At the conclusion of Trawler Fest in Stuart, Florida, I drove south to Ft. Lauderdale to visit some boats and people on my list of "must-see" companies. As the magazine continues to evolve, all of us at PMM stay on the lookout for companies that stand out in terms of innovation, customer service, or just plain cool products. Since there's a story behind so many of these marine businesses, I make it a point to visit as many of them as my duties allow. It is one of the perks of the job.
In the quiet Ft. Lauderdale suburb town of Pembroke Pines is the 6-acre manufacturing headquarters of Nautica International, a company that specializes in rugged, high-quality RIBs for the pleasure boat, military, and police markets. The company has been producing interesting variations on the RIB theme for years, and I was excited to spend some time with company president Debbie Young.
Debbie and her late husband, Franco Rossi, started the company in New York in 1982, initially importing folding boats from Italy. Years ago, Rossi had been a diver in the Italian Special Forces, so he was well acquainted with the many small, family-owned Italian companies that produced these boats. In 1985, the couple saw their first RIB at the Genoa show and decided to move the business into the rigid-fiberglass-hull tender market.
"We saw a niche for yacht tenders-ruggedly built, high-quality boats that were well matched to the needs of yachtsmen," Debbie explained. But building fancy, exceptionally rugged boats comes at a price, and the Nautica product line is not based on a "boats for less" philosophy.
"We've battled with this for years," she continued. "But we ultimately decided to stick with strength and rugged construction over building to a price point." And that approach has proven a successful business model, as Nautica's customer base includes many high-end yacht builders who stop at nothing to achieve perfection in their yachts.
In 1986, the company relocated to Miami from Rochester, New York, and, by 1989, was in full production, manufacturing fiberglass RIBs in the United States. Three years ago, Nautica expanded to a larger facility-68,000 square feet-in Pembroke Pines, where it now has room to develop, test, manufacture, and repair RIBs of all sizes and shapes. And it is a very cool place to visit.
What is extremely interesting about Nautica is that its focus on rugged boats suited to individual requirements has essentially transformed it into a custom boatbuilding business. While there are some 40 models of boats in Nautica's lineup, the builders of the yachts on which these RIBs will go have different needs and tender requirements, so no two boats are exactly the same. Hull colors, tube colors, extra layers of Hypalon in high-stress areas, extra fuel tanks, stainless-steel arches, full electronics packages...all contribute to make each boat unique. And every single component of each boat is handmade or custom installed within the Nautica facility: Hypalon tubes, hulls, upholstery, stainless-steel arches, wiring, engine and electronics installations, and the many available accessories. That may explain the company's confidence in offering a 10-year warranty.
Debbie took me around the Nautica complex to show me the dedicated work areas where the boats come together. Her huge Neapolitan mastiff tagged along for part of the tour. There are 80 people at Nautica, and as we walked through the facility, Debbie told me that when she and Franco moved their business to Florida, many of these craftsmen came to Nautica from a declining racing-boat industry. This level of craftsmanship is important, as the handmade precision that goes into each Nautica model is a key element of its quality. The tube and fiberglass work is flawless, and even the electrical wiring bundles inside the larger RIBs seem more appropriate for a larger yacht than its tender!
All boat tubes are constructed of Hypalon using a cold-glue process, and the fabric rolls I saw in the cutting room evidently are available in all sorts of colors. The fabric used by Nautica is a sandwich that uses a polyester cloth as the core, with neoprene on the interior side of the fabric, and Hypalon on the outer surface. Patterns in the cutting room are used to fashion the fabric into the many shapes and sizes called for. This labor-intensive precision handwork is done by experienced and well-trained crafters. Every seam is double taped both inside and out.
I was also impressed touring the fiberglass shop where the hulls are built. Some boats are ordered with Kevlar, for strength and reduced weight. And seeing a hull before the deck is in place is quite remarkable-the fiberglass and marine plywood stringers in each boat hull are serious structural elements, making for a superior rigid boat. Workers were building a catamaran RIB hull when I went through the area-a popular model that offers a swing-down front ramp, like one you'd find on a landing craft. Franco came up with this solution a while back when the couple went boating with their five mastiffs. It worked great, and the design has found other uses in law enforcement and other government agency applications.
It takes five to six weeks to build an outboardpowered RIB. And Nautica's ability to reflect a yacht's style and color schemes in its RIB results in colorful boats that closely match owner tastes, and sets each boat apart from the others. Several larger RIBs I saw waiting for shipment to Delta and other yacht builders closely matched the hull and trim color schemes of those builders' large yachts. Even the yacht's name can be cut from fabric to match the font, style, and color of the mothership's name, resulting in a tender like no other.
Nautica's experience in the late '80s and early '90s building boats for the U.S. Navy gave the company the opportunity to develop strong boats capable of operating far offshore, many of them dieselpowered. The company later translated this knowledge to pleasure boats and law enforcement craft. As a result, today's Nautica RIBs are exceptional seaboats, far more capable than most owners will ever require. But that's what makes the boats special, and the folks at Nautica are proud of that distinction.
"Tubed boats are versatile, fast, and lightweight," Debbie said. And she sees enormous potential for this kind of boat beyond its use as a simple yacht tender. (J.J. Marie of Zodiac North America expresses a similar sentiment, and I hope to explore this with him in a future article. It's all about possibilities.)
Debbie also pointed out that a growing number of orders are for larger-than-customary RIBs that will be towed behind the big boats-even across the Gulf Stream. When the company gets an order for a boat that will be used in this fashion, it reinforces the RIB accordingly, as this use creates stress points outside of normal usage. This practice is becoming more popular, and it provides a crew with a better and larger tender for cruising. As long as Nautica knows towing is on the agenda, the RIB it builds will have the capability to handle offshore trips without fuss. It is an interesting new twist to the dinghy issue.
Debbie Young and her business partner, Franco Rossi Jr., are ready for the future, while keeping up with the growing demand for their products. They introduce three new models a year, it seems, and are always ready to explore new territory. The individual/custom focus that is the hallmark of their business was an evolution-being ready to respond to what the market needs-something a small company can do well. They've kept their eye on the ball, and it shows.
An example of the company's ability to innovate is a new yacht tender that's fully rated in the Cayman Islands as a rescue boat-a Nautica RIB with additional air chambers and storm cover that takes the yacht tender to the next level of utility and service. And the company built four 25-foot boats for the action thriller XXX: State of the Union.
I did not realize how much went into the construction of a quality RIB, or the many timeconsuming and expensive details needed to make it rugged and seaworthy. But quality is like that, and is its own elixir, to be sure.
The people at Nautica are focused, creative, and decidedly on the right track. And that also explains why more than half of the new boats will involve a pilgrimage to Pembroke Pines and custom boatbuilding in the world of inflatables.