By Ron Czerniak, Marine Consultant.
As I drove to Army Bay Whangaporaoa Peninsula north of Auckland to meet with Tristan Campbell of Southern Pacific Inflatables where I was to dive from and review their new X-Tender 350 RIB I thought about time travel. It seemed like only yesterday (but in fact was forty years ago) that I used to take my dive students out for their first open water scuba dives from inflatable boats as Chief Dive Instructor for Diver Services in Takapuna, launching the boats from the same (but nowadays somewhat improved) boat ramp.
Over the years I have dived from many different types of vessels, and my fondest memories are of diving off small inflatable boats – something to do with the romance of remembering one’s youth, I imagine. There is nothing like a couple of dive buddies heading out on an easy to launch and handle inflatable, totally capable of taking both divers and all their dive gear out in a variety of sea and weather conditions while still being safe. These boats are virtually unsinkable and extremely stable to dive from.
As we prepared and launched the 350 RIB (Rigid hull Inflatable Boat), I was struck with just how easy all this was: suit up, throw the dive gear in the boat while still on the trailer, back boat into the water, hold it on station while the boat and trailer are parked, and you’re ready to go.
So far I was experiencing an uncanny déjà-vu, as I realised that this was the first time since the mid-seventies that I had gone out for a dive off Army Bay. What a great opportunity to not only assess the X-Tender, but to see just how far inflatables have come in the last four decades!
Southern Pacific’s new X-Tender (pronounced ‘Cross-Tender’) Series has evolved from the company’s highly successful DiveSport 350 model. The DiveSport had filled the void between a portable tender and a serious trailer boat. The X-Tender range, developed as a result of customer feedback, has more internal volume, a dry storage space, and a convenient bow step/seat that integrates fuel and anchor storage, featuring the same superior alloy hull as the DiveSport. The design had to meet the brief for a durable, light weight craft with a dry and stable ride along with stability at rest; perfect for diving as well as fishing, water skiing, or as a yacht tender. So, would the 350 meet this brief?
Although it was a beautiful sunny autumn day, there was a brisk south-easterly blowing in addition to a long, northerly ocean swell. We felt that Wellington Reef near the northern tip of Whangaparaoa Peninsula would provide a sheltered dive site. As we set off I asked Tristan to give me a quick demonstration of the craft’s manoeuvrability while we were still in relatively sheltered waters. We were powered by a Suzuki DF25, which is a lightweight clean-burning outboard that is really easy to operate. Tristan gave me a very impressive demonstration of not only manoeuvrability, but also speed and ride comfort.
The RIB quickly came up on the plane and I estimated that we hit a top speed of about 30 knots. More than fast enough for a boat of this size, loaded with two divers and full sets of dive gear and dive bottles. Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that impress you most and what impressed me in this instance was the fact that Southern Pacific have internally positioned and installed the port and starboard ‘grab ropes’ on the pontoons at exactly the right location at a natural and comfortable level to easily hold on when bouncing across waves. Attention to detail always impresses the hell out of me!
Heading east to Wellington Reef we started to encounter the wind wave action against the opposing swell, allowing me to assess the boat’s handling in these sorts of messy sea conditions. Tristan was obviously out to impress me and did not let off on the throttle. The boat continued to handle really well.
Arriving safely, and mostly comfortably, at Wellington Reef, Tristan flicked on his smartphone navigation app and looked for a suitable spot to dive while also ensuring the boat stayed relatively sheltered at anchor. We found a good compromise and anchored the boat. Again, a couple of small details impressed me. First the anchor and rode are neatly contained in the aforementioned combined anchor/fuel locker, the top of which provides a
convenient ‘step’ where one can kneel while hand deploying the anchor. Neat! Secondly, the guys at Southern Pacific have cleverly used the outside retaining mouldings of the rubbing strake assembly to act as a rode guide, thus ensuring that the rode runs over the bow and doesn’t slip off to the sides of the pontoons.
