In the fall of 1999, the situation in East Timor was tense. The United Nations mission was cut off from reinforcement and resupply, with 430 miles of open ocean between the chaotic Indonesian island and the UN's nearest supply base in Darwin, Australia. Then the Royal Australian Navy's Jervis Bay, a fast ferry built by INCAT Australia Pty., Ltd. and chartered by the Navy, came to the rescue. Making hundreds of crossings in an average of 11 hours for each trip, with an average speed of 43 knots fully loaded, the 292-ft. wave-piercing catamaran's performance "stunned" the United States Seventh Fleet representatives attached to the UN mission, according to RAN personnel.
From this dramatic introduction, the use of wave-piercing catamarans (WPC's) for military purposes fast gained momentum, and quickly resulted in a strategic marriage between INCAT and Bollinger Shipbuilding, Inc., of Lockport, Louisiana. They named the joint venture Bollinger/INCAT, Inc. and in October, 2001, delivered a WPC, the 315 X 85-ft. Joint Venture, to the U.S. armed services for testing.
The U.S. military has been looking for fast ships for rapid worldwide deployment of military assets, but until recently the focus was on converted container vessels, offering average speeds in the 20 + knot range, and jet-powered monohulls offering 28-35 knot speeds. According to Richard Lowrie
, Incat's program manager for military applications, the U.S. military is now more focused on "off-the-shelf" acquisition of commercial vessels meeting its requirements.
"They were in the process of re-inventing the wheel," Lowrie said. "High speed vessels have come a long way in the last ten years, and I don't think they were watching the industry closely. It took the Jervis Bay's stellar performance in the East Timor crisis to get their attention."
INCAT has long enjoyed the pre-eminent position among the world's high-speed, large ferry builders. The company has built 33 ferries built over 230-ft. in length since 1990, representing 40 percent of the world's high-speed large-ferry fleet. Further, INCAT designers invented the wave-piercing concept, in which narrow, deep hulls cut through waves rather than float over them.
With 14 shipyards and 42 drydocks in strategic locations throughout the Gulf Coast, and with a long history of building craft for the United States military services, Bollinger was well-positioned to snare contracts. The two companies had joined together in the early 90's to build a series of lift-boats, so they were already comfortable with each other. After some high-level meetings, the two companies decided to embark on an ambitious program to adapt INCAT WPC's for military purposes.
"These vessels offer tremendous deck space and deadweight," Lowrie said. "Any kind of equipment can be loaded onto them, including housing modules, helicopter or warplane hangars, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and shipping containers."
According to Lowrie, the U.S. military's current objective is to be able to transport a battalion of troops and its equipment anywhere in the world within 96 hours, a division within five days, and five divisions within thirty days. "Our cats hold the world record for the Atlantic," Lowrie said, "making the crossing in 70 hours, just short of three days. The speed and capacity of the Joint Venture can meet this objective with current technology."
The design's astounding speed comes from four diesel engines developing 9,648 hp at 1,050 rpm, driving four Lips 150D waterjets via four Reintjes VLJ6831 gearboxes.
Ship's service power comes from four 230 kW generators, two in each hull. The Joint Venture's hull is constructed of 5383 - H116 aluminum alloy, providing strength and resiliency at light weight. The aluminum superstructure is supported on vibration damping mounts. The catamaran design is characterized by long, slender hulls, each subdivided into eight watertight compartments, with very little buoyancy at the bow. "Since the bows don't rise to the waves," Lowrie said, "the hulls pierce through waves rather than ride over them like conventional hulls. This reduces pounding and allows higher speeds in moderate to heavy sea states."
The vessel is fitted with a Maritime Dynamics Inc. ride control system, consisting of computer-controlled, active trim tabs mounted at the transoms and active T-shaped hydrofoils mounted forward, to provide trim and motion dampening. "It's very important from a tactical point of view for the troops to arrive on-station healthy and rested," Lowrie noted. "The days of disembarking seasick troops after a punishing voyage are past."
