Tin Manton nudged the throttle and smoothly piloted the new 17-foot, 9 inch Zodiac Open 5.5 rigid inflatable boat into Charleston Harbor, explaining its seaworthy features as wife Jodi enjoyed the ride from a seat in the stern. The East Coast regional sales manager allowed a guest to take the wheel briefly before returning to the Ashley River dock.

As the Annapolis, Maryland-based agent deftly maneuvered on water that was new to him, he explained how the Zodiac Nautic commands a deep V-shaped hull that keeps it "very dry" — protecting passengers from spray and waves. "Our buyers are people who spend times out fishing (as well as cruising with family), sort of the SUV of the sea," he said. The new model, which can be equipped with 115-hp Mercury or Yamaha outboard motors to reach speeds up to 43 mph, has a capacity of a dozen passengers and costs $50,000 or so, he said.

Manton was one of several Zodiac navigators who showcased the brand, which has its North American headquarters in Summerville, during a free, first-time "demo day" June 23 at Bristol Marina. About 100 people took part, going out for rides and walking away with company information, said Sue Kerver, company spokesperson.

Z Marine North America builds 550 rigid inflatable boats, also know as RIBs, a year at a plant employing 70 people in Dorchester County. The company is a subsidiary of Z Nautic Group, a French venture tracing its roots back 120 years.

Zodiac launched the demonstration event as the company seeks to market rigid inflatable boats as recreational vessels for families and fishing enthusiasts, pitched as an alternative to traditional fiberglass recreational and fishing boats.

"We can (keep pace) with cruisers, center console boats," said Gary Durnan, president of Zodiac Nautic North America who took part in the demo day. That's a departure from the manufacturer's predominate market share now as tenders for luxury yachts, employed to travel to and from land for the mega-vessels anchored offshore.

According to Zodiac Nautic, the public event offered participants "the chance to partner with a U.S. Coast Guard certified captain to take the brand-new Zodiac OPEN 5.5 rigid hull inflatable for a test-drive on the Ashley River and in Charleston Harbor. The boats can be guided on cruising, fishing, diving, and water skiing or wake-boarding trips, "in line with Zodiac’s tagline #KeepExploring," the company said.

“Many boaters along the southern Atlantic Seaboard are unaware that we assemble the legendary Zodiac line of RIBS right here in the Charleston area, providing jobs and supporting the Lowcountry’s economy,” Durnan said in prepared remarks. “This Demo Day event is our way of reintroducing our iconic brand to the region so everyone has the opportunity to see our new product lines and experience the exceptional comfort, versatility and performance that Zodiac RIBs deliver.”

 Visit www.zodiac-nautic.com/en.