The way he tells it, Sydney Marine Brokerage owner Andrew Withers went looking for a new workboat when he discovered Smuggler Marine, and realised he had not only solved his own boating choice but had also found a new solution for others in the same boat, so to speak. Andrew wanted a safe but fast vessel that could carry prospective clients to his listings of moored vessels around Sydney without doing damage to the vulnerable hulls. Their aging fibreglass jigger was ready for replacement, and it was time to up the ante.
In business since 2004, Smuggler is yet another boatbuilder from across the Tasman and headed by Auckland couple, David and Pauline Pringle, whose salty boat construction goes back to David’s start in the industry 35 years ago. It’s a family operation ? David handles production, Pauline sorts administration duties, while son Logan has recently taken on a roll in sales and production.
Several years ago Smuggler turned from their original operation of building yachts and launches in both timber and composite, to the manufacture of fibreglass trailerboats and rigid inflatables for the leisure, commercial and superyacht markets. So, while their designs are impressive-looking to the recreational boater, they still maintain an emphasis on sound engineering for long-lasting service.
A RIB FOR THE MIX
In adding a RIB to their range, David built on his experience with fibreglass boat design and stuck with a sharp entry, deep-vee and a single planing strake either side of the keel. However, he wanted a lighter hull, so he looked to internationally celebrated marine engineers Gurit Ltd, specialists in composite lamination. With this input, the Smuggler Strata 580 has reached the twin goals of both light-weight and strength using a multi-layered laminate with full-length bearers and triaxial structural glass. And at only around 600kg hull weight, it is easily pushed to impressive speeds by modest engine power.
Because Smuggler was already making a range of impressive fibreglass monohulls before building RIBs, they knew a lot about composite technology and the hydrodynamic principles involved in getting a hull to work properly in a variety of conditions. Interestingly, it also makes inflatable collars for some of its popular monohulls to convert them into superyacht tenders and add a high level of stability.
The 580 is Smuggler's latest release, coming from a demand for a larger version of the popular 550. Significant chines and pronounced running strakes along each side can be seen in the photos hereabouts, and provide lift and stability to fibreglass running surfaces flowing to a deep 23° deadrise at the transom. Meanwhile, the 500mm tubes add to the impressive steadiness when at rest.
Our test boat sported black highlights over light grey Orca Hypalon tubes – Orca being the premium tube product available – giving it a stealthy military impression, but there are 15 colour combinations in the options list for a more conspicuous choice.
Like all rigid inflatables, the Smuggler sits close to the water, but a neatly moulded optional hardtop over the helm area gave a more substantial presence to our review model. The centre console layout provides the most efficient use of space, allowing restricted access past the helm position on both sides.
A side console is an option, leaving only a broader portside access past the helm. Space is always an issue on an inflatable because much of the usable breadth of the hull is taken up by the thickness of the air-filled extremities. The 580 might boast a healthy 2.4m beam, but the tubes take up about 0.5m each side, leaving only 1.3m inside. That’s the price you pay for the advantages of RIB practicality and safety.
In the bow is a recessed fibreglass anchor roller designed to have a minimum impact against a mother ship when coming alongside or when towing the RIB as a tender. Also up front is a hatch with a padded seat holding the ground tackle and the start battery. The heavy battery is located forward to help equalise the load and Smuggler claims each boat is weighed and balanced during production to ensure optimal handling when launched.
The hardtop support is made from black powder-coated stainless steel and is beautifully integrated into the design. Being secured to both the floor and console it was remarkably rigid and rattle-free throughout the test.
Moulded into the forward section of the console is a decent-size, insulated cooler with a padded seat on the lid. It’s far enough back in the boat to be a comfortable place to travel in even the roughest water, and the supports for the hardtop make excellent handholds.
The console is low and narrow with a clear acrylic-glass screen to head height shielding the driver. A sloping panel houses the engine instruments, and the test boat had Andrew’s iPad with Navionics mapping on a Railblaza mount. Lower down are a Fusion sound system, VHF radio and switch panel for accessories, all easily reached from the driving position. There’s safe storage for valuables in a small waterproof glove box and, at floor level, a hatch houses the fire extinguisher and the main electrical switch panel.
