When Bear Grylls invited MBY to help sea trial a new amphibious RIB for his Welsh island home, little did Hugo realise just how thoroughly the adventurer likes to test his boats...
I should have known better than to accept another sea trial invitation from Bear Grylls. The last time I made that mistake we ended up bashing our way into the teeth of a Force 9 gale in an open RIB. At least he had good reason to test the heavy weather handling of that boat – six weeks later he and his crew took it across the Atlantic via the Arctic Circle.
This time around things should have been different. After all, this was a leisure boat that Bear was interested in buying for his own personal use. Admittedly, it had to be capable of ferrying him and his family across a short stretch of the Irish sea to their private island off the Welsh coast, but how rough can it be at this time of year? Pretty rough, as it happens, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First I need to explain what I’m doing here.
It turns out that when Bear isn’t dangling off a rope half way up a mountain with the leaders of the free world (both Barack Obama and Narenda Modi have appeared on his Running Wild series), he likes to chill out with his wife and three kids on the remote island holiday home they bought some 20 years ago.
The fame and fortune that followed has enabled him to restore the rundown lighthouse keeper’s cottage into a comfortable four-bedroom holiday house, but an island is still an island. Rainwater has to be collected or pumped up from a small bore hole, electricity is generated by a wind turbine and solar panels, and the only way on or off the island is by boat. There isn’t even a harbour, just a rudimentary stone quay and a few floating pontoons to provide the bare minimum of shelter.
The boat they’ve been using for the last eight years is a Sealegs 7.1m amphibious RIB powered by a 200hp Evinrude E-Tec outboard engine, adapted for life on the island with foam tubes that won’t puncture or deflate when rubbed against the stone quay.
The sturdy aluminium hull and folding hydraulic legs make perfect sense, allowing them to zip across the short stretch of sea to Abersoch or Pwllheli and drive up the beach to pick up guests and supplies or enjoy a meal out at one of the local yacht clubs.
However, with their oldest two sons now in their teens and their third not far behind, space is getting tight. And capable as the Sealegs is, something a bit bigger and even more robust would make life more comfortable for everyone.
The search for the ideal replacement has not been easy. Bear and I have been exchanging emails about potential boats for over 14 months and the two of us met up at Seawork last year to look at some of the heavy duty commercial craft that turn up to this workboat show.
Bear wanted to try one of the new Rafnar RIBs with its unusual heavy-weather hull design and talk to the yard about the possibility of fitting Sealegs wheels to it. While he was there we also had a quick run out in the Iguana 29 amphibious boat.
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The Sealegs 9.0m Hydrasol allows you to explore the parts that other craft can’t reach, as we discover on a
Both had their benefits, but I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of fitting amphibious legs to a boat that wasn’t designed to take them and Bear wasn’t sure if the Iguana’s tube-free topsides and superyacht finish were suited to life on the island. So for want of the perfect replacement, he stuck with his current Sealegs.
That’s not to say we weren’t both still busy researching alternative solutions. Bear carried on talking to Iguana about its forthcoming X100 RIB and found another amphibious RIB manufacturer based in Dubai called Ocean Craft Marine. In the meantime I enjoyed a very satisfactory sea trial of Sealegs latest 9.0m Hydrasol.
But it was only when I learnt that Ideal Boats had started importing the OCM range of amphibious RIBs to the UK that things started to gather pace, not least because they’re based in Pwhelli just a few miles from Bear’s island. And they had an AMP 8.4 available for sea trial…
A few calls later and a plan was taking shape. Neville Williams, the owner of Ideal Boats, and I would bring the AMP over to Abersoch Boat Yard where we’d meet up with Bear and take the boat over to his island for some real-world testing in the very place he was hoping to use it.
Trial and error
The day of the sea trial dawns bright and clear but I am a little concerned at the forecast winds of 20-25 knots rising to 40 knots later in the afternoon. Neville is confident the boat can handle it and Bear seems only too pleased to be testing it in some suitably challenging conditions. Me, slightly less so, but I don’t want to wimp out in front of Bear any more than Obama did, so I smile weakly and put on an extra layer of wet weather gear just in case.
Pootling out of Abersoch Boat Yard in the AMP 8.4 with the sun sparkling off the wake of Bear’s Sealegs a few yards in front of us, I’m starting to wonder why I bothered. Tucked behind the tall console on one of the two Ullman suspension seats, I’m more likely to expire from heat exhaustion than a close encounter with the Irish Sea.
Admittedly things get a little more exciting when we leave the shelter of the small creek and the waves start to pick up but these aren’t the kind of conditions to strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting boat magazine editor let alone one of the world’s toughest adventurers.
In fact Bear seems to be positively relishing the conditions, leaping from wave top to wave top in his smaller, lighter aluminium Sealegs while we simply sit back and let the AMP’s longer, heavier GRP hull do all the hard work for us. With 350hp on tap from the supercharged Mercury Verado outboard, we’re never going to have any trouble keeping up, however hard he pushes his boat.
Ten minutes later, we are pulling into the makeshift harbour on the north east corner of Bear’s island. He’s already powered the Sealegs onto its floating dock so we nudge alongside to pick him up and let him helm the AMP the last few yards onto the island’s small quay.
