me to not get so close. When the weather is really bad the sea is very agitated, again it’s very stable and very easy to maneuver. So I think the RHIB concept is great for bringing people to boating, you are not scared in such a boat. The safety is one of the top attributes of our boats. I definitely think this can help make boating more accessible to everyone.”
With a deep-V hull for unparalleled stability, a removable Strongnan or Neoprene buoyancy tube and a self-bailing deck, the OPEN 5.5 is ready for any adventure you are. The fiberglass bow step with anchor roller and double grab line makes getting off and on the Zodiac easier than ever. It becomes more like a springboard to fun rather than a cumbersome, makeshift raft just used for getting from one point to another.
Rarely do we include such prosaic accessories as a bilge pump, bow rings, towing rings, high volume bailers, mooring bollards, anchor lockers and stern cleats in these articles, but our editors kept remarking how much the Zodiac felt like a standard runabout. They had to keep pinching themselves and exclaiming, “But it’s a RIB!”
Standard configurations include a 26-gallon integrated fuel tank, water and fuel separator, battery switch, windscreen, pilot and co-pilot leaning post, stern seats with removable backrests, 14-gallon cooler, foot pump and pressure gauge, and navigation lights. The tilt-forward console has a large dashboard surface for all those Mercury or Yamaha gauges, two pockets to secure your phone and wallet, 12-volt USB socket and cupholders.
The front side of the console has a hatch that opens to reveal more storage space than we knew what to do with. On the OPEN 5.5, the hatch swings out which makes it a bit of a close call for anyone’s knees sitting on the forward lounge. The OPEN 7 solves this problem with a hatch that slides up instead of swinging out.
The stern seating backrests were not particularly soft, but surprisingly comfortable. Ergonomics was clearly a top priority for Zodiac with their seating design. Even the optional powder coated railings were soft enough curves that they acted as a comfortable backrest for anyone sitting forward.
Coming To A Great Lake Near You
“The Great Lakes is a big customer base for us, as with all boat manufacturers. We love the attitude of Great Lakes boaters, they exemplify the lifestyle of keep exploring. I went out there for the first time just two years ago to test drive a boat we delivered to one of our first and best customers. The dealer asked me to take my shoes off because the boat was sold already! He was so proud of it – you’d think he’d just sold a yacht.”
Hull number one of the Open 5.5 was sold by Reed Yacht Sales to a father and son from the Atlantic side of New York state. They, too, were with GLB editors in Charleston and remarked at how the drive was nothing compared to what they were getting.
“The beauty of it is we have customers across the United States who love Zodiac RIBS for fresh water, for saltwater, for calm and agitated water, for lakes and rivers. It’s so versatile that it can handle all waters and all climates, for people on the go. All kind of sea conditions and weather conditions is what we do best – we’re very famous in that respect.”
With the recent acquisition of an inflatable stand up paddleboard company, Hebert-Suffirn is well-positioned to accomplish his vision of bringing the famous name of Zodiac into the next century. He’s inviting companies across the marine industry to dig in and help all of us get on the water, have fun, and keep exploring.
With Millennials coming into their own funds (and finally moving out of dad’s basement), many are looking for a way to maintain that boating lifestyle they grew up enjoying that won’t break the bank. The modular nature of Zodiacs fills a widening gap in the market nicely, allowing for an entry-level purchase and zero-barriers to upgrading.
- Sundeck extension, a must-have for sunbathing.
- Backrest with lateral blocks for optimal comfort.
- Bow: Several handrails, perfect for children.
- Roll bar / ski mast with high towing point.
- FUSION Stereo.
- Rear platforms that are perfect for safe diving.
- Bimini / T-top offers protection from the sun.
- EVA deck is comfortable and attractive.
- Multifix range (fishing rod, lures, cupholders, etc.).
- · Front balcony.
- · T-top for protection from the sun.
- · Rear platforms are perfect to add space to the aft of the boat and move around safely.
- Rear platforms provide plenty of space for diving prep.
- Multifix range (cupholder and flag holder).
- Storage for dive bottles under the bolster.
- EVA deck is comfortable and attractive.
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