The helm seat doubles as a leaning post and a large storage locker below is big enough for life jackets, a picnic basket and spare clothes for a day’s outing. The seat back reverses to make more room at the transom, and there's a swim ladder to starboard of the 90hp Yamaha.
Around the pontoons are a number of Railblaza mounts for fishing rods and I noticed plenty of handholds making it safe to sit on the flexible sides when underway. The floor is finished with a grippy fibreglass finish, with options for composite deck panels for a softer feel underfoot.
To demonstrate the Smuggler's versatility, Andrew first invited me to brunch with his young family at the famous Boathouse Café in Palm Beach where the cast of Home and Away were filming. Yes, I know, another of the perks of boat testing. We then set the family safely ashore and motored eastward into a nasty chop and a two-metre ocean swell, before playing in the rollers under the Barrenjoey Lighthouse.
A 90hp engine might seem a bit light on for a 5.8m boat, but the hull is probably 25 per cent lighter than a similar-sized monohull, and the tubes add an incredible amount of lift. On the calm water inside Pittwater, we saw 38kts on the GPS at wide-open throttle where the boat felt glued to the sea. Trimmed right out, we got another couple of knots, but lost some lateral stability as the pontoons lifted higher, showing that the boat likes to be driven in a trimmed-down position to allow the pontoons to do their job.
Handling is sporty and relatively flat in sharp turns, with the hull leaning on the outside tube to keep things steady. Across the slight bay chop, we could maintain a cruise at anything from 15 to 35kts without any vibration or banging. Jumping ashore over the bow for some photos was easy, and the hull avoided scraping on the bottom in only a few inches of water.
We didn’t have fuel-use data from the Yamaha, but I’d be pretty confident the 90lt underfloor tank and the frugal four-stroke engine would give an impressive range and cost-effective boating.
Offshore, because it is so low in the water, the boat felt all of its diminutive size in the big swells. But the stability inspired confidence, and we rose and fell in harmony with the sea. We tracked confidently back with the waves with no sign of broaching, and the Yamaha had a surprising supply of power to navigate through the best course.
At rest in the ocean, as you would hope with a RIB, the hull was very stable with the only movement in keeping with the wave shape. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the fibreglass structure can float without the support of the tubes, which have five separate chambers for added safety.
The Smuggler is beautifully presented and very capable, and because each boat is individually constructed, it can be crafted to the owner’s wishes from a long list of factory options or to suit personal requirements. The Smuggler range runs to beasts out to 11m and if the 580 is any indication the larger models will be something special again.
A base boat is $49,940 on a single-axle braked trailer with a 70hp Yamaha engine, so it's a long jump to the as-tested figure of $88,000. Add-ons include a Hypalon upgrade, 90hp Yamaha engine upgrade, custom all-over cover, esky, Railblazas, radios, hardtop, and more.
I like the feeling of safety this well-designed and sensibly powered inflatable brings to boating because, unless you were doing something ridiculous, it would be hard to get into trouble. The stability is unbeatable and the performance impressive. The ride is satisfyingly soft when jumping over waves or hitting the limiter into a nasty chop, and the boat is enjoyable to drive just touring the scenery. The Strata 580 will be popular for cruising, diving, towing water toys and fishing. I’m told that the company owner’s son, Logan, even uses his for gamefishing, but then he’s a Kiwi, so anything’s possible.
With its exceptional attention to detail and solid engineering, the Smuggler Strata 580 adds some zest to the local rigid inflatable market.
Facts and Figures
SMUGGLER STRATA 580
Hypalon upgrade, 90hp Yamaha engine, custom all-over cover, esky, Railblazas, radios, hardtop, and more
PRICE AS TESTED
Type Rigid inflatable boat
Material GRP hull and liner, Orca Hypalon tubes
Length (overall) 5.8m
Make/model Yamaha F90
Type Fuel injected inline four-cylinder four-stroke outboard
RATED HP 90
Gear ratio 2.15:1
Smuggler Marine, Auckland, NZ
Sydney Marine Brokerage
Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club,
Suite 2, 14 Mitala Street,
Newport NSW 2106
P (02) 99977907