A modernized version of the time-tested SUV of the water that truly works.

By Brad Roberts

Last summer I had the fortunate opportunity to travel down to Summerville, South Carolina, just outside Charleston, to attend the North American launch of the all new Zodiac OPEN 5.5. Already launched to rave reviews in Europe, this North American launch was attended by all of the major boating magazines in North America.  On hand was Zodiac Nautic’s CEO Mr. Dominique Heber-Suffrin, and North American President Mr. Gary Durnan plus their staff who greeted and entertained us all in style. Their excitement for this new product – and a few others to come very soon – was infectious.

The large diameter tubes provide plenty of deep safe cockpit space for children and pets. Note the helm seat has additional grab bars all around.

Zodiac invented the inflatable boat, and today’s Zodiac models benefit from 120 years of experience and industry firsts that make them the undisputed leader in the inflatable marketplace. Zodiac Nautic has their North American plant in Summerville, and as a part of the media launch, we got a complete tour of the entire production facility, before getting a chance to spend the day running the three new OPEN 5.5 models in Charleston Harbour, which opens up to the Atlantic Ocean.

Perhaps the best way to understand that this 17’ 7” boat offers far more than first meets the eye, is to look at it from the inside out.

From Inside Out

Looking aft down the starboard side the aft bench seat features a supportive seatback and a grab handle over top of the tube.

Let’s begin with a definition – the OPEN 5.5 is a RIB – Rigid Inflatable Boat.  The Rigid part is supplied by the true fiberglass hull, meaning that if you took off the tubes the hull is a boat onto itself. It will float and run and get you back to shore even without the tubes. Constructed with rot-resistant polyester, with a spar and floors network, the complete hull as we saw in the plant tour is a solid rigid unit between the hull and the deck. This is one of the reasons that government, military and police forces from all over the world choose Zodiac as their rescue boat of choice. 

The deep-V hull offers all of the exceptional sea-keeping capabilities of a traditional fiberglass or aluminum boat with a deep-V hull, with the added stability of the inflatable tubes. Overall the boat has five separate sealed compartments creating exceptional buoyancy and safety.

The Tubes

The bow seat is flanked by beefy handrails and features storage underneath. (The black top tubes are hot in the summer sun.)

The tubes supply the “I” in the RIB design – inflatable.  The tubes are made from your choice of either Strongan™ or Neoprene™ fabric, both with an exceptionally long life expectancy. (There are Zodiac boats in our marina that are over 20 years old with the original tubes!)  The tubes are attached to the OPEN 5.5 hull via an integrated sleeve in the tubes, which slides into a size-matched groove that is moulded into the fiberglass hull. Waterproofness is achieved by pressurizing the tubes through the semi-recessed valves. This design makes the tubes easy to removable and thus replace if the need ever arose, or you want to customize your Zodiac with different coloured tubes. 

The forward face of the centre console lifts to reveal a generous storage area that extends back under the helm floor.

The OPEN 5.5’s tube feature a wide bumper or wear strip on the very outside where the tube would contact the dock – Zodiac calls this a rubstrake and it virtually eliminates the need to carry fenders.  The tubes also have two sets of grab lines along their full length: a red one on the inside that provides an easy handhold while running and seated on the tubes, and a black one on the outside of the tube yet still within easy reach if you’re in the water, again referencing the Zodiac’s heritage as a rescue boat.  At nearly 2 feet in diameter, these are formidable sized tubes that offer additional (and quite comfortable) seating, and feature semi-recessed inflation valves for a smooth finish.  While black and red coloured tubes are available, I’d recommend the cool grey colour for maximum usability in summer sun. (The black tubes in the South Carolina sun were nearly impossible to touch!)

The Layout

The anchor roller is a nice bonus. Note the extended sunpad seating option in the background.

The Open 5.5 features an open cockpit design with the centre console aligned slightly to starboard, providing easy passage up the port side to the bow. The forward face of the console, raises to reveal generous storage space for gear, coolers, etc. The console seat is built for two and works well whether your choice is to run seated or standing.  An aft bench seat with a very comfortable high seatback provides additional seating space for two or three.  There are four distinctively different layout options:

Relaxation edition – features a Sundeck extension up the bow with removable cushions, backrests on the seats and several handrails in the bow perfect for kids

Water sports edition – features an aft mounted roll bar / ski tow mast with a very high towing point for both tubes and water-skis, a Fusion Stereo, an aft diving  platforms, and overhead Bimini / T-top, and EVA decking

Fishing edition – features the Multiflix range® (fishing rod – lures – cup holders…), a front casting platform, and a T-top with rocket launchers

Diving edition – features an aft swim/diving platforms on either side of the outboard that provide plenty of space for diving prep, storage space for dive bottles under the bolster and EVA decking.

The Performance

The optional fiberglass swim platforms flank the outboard.

Power is supplied by up to a 130hp outboard. Our test boats on the Charleston Harbour were powered by either a 90hp four-stroke Yamaha or the Yamaha 115hp VMAX SHO and I had the chance over the course of the day to run both.  I was very impressed with the overall performance of new OPEN 5.5’s hull. Time to plane is almost impossible to measure – as soon as you put the throttle down the boat jumps out of the hole. Even with five to six adult males on board, the time to plane was impressively less than three seconds.  The harbour was choppy with other boat traffic and a stiff wind blowing and even fully loaded as we toured from the launch ramp to our lunch spot, the OPEN 5.5 provided a dry ride both though the slow-speed zones and at full throttle. In the afternoon, I had the chance to run each version with both engine options and the only real difference is about 4 mph top speed. Handling is tight and predicable and the OPEN 5.5 is just simply a blast to pilot.

As an Editor, I’m often asked in person or by email a question that goes something like “What’s the best first boat for my kids or for someone who’s never boated before?”

The fiberglass hull is a boat onto itself, even without the tubes.

It’s a loaded question for sure, and there is no one single right answer. Every boat is a compromise. However, with its’ lightweight and easy trailerable nature, its’ rugged nearly impossible to damage tubes and hull, its’ ultra-maintenance free construction and its’ adventurous do-anything and go-anywhere safety and stability, the Zodiac OPEN 5.5 just might be a top contender. Consider it the SUV of the water.  It’s also a top choice as a tender for your yacht, or as a rugged cottage boat.

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Brad Roberts
Brad grew up at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe using both powerboats and sailboats. A veteran journalist with large national daily newspapers, outdoor interest magazines, and syndicated television shows, Brad has entertained and educated readers for over 25 years with his unique family-inclusive perspective. His favorite pastime is teaching others to use their boats to access the freedom and beauty of a Life Afloat. Brad, his wife, and their three daughters have traveled and boated all over North America and the Caribbean, but choose to keep their "floating home" on the fresh waters of Central Ontario.