I was also very impressed of the use of Railblaza products. The cleats, which were strategically placed for easy use, give you a tie-off point for stern lines and bow lines. The Star Port gives the extra functionality of adding any of the Railblaza accessories. It’s a simple idea, but very effective. Now your cleat can hold your spear gun, fishing rod, mobile phone or navlight. On this occasion we used it for the dive flag.
Once securely anchored, we began donning scuba gear. You only have to dive from a small inflatable once to realise that putting your wet suit on before launching the boat makes a lot of sense.
After a quick ‘logistical’ discussion, we were ready to roll off the sides of the RIB for our dive. Generally, my past experience has taught me that the safest way for two divers to enter the water from an inflatable is for one to sit on the port pontoon and the other on the starboard pontoon and on a 3, 2, 1 countdown, both roll off simultaneously, thus ensuring the boat doesn’t tip too dramatically. However, in this instance, having listened to Tristan espousing the stability of the 350, I said, “Okay. I’ll roll off first while you sit on the opposite pontoon, then you roll off.” This proved to show how stable this craft is! So far this little RIB is ticking a lot of our good dive boat ‘must have’ boxes.
Considering the top-side sea conditions, visibility was relatively good and scouting the reef after checking the anchor, I remembered why we used to use this site for our dive student’s first open water experience. Shallow enough for a first-ever ocean scuba dive, but deep enough to provide a good experience, while interesting enough to hook a novice student on to the joys of diving.
Tristan and I began to look around, not only for the sake of just enjoying the dive – there is always something interesting to see on any dive, providing you take the time to look. We did see a few crays, but alas, too small to take. We were both delighted though, to see numerous schools of snapper swimming around us.
After about 45 minutes, it was back to the boat via the anchor line. Once back on the surface it was onto the next important evaluation of the suitability of this craft as a dive boat. How easy was it going to be to get back on board? Although Southern Pacific can provide a stainless steel folding ladder specially designed to wrap and stow around the tube, this boat did not have one spec’d. It didn’t matter, as I wanted to see how easy it would be to get back on board in the old conventional method of just kicking hard and hauling yourself aboard after divesting oneself of all scuba gear and weight belt. As it turned out, pretty damned easy! As I pulled and kicked myself on board, it came to me that the physics of those well placed grab ropes along the length of each pontoon also made hoisting yourself aboard relatively effortless. Tick another box!
It was while ensuring all dive gear was neatly, safely stowed and getting the craft ship-shape, that I became aware how amazingly stable this vessel is and mentioned this to Tristan. He explained that in addition to the inherent stability any pontoon boat has, they worked on the rigid hull design to make the boat even more stable while at rest or underway. Tick again.
By the time we had finished the dive, both the wind and the sea had dropped, so it was a more than quick trip back to the boat ramp.
Safely back at the boat ramp, the boat retrieval and haul out was simply the launch in reverse, and just as easy. Boat back on the trailer, changed out of our wetsuits and on our way home after a most enjoyable day and the confirmation that the 350 X-Tender is a great little purpose-built craft. On our ten-point scale, she scored well, especially in consideration of the fact that there are a few items on our ten-point list you wouldn’t expect a small RIB to have as standard equipment, such as the Railblaza Star Port.
Summary: All things considered, if you’re after an affordable dive boat for you and your mate, that has good sea-going characteristics, is easy to dive from and painless to launch and retrieve, it would be hard to go past the X-Tender Range of Southern Pacific RIBS.
- Two models, the 310 RIB (3.15m LOA) and 350 RIB (3.55m LOA)
- Width: 1.66m (both models)
- Weight: 65kg and 67kg
- Air chambers: 3 (both models) – available with cone or flat ends on tube ends
- Maximum HP/Shaft: 30hp (22kw)/short.
- Heavy duty grab ropes
- Three air chambers constructed with seams thermally welded VALMEX (R) PVC
- Solid carry handles
- Self-draining hull and anchor well
- Improved and enclosed anchor locker with anchor warp chaffing strip
- Anti-slip deck grip
- Hand pump and service kit.