Every week I receive mail from readers asking me to write more about weird RVs and buses. The world is full of wacky RV builds and this one is a doozy. I’m talking about the Dobbertin Surface Orbiter; an amphibious RV capable of sailing around the world.
You read that right, this thing isn’t just a vehicle that can travel around the country, it can sail around the world, too!
To fully embrace this wonderful creation, you should know a little about its builder, Rick Dobbertin. Before building a spaceship for the sea, Dobbertin made his mark building beautiful hot rods. His Pontiac J2000 Pro Street car featured a Chevy 350 V8 with a shocking number of go-fast parts, reports Hot Rod. We’re talking dual superchargers and dual turbos. The whole thing was dolled up in striking paint, polished aluminum, and stainless steel.
While his award-winning car builds are awesome enough, Dobbertin and his wife, Karen, wanted to build something even more ambitious.
According to Dobbertin’s site on the build, they started with a 1959 Heil stainless steel milk tanker. Using a milk tanker for the platform meant the Dobbertins would benefit from strong double walls filled with 2.5-inch foam insulation.
The tanker’s size and shape were perfect for the application of a seafaring vehicle with a living space inside. Dobbertin grafted a cockpit to the front of the tanker, giving it major spaceship vibes. A story from Syracuse reported that, at 32.5 feet, the vehicle was so long that the Dobbertins had to extend their garage to fit it inside.
The Surface Orbiter is put together using 910 pieces of stainless steel. Inside, there are living quarters, a toilet and a kitchen. There are some additional creature comforts too, like heating and air conditioning. Loaded, the massive vessel weighs in at 18,000 pounds.
All of that weight is carried along by a 6.5-liter GM turbodiesel converted for marine use. That engine drives the wheels through a four-speed automatic connected to a 4x4 transfer case and Dana axles. That’s right, this baby is four-wheel drive!
The engine can also sail the rig through the sea via a single 22-inch propeller. It can go 70 mph on land and 10 knots on the water. If you were curious how much fuel it drinks, the quantity is equally massive. It gets up to 12 mpg on land and only 2 on the water. No surprise, then, that it can carry a fuel load of 340 gallons.
The rig is piloted through a unique cockpit upfront. The left side features all the controls and instrumentation for land travel while the right side is for sailing.
When all was said and done, the Dobbertin couple spent four-and-a-half years and 14,000 hours turning a dream into a reality. The team then departed on an impressive trek. Their goal? Circumnavigate the world in one go, entirely by this amphibious vehicle.
Over the course of a couple years, the two took the Surface Orbiter to 30 countries and multiple continents. Dobbertin’s site notes that they racked up 33,000 miles on the odometer and traveled an additional 3,000 miles by sea, including through the Panama Canal.
However, not everything was cherry. The beast encountered many issues — including a capsizing while docked — and the project strained the couple’s relationship to the breaking point. Eventually, the Dobbertins ran out of money and worse, they split up. The journey came to an end, short of its goal.
That didn’t stop Rick Dobbertin, however. Years later he sold the Surface Orbiter to fund his next project. He wanted to try his hand at amphibious vehicles again with his Dobbertin HydroCar. This one was never finished, but Dobbertin had the goal of making an amphibious car that could top out at 60 miles-per-hour on water. The vehicle would do so with deployable pontoons, however, Dobbertin was never able to get it to work correctly. We reported that it came up for sale years ago. However, it’s since disappeared.
Builds like these always excite me. I love to see builders repurpose existing vehicles into something entirely different. Who knew you could turn a milk tanker into a 4x4 RV that can travel the world.
Find out more about the Surface Orbiter at Dobbertin’s site dedicated to his builds!