Sealegs: 10 Years, 1000 Boats

Ten years after producing its first amphibious boat Sealegs celebrates its 100th.

Sealegs are world leaders in amphibious boats and their propulsion systems.

Sealegs are world leaders in amphibious boats and their propulsion systems.

The first Sealegs amphibious boat was a solution to a problem: how do you launch and retrieve a boat when there's no easy access to a boat ramp? With a house beside the beach at Milford, on Auckland's North Shore, Maurice Bryham was determined to find a way to make boating easy.

Working at home with models of Lego and wood, he came up with a concept for an amphibious boat – one that could drive down the beach and into the water and out again under its own power.

Satisfied his concept would work, Maurice sourced the components he would need for the drive system and purchased a 4.8m fibreglass RIB. He parked his brand new boat in his driveway and drilled holes in the hull.

Maurice Bryham, left, and David McKee Wright in the Sealegs factory.
Gareth Cooke/Subzero Images

Maurice Bryham, left, and David McKee Wright in the Sealegs factory.

Then he bolted on three motorised wheels on retractable stainless steel legs.

"It took a fair bit of courage to take to my new boat with an electric drill," Maurice says, "but with a bit of trial and error, everything came together."

Maurice is an electrical engineer by profession. He used sealed electric motors to drive the wheels, which were mounted on pivoting, manually retracted stainless steel legs.

Sealegs' modern manufacturing facility in Albany, Auckland.
Gareth Cooke/Subzero Images

Sealegs' modern manufacturing facility in Albany, Auckland.

"Although the motors were electric [modern Sealegs use hydraulic motors] and the legs retracted by hand, all the Sealegs basics were already there. It had a tricycle undercarriage, external wheels, motors in the wheel hubs, and legs that pivoted upwards to hold the wheels clear of the water," Maurice says. "That way there's no drag to affect the boat's performance and the wheels don't take up space inside the hull."

His homemade amphibious boat worked a treat.

At the time Maurice's was working on several venture capital investments with his friend David McKee Wright. David, who also owned a waterfront house, saw the potential of the idea and together with Maurice decided to abandon his other investments and found Sealegs."I've always been drawn to start up businesses but this one was more start up than most," says David. "Our previous experience was in technology but the concept was so compelling and its application so personally captivating, I decided it was worth a shot."

A Sealegs amphibious boat on the left awaiting tubes next to a Stabicraft boat with a Sealegs amphibious propulsion system.
Gareth Cooke/Subzero Images

A Sealegs amphibious boat on the left awaiting tubes next to a Stabicraft boat with a Sealegs amphibious propulsion system.

In 2005 David and Maurice took the plunge and set up business: Sealegs was born.

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The pair invested time and money developing the Sealegs concept before they settled on equipment and specification levels to produce the first generation of Sealegs amphibious boats. Hydraulic power drove the wheels and the aluminium hulls and Hypalon fabric inflatable tubes were custom-built to their specifications and delivered to the workshop where Sealegs assembled the boats and fitted the amphibious system.

Superior by demonstration

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At first the Sealegs concept met with plenty of skepticism from the boating public. Although the first production boats were a big step up in sophistication and performance from Maurice's prototype, initial sales were slow. But gradually, as more Sealegs were seen driving up and down beaches around New Zealand, the tide of public opinion began to turn.

"It took three or four years for Sealegs to gather some real momentum but after five or six years in business, many of the people who had at first pooh-poohed the idea of a boat that could drive on land became our customers," says David.

They used the term amphibious boat to differentiate Sealegs from other vehicles that could operate on land and water, such as the Gibb's Aquada amphibious sports car.

"Sealegs are not cars that can cross water with all the compromise such designs entail, but rather proper seaworthy boats with the ability to launch and retrieve themselves. Tractor-like, they can negotiate sand and gravel beaches, rough tracks and steep driveways, but they're not designed to drive on public roads," says Maurice. He set the record for crossing the English Channel in an amphibious craft in 2006 in a Sealegs, taking it from Richard Branson driving a Gibbs Aquada.

Sealegs sell themselves. All it takes is for someone on the beach to buy one and pretty soon their neighbours want one.

"Anyone with a beachfront property can see the benefits and pretty soon there are two Sealegs on the beach, then three," says David. And that's why there are 50 Sealegs on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

"Even now, ten years on and about to roll out our one-thousandth Sealegs, every time we drive up onto a beach during a demonstration, people crowd around to look at and talk about the boat."

Sealegs have used this appeal to promote their amphibious boats all over the world, staging high profile demonstrations, setting numerous records and winning awards, including Most Innovative Recreational Product from Popular Science magazine.

"In the ten years since we opened the doors Sealegs have gone from being a curiosity to a sort of Kiwi icon, something New Zealanders are proud of and keen to be associated with," says David.

"Many Sealegs owners are on to their second or third boat because owning a Sealegs is still the perfect solution for their situation, whether it's used as a yacht tender or kept at the beachside home," says Maurice.

Sealegs technology has shown incremental improvements over the years and these days more of the manufacturing is done in-house, but as Maurice says, the system hasn't fundamentally changed and the early boats are still going strong.

David agrees: "We had boat number two in here for a service recently and it left our workshop as good as new."

1000 Sealegs

With the 1000th Sealegs about to leave Sealeg's spotless modern facility in Albany, David, Maurice and the whole Sealegs crew will celebrate a milestone for amphibious boats.

The amphibious boat concept is grabbing people's imaginations around the world: Sealegs boats are now sold in 50 countries with New Zealand making up less than a third of sales. But the future for Sealegs is not in building boats, explains David, but in supplying Sealegs systems to approved boatbuilders around the world.

"We had to become boatbuilders to create a market for amphibious boats, a product never seen before, but it was always our plan to supply other boat builders with Sealegs technology," he says. "In building 1000 craft we've proven the concept beyond doubt. Boatbuilders who once doubted it now embrace it, and as they adopt Sealegs technology, we can grow our market."

The importance Sealegs International Ltd places on its intellectual property is demonstrated by numerous patents, design and trade marks registered around the world.

Sealegs' OEM (overseas export market) strategy is starting to pay off: the company already supplies amphibious boat technology to Stabicraft and Smuggler boats in New Zealand, and recently they signed agreements with boatbuilders in the Middle East and Europe.

David says Sealegs International Ltd is fielding strong interest from other boatbuilders around the world. "In the future we expect boatbuilders to offer an amphibious enablement system much as they offer engine choices today. As boat manufacturers adopt our technology, Sealegs will be able to focus on delivering different types of systems to suit. Technology licencing was always the plan and with 1000 craft behind us, we can build on our credibility to deliver a new business model."

Record breaking Sealegs

•    Fastest amphibious crossing of the English Channel: Maurice, 2006, beating Richard Branson's record set in 2005;

•    Round North Island amphibious record: David. 2009 in a Sealegs 7.1m;

•    Round South Island amphibious record: David, 2012 In a Sealegs 7.7m;

•    Round Malaysia Race winner (while tendering to supply the Malaysian military): David, 2009;

•     Fastest amphibious craft: David, 105kph in Sydney, 2009.

Technology upgrades

Since the first production amphibious boat, technology upgrades over the years include:

•    Stronger aluminium amphibious enablement systems (hulls), CAD designed, CNC cut and manufactured in-house     (System 60);

•    More robust leg castings;

•    More powerful Honda static engines;

•    Power steering;

•    Extended run time;

•     Fail-safe braking system.

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