When Kevin Beaulieu bought a Sealegs boat a few years ago, his kids were really impressed.
“My kids love it,” he said. “They were telling their friends, ‘We’ve got the coolest boat,’ and told them it had wheels.”
When you live on Narragansett Bay and tell people you have the “coolest boat,” you have a lot to live up to. Between Newport yachts and quahoggers’ skiffs, that’s a lot of boats to be cooler than, but when you decide you want to go to Iggy’s for clamcakes and chowder and can drive right up on the beach to get them, the camera phones come out and even veteran boaters’ jaws drop. The boat has retractable wheels with the knobby treads you find on dirt bikes and ATVs. The tires are fat and capable of pulling the boat over sand and much rockier beaches.
Sealegs, a boat manufacturer in New Zealand, has come up with a boat design that allows Beaulieu to drive out of his garage and right onto the bay. He lives on Warwick Neck and has the landscape to allow it, so when he first saw video and pictures of the design; he knew it was for him. Australians are famous for the lifeboat and lifesaving drills that give lifeguards much needed extra time. It was inevitable that they would come up with a boat that drives right into the surf and races toward a drowning victim at 35 to 40 miles per hour. Of course, like their neighbors in New Zealand, they also saw the potential for carefree fun, much the way Beaulieu did. But carefree comes with a price. Expect to pay between $110,000 and $140,000 for a boat, which puts the Sealegs into the luxury class of boating. But, given the annual costs of putting boats in and out of the water and renting a slip, it might pay itself off in a decade or two.
“It is expensive,” said Beaulieu, “but mostly you’re paying for the wheels. The wheels add about $20,000 to the price. Without them, they [Sealegs] are pretty much like any quality, commercial grade [rigid] inflatable.”
Beaulieu has had the boat for about four years and has yet to regret the outlay. It’s no speedster of the cigarette boat ilk, but it’s fast enough for most purposes.
“I keep a speed boat in East Greenwich, so I just hop in the boat and I’m there in no time,” said Beaulieu. “I sail boats at Newport, so I get in the boat and I’m there in 15 minutes, instead of an hour by car.”
Nobody claims that the Sealegs is the first amphibious boat, but it seems to be the best embodiment of the concept so far. Anyone who has been on the “duck boats” used for tourists in Boston and other cities can tell you they leave a lot to be desired. The Amphicar that debuted in 1961 was a flop commercially. Mostly because it looked homemade and flimsy and they leaked, they were slow on the water and they look more like an accident that just happened or is about to happen, than a fun day at the beach. The editors of Popular Mechanics, the technical journal that has seen the birth and death of many amphibious craft, reviewed the Sealegs in August of 2010:
“The tide is low, so there's a patch of thick mud some 40 yards wide standing between us and the water's edge of Massachusetts' Duxbury Bay. For most boaters, the only option is to wait for hours until the tide fills back in enough to cover the boat ramp. But not for us. We just fire up the Sealegs amphibious craft and charge straight into the muck. By the time we're crossing the mud flats, more than a dozen curious onlookers have gathered to watch. By the look on their faces, they're impressed: The convenience of this boat isn't lost on them … This boat is an ideal way to get to the water during low tide, perfect for rescue professionals who need to access challenging terrain and more safely and efficiently transfer victims from the water to waiting ambulances. It's also just fun.”
Sealegs was first launched in 2004 but came to America around the time Beaulieu bought his about four years ago. Military and coast guard units are using them worldwide.
On water, the craft is powered by a 150-hp Evinrude ETEC outboard motor. On land, the Sealegs gets around via three retractable hydraulic aluminum legs with fat 25-inch tires. It's a rear-drive system but an all-wheel-drive has become available this year. A 24-horsepower, 4-stroke motor beneath the driver’s bench powers the wheels. The system accounts for approximately 330 pounds of the craft's 2,690-pound weight.
With the legs extended, the boat stands 7’ 7” high. Front and rear legs can be raised independently, making it easier to board passengers. The wheels fit tightly against the tube, above the waterline. Push-button controls raise and lower the legs and wheels, and a throttle on the console controls the motor for the wheels. The drive stick on the top of the console controls the speed and direction of the wheels. But don't expect car-like performance on land.
“It rides more like a lawn tractor than a car,” said Beaulieu, “but it has a lot of ground clearance, so you can land almost anywhere you find access.”
Beaulieu said he’s had it down at the Vineyard for example, where he didn’t need a dock to go ashore. But you have to walk the rest of the way. It tops out around 6 miles per hour on land and the air-cooled engine overheats after 30 minutes of continuous running, but you can’t drive it on the street. You still have to tow it as far as the parking lot of the beach – where you can then drive it into the water.
It can climb and descend 25-degree grades of soft sand, rocks and reach otherwise inaccessible beaches without being stranded when the tide goes out. The big customers, though, are people who need rather than want to launch off ocean beaches – rescue groups and water police. There is more than convenience involved: Serious injuries and even deaths from people caught between boats and trailers in surf.
People who like to fish will find it very convenient.
“If we want to go fishing after work, I just load the kids into the boat and it takes us about two minutes to get out there,” said Beaulieu. “We can catch a few fluke in about 15 minutes and then head back to the house. We don’t have to make going fishing a big [family] event the way it usually is.”
For more about Sealegs, visit www.sealegs.com.