Hugo Montgomery-Swan joins a threesome on the waters off the Isle of Wight…something for everyone, perhaps?
Having the opportunity to stage a multiple test of three products from the same stable is quite rare. Nevertheless, just such an arrangement was put in hand by JBT Marine, the UK distributor of Ballistic RIBs, one warm sunny day this summer amidst unusually glassy Solent seas.
Though these craft have a purposeful, seagoing look about them, they are chiefly targeted at the leisure buyer and have proved popular with families seeking a capable sports boat. In this sense the Ballistic is a clear example of how the RIB has taken the lion’s share of the traditional hard-boat market. Neatly finished and fashioned in Ballistic’s grey, white and blue livery, these boats have a recognisable identity – an important factor within an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The 5.5m, the 6.5m and 7.8m models all reflect the same design throughout and essentially are smaller or larger versions of the same boat. For the customer, having determined that the Ballistic is your final choice, it’s a simple case of matching the length of hull to the size of your wallet. Simple! But before we consider the merits of each of the three in terms of their handling and abilities etc, allow me to take you through the basic spec of these craft.
Two years ago, JBT Marine contacted sixty of their prime customers with a view to seeking their comments and suggestions on how the range might be improved. The feedback proved invaluable and resulted in some very worthwhile changes and additions being made. These include a mooring lanyard to ease the business of making fast, an anchor holder, a waterski/wakeboard holder to the front lockers, a £300 flexiteak option, front helm locker fire extinguishers, stainless screws to all fittings and the removal of any self-tappers from the spec, a helm console some two inches lower than its predecessor along with a seat redesign, an all-fibreglass ladder chassis, an upgraded stainless-steel arch mast with fish rod holder, navigation light guards and a controllable searchlight, plus the improvement of increasing the degree of dry stowage aboard these craft to 90% dry lockering.
This extensive list of refinements and developments has undoubtedly improved the brand and increased the Ballistic’s ‘value for money’ status; plus it’s good to learn of a company who actively seek to work with their client base to better their product. And, of course, the above features are in addition to the standard equipment/spec which comes with every model in the range. The fit-out is of a high standard in terms of build and finish, with no ‘nasties’, rough edges or sub-quality workmanship to be found. Though the main components are built in South Africa, the entire boat is fitted out and rigged here in the UK within JBT’s own workshop. This affords a high level of quality control and consistency from one boat to the next.
Fitted and spec’d for offshore leisure use, these boats are rigged with two bilge pumps, ‘elephant trunk’ deck scuppers, hydraulic SeaStar steering, a full electronics pack which includes Lowrance GPS/sounder instrumentation, Icom VHF radio, a Danforth compass, as well as other items such as deck lights, a teak picnic table, a heavy-duty engine lock and all boat covers. Blimey, I think I’m running out of breath! The thinking behind all of this is to ensure the customer benefits from a genuine ‘turnkey’ package. This approach is responsible for much of JBT’s success within the UK RIB market and certainly appears to have paid dividends, especially at boat shows, where potential customers are seeking a professional service as well as the comfort of knowing they’re getting everything they need for the price displayed in order to put to sea. These guys even supply warps and life jackets, for goodness’ sake!
In terms of handling, all three boats are very obviously from the same stable. The general ‘feel’ they provide is very similar, with the smaller craft being more sporty to drive than the larger. Though a larger boat has the advantage of reaching over the seas better than its smaller cousin, I really liked the 5.5 and the 6.5 models in particular, with the latter probably being my favourite to drive on the day of test. The 6.5 makes for a good compromise, in my book, between the advantages of a RIB that’s nimble and one that offers sufficient space for general recreational use. The 7.8, as I’ve stated before in previous articles, has a great ability to take large amounts of horsepower yet remain very stable and predictable at speed. This is due to its multi-scallop-shaped chines allowing the boat to run on a set of rails, as it were. In fact, there are few boats in this size category as capable as the Ballistic 7.8 as regards its LOA-to-power-to-stability ratio. The only downside to this design of hull, as stable as it may be, is that it can make for a hard ride in certain sea states and speeds. The more downward chines, the greater the degree of flat surface being presented to the water.
A special ‘lady seat’ has been fashioned as an extra for the 5.5 model, which helps make the most of every available inch of accommodation. With RIBs of this size it’s important not to upset their fore-and-aft balance as it tends to be quite delicate. Though the boat wasn’t tested with persons sitting on the rear seat, I admit that she nonetheless felt sure-footed and did not show any adverse handling tendencies despite the extra weight in the stern.
All the craft are stable at rest, with their Hypalon tubes affording just the right degree of clearance above the waterline, and have sufficient clearance underway so as not to cause unwanted drag, whilst at the same time being set low enough to prevent lateral instability when stationary – as is the traditional ‘RIB way’.
Good-quality steering and engines properly rigged meant all three boats were a pleasure to helm. Good ergonomics generally, too, with the two smaller craft, in particular, suited to use by both sexes, ie height of console, distance between seat back and wheel, compass position and so forth. I would say, however, that the seats aboard all these craft are (a) too hard and (b) too wide. I’m not exactly stunted at 5’10”, but even I had to spread my legs to an uncomfortable degree thanks to these jockey seats. Softer and very much more padding, please, and one quarter off the seat width would see them about right, I reckon!
As regards critique, I would say also that the internal components of these craft look a bit dated now. Model styling today involves softer lines and more curves and flows. Boxier or squarer forms are easier and less expensive to make, but I think it’s time Ballistic reviewed their internal styling to keep pace with latest developments and fresh thinking. The current design has served them well, but perhaps it’s nearing the end of its tenancy aboard the decks of these popular sports craft.