I saw a hint of orange in the distance. It fast approached me through the mist and low fog of an early San Francisco morning. As it grew large, I could hear the high pitched whine of a Mercury V-6 four stroke. The boat came nearer. It looked like Jesus on cocaine shooting over the water like an Olympic power walker. It passed, in a burst of orange, leaving a plume of water several meters high. So came the Zodiac.
Zodiac Incorporated is a Canadian company that makes some of the best small craft in the world. They are known for their flexibility, agility, and durability. This explains why the Zodiac is popular in many movies and books. Aside from Neal Stephenson's book, Zodiac craft have been seen in many movies, and with James Bond. The research arm is based in Canada, while the corporation is based in France, one of their largest customers.
As our dear Webby states, Zodiac can mean a girdle, or belt. While this might not be the orgin of the company's name, this makes sense, given their products. Zodiac started in 1896 as a dirigible company. They built blimps through WWI. They even built a biplane in 1912. In the 1930's they developed an inflatible boat of the same materials as their durable dirigibles.
The first boat was merely a platform on two inflatable pontoons. From there, they developed an U shaped inflatable with a rigid center in 1946. In the 1950's they developed life rafts. Through the 60s and 70s, they made improvements on their boat designs. They kept with the rigid hull and inflatable sidewall design. On the recreational boats, the bottoms were flat. On commercial and military boats, the hulls were V shaped and designed to plane without drifting.
In 1978, the ZED hull design was finalized. This is the current hull design made famous by so many books and movies. The hull is V shaped. It enables the boat to plane while still keeping it from sliding over the water. In essance, they built a hull with a keel. In development, they have jet (impeller) powered pleasure boats.
They make four basic lines of boats. These are divided by hull type, not by product name. For instance: they make rigid-hull inflatables for both fishing applications and super-yatch tenders.
- Semi rigid inflatables-These boats are smaller sport boats. They are of cloth construction with plywood inserts for the floor, making it semi-rigid. They handle smaller motors
- Rigid-hull inflatables-These have a solid, V shaped hull with an inflatable U shaped sidewall. These come with center consoles for steering and electronics. Zodiac markets these as recreational fishing boats, survey boats, and tenders for large ships.
- Commercial/Rescue/Military Rigid inflatables- These are stronger rigid hull inflatables. The inflatable sidewall is foam filled. This keeps water out in the event of a rip. These are also self-righting and come with better rigging and larger fuel tanks. The military versions are colored accordingly and have reenforced front ends for beach landings.
- Traditional Hulls-These are fiber glass and carbon fiber boats that are larger and faster. In addition to rescue, military and comercial versions, they make mega-yatch tenders in this hull form.
- Water toys-These are made under the Sevylor brand name. They make kayaks, inflatable rafts, and all those other wonderful generic water toys.
Zodiac is not the only manufacturer of small and inflatable craft, though they are the standard by which all others are measured. The product line is a very good indication of their target applications and customers. They sell to many rescue services, the military, police and fire agencies, and small harbor authorities. The rigid-hulled boats cost upwards of 40000 dollars with an engine. They are not cheap, but will take a hell of a beating. Zodiac will custom build boats for you, but for a price, as always (unless you happen to be Sangamon).
Sources: http://www.zodiac.ca, http://www.zodiacmilpro.com