Having already completed two years of service supporting the operations of the U.S. Marine Corps' Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) in the Western Pacific theatre, the 101-m Austal catamaran "WestPac Express" has now achieved another distinction: it is the first large high speed vessel to be registered and flagged as a commercial ship in the U.S.
After a competitive bid process, the HSV was first chartered in July 2001 for a "proof of concept" period. This was so successful that the Military Sealift Command signed a three year charter
in January 2002, again after receiving several competing offers. The III MEF charter was the first time the US military had contracted a commercial vessel of this type for military support.
A requirement of the contract was that the vessel be re-flagged to the United States, a demanding process that has been achieved within the ship's normal maintenance periods and was managed by Austal Service. Jim Black, Austal Service Manager, explained that in order to obtain the U.S. flag, every aspect of the ship's design and construction was rigorously examined by the United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Center. The ship was subsequently inspected by Officer-in-Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI) personnel from USCG Far East Activities (FEACT) based in Tokyo to ensure compliance with the applicable flag state requirements.
"The USCG had never previously surveyed a lightweight, high-speed vehicle-carrying vessel before and to its credit was extremely thorough in its approach. For example, every one of the ship's drawings were scrutinized in detail and on numerous occasions it was necessary for Austal to justify certain aspects to the USCG, even though the ship is classed by one of the world's leading classification societies and built to the IMO's HSC Code," Black said.
"This reflects the high degree of professionalism in the USCG and highlights that meeting U.S. flag requirements for this type of vessel is not the simple process that some may think. Certainly it would be challenging for organizations that do not have the depth of high speed vessel experience and professional engineering expertise that exists within the Austal group," he added.
The new port of registry for "WestPac Express" is Mobile, Ala., where Austal has a shipyard that specializes in the construction of high performance aluminum vessels.
A joint venture with Bender Shipbuilding and Repair, Austal USA brings Austal's aluminum ship design and manufacturing capabilities to the United States' commercial and military vessel markets.