Bear wants to see how the 8.4 copes with a full compliment of passengers so his wife Shara and their three sons gamely pile on board, joining me, Neville and Pete Williams (another member of the Ideal Boats team).
It’s a bit of a squeeze as the AMP’s military origins mean the beam is relatively narrow for the best possible sea-keeping while the console is positioned surprisingly far aft to offset the weight of the wheels up front. This only leaves room behind it for two Ullman jockey seats and a relatively slim transom bench.
The Grylls all squeeze into the stern, leaving Pete and me to occupy the more exposed bench seat set into the front of the console. I make a half-hearted gag about the two of us being relegated to crash test dummy status and hope against hope that Bear goes easy on us.
Fat chance! The minute we’re out of the harbour, he opens up the throttle and we’re soon skipping across the small strait separating his island from the mainland. Shara points out that sitting so close to the engine means it’s quite noisy under way but is reassured by the news that the latest naturally aspirated V8 Verado is both lighter and quieter than this one.
The hull is coping well with the extra load; landing gently and sending any spray well clear of the cockpit. I’m even starting to relax and enjoy the wind in my face and the unimpeded view up front. Bear’s confidence in the AMP’s sea-keeping is starting to grow and he’s clearly enjoying the extra grunt of the supercharged Merc, but he doesn’t want to give it the full beans with all his family on board.
When the going gets tough
Impressed with its load carrying ability but eager to test its seakeeping more thoroughly, he returns to the quay to drop them off before heading out with just the four of us on board. I take the navigator’s seat next to him and Nev and Pete settle into the bench seat behind.
Bear immediately heads out to the more exposed waters off the southern end of the island where the rising south easterly breeze is kicking up a big and properly confused swell. Running into the waves the boat copes beautifully with the conditions, pointing its long snout up the face of the waves and landing cleanly in the ensuing trough with very little slamming.
The two driven front wheels, which make this the first four-wheel-drive amphibious RIB, are tucked far enough out of the way to stay clear of the water. In fact, because they are out of sight from the helm it’s easy to forget they are even there.
Bear is suitably impressed. “It feels really solid if a little stern heavy,” he comments perceptively. “Ideally, I’d like to shift the console a little further forward to free up space for another row of seats behind it as we’re unlikely to use the seating in the bow.”
Neville reckons the factory might be able to accommodate his needs. At least that’s what I think he says because from where I’m sitting it’s getting hard to hear what they’re saying over the noise of the wind and waves. We’re now some distance away from the island and the swell just keeps on getting bigger.
Neville and I exchange a nervous glance but Bear seems completely unfazed by the conditions. I guess if you’ve crossed the Atlantic in an open RIB, a few big rollers off the coast of Wales aren’t anything to be frightened of.
Taking a bearing
Eventually Bear eases the boat round to face downwind. “I love the ease of the steering and the smoothness of the electronic throttle, it’s so much nicer than our old E-Tec controls,” he says appreciatively before starting to pick up the pace again.
The AMP responds enthusiastically but the shape of the waves in this direction and the relatively short spacing between them is proving more of a challenge. Now when we power over each crest the drop off is steeper and the long slender bow dips ever closer to the face of the wave in front.
Bear flashes us one of his trademark grins as the front wheels graze the surface of the water sending sheets of spray exploding over the cockpit. Tucked in behind the windscreen, Bear and I are shielded from the worst of it but still emerge dripping from head to toe.
Undeterred he pushes on, skilfully picking his way from wave to wave until seemingly out of nowhere an even bigger, steeper one catches us unawares. This time there’s no avoiding it, as we drop off the far side the bow plunges into the trough sending a wall of green water heading our way. Bear and I just have time to duck before it hits the windscreen.
The next thing I know we’re engulfed in a maelstrom of water and plastic. I look up to see a jagged metre-wide hole where the windscreen used to be. Bear is on the case straight away, checking nobody’s hurt and assessing the damage.
Apart from a small cut on Neville’s head we’re all in one piece and although there is gallons of water sloshing around in the cockpit the engine’s still running and there’s no further damage to the boat. Bear applies just enough power to keep the bow up while the water drains from the cockpit and we all start to breathe again.
By the time we get back to the island, the cockpit is more or less dry, leaving the bilge pump to empty the last few knockings from the stern locker and bilges. Despite the unexpected dousing, Bear is impressed by the AMP. Windscreen aside it has withstood the battering remarkably well.
“The hull is really strong, I love the extra power of the engine and responsive steering, and the weight of the wheels don’t seem to affect the handling. I’d like to raise the freeboard a few inches and change the layout to suit our needs but I can see this boat working for us. We like to support the local economy so it makes a big difference knowing that Neville and Ideal Boats are just down the road if anything needs sorting.”
The buying signs are certainly looking positive, with Bear and Neville discussing the idea of a bespoke cut down version of the beamier AMP 9.8 to give the Grylls the space, freeboard and layout they need without the extra length.
It’s not a done deal yet as before he signs on the dotted line Bear asks if I’d like to help him sea trial the Iguana X100 RIB and Sealegs Hydrasol in some equally challenging conditions. I’d love to, obviously, but I think I may be busy washing my hair that day!
First published in the October 2019 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting