Last July, sergeant Trevor Carbo, commander of the Vermont State Police’s Marine Division, was leaving Burlington Bay when he received a call. Two kayakers had overturned in the water eight miles north. Lake Champlain was having one of its infamously choppy days: two-and-a-half-foot waves and a stiff wind. For Carbo, the priority was speed.
“The top concern was if they were not wearing lifejackets,” says the 16-year veteran and former State Police Scuba Team member.
He raced north in the State Police’s new RIBCRAFT 7.8, a 25-foot rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with 300 horsepower and military-grade maneuverability. Built to handle the world’s most dangerous high-stakes marine operations, the boat arrived in 15 minutes to find both kayakers in lifejackets, wading toward shore.
“We were one of the first boats there,” says Carbo, “and it wasn’t until we slowed down that we realized just how rough it was out there. The way that boat cut through the water made it an easy ride.”
Based in Marblehead, RIBCRAFT was founded in 2001 by North Shore native Brian Gray. The 51-year-old, whose Marblehead roots stretch back 12 generations, first encountered RIBs on a business trip to England. A self-described “boat fanatic” who grew up cleaning sailboats for a local boat dealer, Gray wandered the English marinas looking for interesting vessels. What he found was an abundance of RIBs, solid-hulled boats surrounded by a highly durable inflatable tube. Apart from the occasional Navy SEAL movie, he says, RIBs were rarely seen on the U.S. boat market.
“The more I traveled around, the more I saw them,” he says. “So, I did some research, and decided there was a niche to forge in the (American) marina industry.”
Gray bought the RIBCRAFT brand from its English owner and set up shop in Marblehead’s old Hood Molded Foam building on Hoods Lane. He and his designers expanded the RIB concept, incorporating an aggressive deep-V solid fiberglass hull with a multi-chambered heavy-duty Hypalon inflatable tube. They added customizable options, from dive tank storage to tow posts to machine gun mounts (more on that in a minute).
The result is a boat that is 25 percent lighter than its solid-sided counterparts, remarkably stable, and well suited to tactical operations and high-speed maneuvers in rough weather. The Hypalon exterior makes RIBCRAFTs highly durable and ideal for operating in high-traffic situations, from policing boat festivals to conducting shore landings.
Today, RIBCRAFT builds about 100 boats every year, making it the largest boat manufacturer in the Bay State. It is also one of the country’s leading suppliers of RIBs for first responders. Locally, the Ipswich Fire Department and harbormaster and Boston and Cambridge Fire Departments all own several RIBCRAFT boats. Nationally, first responders from Massachusetts to California rely on the North Shore boats for search and rescue operations, accident recovery, and law enforcement.
And in 2014, RIBCRAFT signed a five-year, $43 million contract to supply RIBs to the U.S. Navy. The Marblehead company now builds dozens of 7-meter boats to MIL-SPEC (military specifications). These high-performance models deploy from the decks of U.S. Navy destroyers sailing throughout the Middle East and across the globe. When needed, the RIB is started on board the mothership and lowered to the water with a crew of three. A seaman then pulls a pin to release the boat and rush into danger.
The boats serve a variety of naval missions, including antiterrorism, protection, interdiction, search and seizure, escort, and tow and recovery, which explains the need for forward M60/M240 machine gun foundations. Each Navy RIB also features a 254-horsepower inboard Steyr diesel engine, as well as a BriarTek man overboard indicator system.
But first responders and the military are just some of RIBCRAFT’s customers. The company also sells RIBs to yacht clubs and oil companies. And recreational customers now make up 35 percent of RIBCRAFT’s business. The boats range in price from $25,000 for a no-frills 15-foot model to a highly customized 42-foot RIB recently purchased for $435,000. Gray has sold recreational RIBS to everyone from the average boat lover to former secretary of state John Kerry and the Walton family.
So, why would a weekend boater want a vessel capable of chasing down terrorists and rescuing sailors on the high seas?
“It can be adapted to whatever law enforcement’s and the Navy’s needs are, but for us, you can’t tell that when you look at the boat,” says Hank Malkowski, a retired banker living in Warwick, Rhode Island. “It’s just well-built and tough, and when we’re offshore, we don’t want to worry about that.”
Malkowski and his wife, Deb, bought a 19-foot RIBCRAFT 5.85 to explore the harbors from Marblehead to New York, towing it behind their 43-foot cruising troller. The RIB also serves as their lifeboat.
Malkowski’s first boat was a 14-foot wooden skiff that he would row from his family’s beachside home when he was just 7 years old. Since then, the 70-year-old has owned several other boats: a 17-foot Explorer sailboat, a 22-foot Columbia sailboat, 26-foot and 30-foot Pearson sailboats, and the 43-foot troller.
While the couple’s troller cruises at just 8 knots, their RIBCRAFT has a top speed of 43 knots—hardly the typical lifeboat.
“It has a deep V, and that makes it bite into the water and cut through the waves,” says Malkowski. “And it floats on the fiberglass hull. Even on 3-foot seas, when the boat gets up to speed, we don’t get the spray. It’s deflected and we stay dry. The design and quality just far exceed anything else out there.”
Back at Hood Landing, Gray says he is looking to add to his current crew of 15 skilled finish workers (the fiberglass hulls are made at the company’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire, site). And while boat building on the North Shore may never again rival the heyday of the 18th and 19th centuries, RIBCRAFT is thriving on a niche idea with real-world utility.
“We’re proud to still be building boats in Marblehead,” says Gray. “We’re glad to be swimming against the tide.”