Navy seal patrol boat gets makeover

George Chappell

Bangor Daily News

BOOTHBAY – Navy SEALs are tough guys by nature but they take a beating from their patrol boats: bruises, bumps and sore backs, even sprained ankles and chipped teeth.

An all-composite version of the aluminum Mark V patrol boat constructed by luxury boatbuilder Hodgdon Yachts is aimed at reducing the wear and tear on boat operators and SEALs by absorbing the impact as the vessel crashes through the waves at 50 knots and more.

The goal is to deliver Navy SEALs in shape to carry out their missions and to reduce the longtermneck, back and joint injuries inflicted on operators.

“The idea is to build a boat out of the best carbon-Kevlar composite that we can build to reducethose slamming forces,” said David Packhem Jr., president and chief executive officer of MaineMarine Manufacturing, a military spinoff of Hodgdon Yachts.

The 83-foot research prototype unveiled Friday looks similar to the current patrol boats, but it has a new hull made from the advanced composite materials.

Hodgdon Yachts worked on the project with the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center.

The prototype developed for the Office of Naval Research and the Special Operations Commandwas created using multiple layers of carbon with a foam core and an outer layer of Kevlar foradditional strength, Packhem said.

Though it’s designed to reduce slamming forces, the prototype is actually 50 percent stronger -and slightly lighter – than the aluminum version. Packhem thinks even more weight can be eliminated without sacrificing performance.

“This extraordinary boat is going to be of extraordinary value to the Navy and to our SEALs,” said Sen. Susan Collins, who christened the vessel with a bottle of champagne during Friday’sceremony.

Maine’s congressional delegation secured $14 million for the project through a series of earmarksover several years. If the prototype is successful, the Navy could end up buying $200 million worth of the patrol boats from the Maine shipyard, Collins said.

The original Mark V, known in military parlance as the MK V Special Operations Craft, was created in the mid-1990s to get special operations forces, primarily SEAL combat swimmers, in and out of messy situations quickly.

And the vessel is indeed quick: Powered by a pair of diesel engines, the twin waterjets propel thevessel to a top speed of about 60 mph.

The problem is that the operators and up to 16 combat-ready SEALs take a beating, literally, asthe boat skips through the water. The aluminum hull is stiff and lightweight, but the ocean’s force is transmitted to the occupants in bone-jarring fashion. Fighter jet pilots are subjected to forces up to 10 times the pull of gravity, but the Mark V has produced forces of 20 Gs slamming against waves, said Lt. Damon Shearer, senior medical officer of Naval Special Warfare Group 4.

Soon after the vessel went into service, the Navy began getting reports of injuries. It respondedby installing shock-absorbing seats. While that helped, there continues to be a problem with back, neck and joint injuries that occur over time, Shearer said in a telephone interview. Furthermore, by the time they arrive for their mission SEALs are sometimes weary from the beating, he said.

Navy Commodore Evin H. Thompson, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 4 in Norfolk, Va., who attended the ceremony in Maine, said he hopes the new vessel dubbed the Mark V.1 will build upon the lessons learned at sea with the original vessel.

“We’ve learned along the way about the power of the sea,” Thompson said. “The sea can be cruel.”

Other speakers at Friday’s launch included U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson, University of Maine President Robert Kennedy, Office of Naval Research John Pazik and Hodgdon Yacht President Tim Hodgdon.

Richardson said the timing was ironic, coming on the heels of the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. “This is an illustration of the can-do philosophy of Maine people,” he added. “When one door closes, another door opens up.”

Allen called the boat a new beginning, combining Maine’s 200-year boat building tradition and”entrepreneurs like Tim [Hodgdon].”

“This is a partnership squared,” he said of the entities involved.

Dubbed Mako, for the shark that frequents the Gulf of Maine, the vessel will undergo shipbuildertesting this month in Maine’s coastal waters before traveling to Norfolk, Va., for further evaluation by the Navy.

If it performs as expected, it could be deployed within two to three years, Thompson said.

The Navy wants to move quickly because the patrol boat plays an important role in the war onterrorism. The original Mark V deployed SEALs to Iraqi oil platforms to protect them at theopening of the Iraq war, he noted.