April 20, 2024

UM, boatyard to build prototype Navy craft

ORONO – A $4 million appropriation in the new federal budget will fund a joint effort by the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine and Hodgdon Yachts in East Boothbay to build a prototype special operations boat for the U.S. Navy using composite materials.

The project will showcase the qualities of resin-fiber composite materials in military vessels and has the potential to position Hodgdon to bid on construction of a new fleet of the Navy boat planned for later this decade.

The project also could propel Maine boat builders into an industry niche not currently being filled in the United States.

The joint research and development project received $1 million in federal funds last year to design a prototype for upgrading the Navy’s Mark V special operations boat. The new $4 million allocation will fund construction of the prototype vessel.

The high-speed, 82-foot aluminum Mark V is used to carry special operations forces, primarily Navy SEAL combat swimmers, on low- to medium-threat operations.

The main complaint against the Mark V is its extremely rough ride, particularly in heavy weather, according to Robert Lindyberg, manager of technical services at the wood composites center.

At high speeds in rough seas, the boat can exert a vertical acceleration on the crew equal to 10 times the force of gravity, Lindyberg said.

“The crew is really taking a beating in there. Injuries have resulted ranging from short-term injuries – bumps and bruises – to chronic back and neck problems for the

operators,” Lindyberg said.

The goal of the project is to use composite materials and a different hull design to improve the sea-keeping abilities of the boat.

With composites, Lindyberg said, engineers can produce a very strong material that also has some shock-absorbing qualities. Composites also allow for more complicated hull designs that will help to improve the ride, he said.

The collaborative project was made possible through the combined efforts of the state’s congressional delegation, state government, and the Maine Technology Institute, according to Hodgdon’s Stephen Von Vogt, manager of special projects.

“This could not have happened without the efforts of those three entities,” Von Vogt said. “This is very exciting. It is a good collaboration between the public and the private sector.”

Engineers from Hodgdon and the wood composites center – along with Navy engineers and top high-speed and composite naval designers – will use the same logistical platform as the existing Mark V.

That will allow the prototype to be deployed with the existing fleet so the Navy can test it head-to-head with the existing aluminum boats.

Although Hodgdon – and other yards in Maine – already use composite technology in their operations, this project will allow them to push that technological envelope, Von Vogt said.

“This is an opportunity for us to ratchet up our technological expertise,” he said. “It lets us go right to the cutting edge of composite technology.”

Design work is ongoing, and construction likely will not begin until next spring. It could be up to three years before the prototype is ready for initial sea trials which, Von Vogt said, will be held off the coast of Maine.

Although the prototype project stands alone, the Navy plans to begin replacing the existing 20-boat Mark V fleet beginning in 2008, Lindyberg said.

One goal of the project is to position Hodgdon Yachts so that it has the technical and manufacturing expertise to be a contender for that contract, Lindyberg said.

Beyond that contract, both Von Vogt and Lindyberg said, the project has tremendous implications for the boat building industry in general and could open a new market for Maine boatyards.

A number of boatyards in Maine use composites to build high quality luxury, recreation and working boats up to about 70 feet.

“What we’re not building, the market we’re not involved in, is the market of commercial and military boats from 70 to 130 feet,” he said.

That category of boat includes not only boats for the Navy and other military agencies, but also commercial boats such as ferries.

Maine has a history of building boats in that class. Hodgdon and other Maine boatyards built minesweepers and submarine chasers used in World War II and the Korean War. In the past 20 years, he said, that industry has moved to the South, and most ferries are built of steel, also in the South.

Boatyards in Europe are currently building boats in that class using composite materials, but no one in the United States is doing it.

“There’s very little competition in the States,” Lindyberg said. “That’s a niche that needs to be filled.”

“That’s a niche we can fill,” Von Vogt said.

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