Another feature of the ferry's design that adapts well to military purposes is the air-conditioned electronics room located under the bridge. The room now houses unmanned electronic subsystems that would normally be located in the wheelhouse and therefore susceptible to damage from weather or attack.
Chris Bollinger, CEO of Bollinger Shipyards, is confident that military orders will soon follow the Joint Venture's testing. "The Marines are testing (her) right now off the coast of Virginia. The word we're getting is that they're very impressed with the vessel. We know we can build them at a reasonable price-the design work is already done-so we expect military orders shortly."
Bollinger also believes that the commercial market for these vessels is viable. "Europe already has a number of high-speed ferries, but America has lagged behind in this field. After the September 11 attacks, there will probably be increased interest in surface transportation, and WPC's are the natural answer whenever high-speed transportation over open water is required."
Bollinger sees the craft's versatility as a major drawing point for the military. "Any of the services, including the Army, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard, can configure the deck modules to suit its specific purposes. The basic vessel remains the same. That way the vessel can be shifted from service to service as requirements change."
Bollinger Shipyards has dedicated its Amelia, La., yard to the Bollinger/INCAT project. "Amelia has sheds big enough to build the hulls and modules inside," Bollinger said, "and the Morgan City area has a labor pool deep enough and skilled enough for large-scale aluminum construction." We are also bringing in INCAT personnel to train our people in Amelia.
Bollinger estimates that the first vessel will take about two years to build, with the assembly process shortening as the company gains experience.
"INCAT is building these vessels at a rate of two to three a year," he said. "Some of the modules will be built in Australia and shipped here for installation. This is especially true of some of the low-tolerance components for which INCAT Australia already has the machining equipment."
The Joint Venture is actually the second WPC that the U.S. Marine Corps has tried on for size. Last summer, the U.S. Marine Corps took the 331-ft. Westpac Express, built by Australia's Austral Corporation, on a two-month charter for transportation between U.S. bases in the Far East. The Westpac Express was fitted with an 85-ft. articulated stern ramp capable of loading and discharging trucks, armored personnel carriers, and light tanks. At 41 knots top speed, the Westpac Express is slightly slower than the Joint Venture, but the Marines were impressed enough to follow it up by chartering the Joint Venture.
Prior to the charter, U.S. military personnel
went to Australia to watch the INCAT 050-the Joint Venture's previous name-in action. Captain Pat Denny, Director of the Maritime Battle Center at the U.S. Navy Warfare Development Command, later said, "(She's an) an awesome ship . . . I have never seen a ship like this. I'm impressed with the sleekness of the vessel, the shallow draft and cargo carrying capacity . . . combined with the very high speed . . ."
In preparation for the charter, Bollinger/INCAT gave the vessel a major refit in September 2001, fitting her with military enhancements such as a helicopter deck capable of handling the large Seahawk and Sea Knight helicopters, stern quarter ramp, RIB deployment gantry, and troop facilities. The craft emerged from Incat's Wilson, Australia, drydock capable of carrying 363 troops and 300 tons of military vehicles and equipment over 1,110 nautical miles at 45 knots, in an average condition of Sea State 3. The main vehicle deck has an unrestricted height of over 14 ft. and width of 75 ft.. With a draft of less than 14 ft., she can access ports unavailable to conventional ships further boosting the boat's operational flexibility and military mission options.
Three Incat vessels have held the prestigious Hales Trophy for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. An Incat vessel set the current record in 1998, with an average speed for the crossing at over 41 knots.
"There's no question that wave-piercing catamarans are the answer to high-speed, open-water transportation," Lowrie concluded. "Bollinger/INCAT can offer free-world military services the fastest, most stable, and most reliable long-distance water transportation the world has ever known."
Echoes Chris Bollinger, "We're ready. The design is ready. The yard is ready. And now, we think, the world is ready."