Bernard C. Webber

The U.S. Coast Guard loves tradition, but there's one that its crews won't mind losing: the bumpy ride in the forward berths on its Island-class patrol boats, a space affectionately known as the anti-gravity chamber.

Better seakeeping, in fact, is one of the key characteristics of the Coast Guard's Fast Response Cutters, a class of 154-footers designed to replace the 110-foot Island-class boats. The new vessels are being built by Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La., which prides itself on having built every patrol boat the Coast Guard has bought since 1984. They are named for enlisted members who demonstrated exceptional heroism in the line of duty, and the first, Bernard C. Webber, is scheduled for delivery in January.

Superior seakeeping is inherent in the Damen 4708, the parent craft that Bollinger picked from a Dutch shipbuilder with strong patrol craft experience. Webber's closest relatives are three environmental patrol vessels operated by South Africa, but the Coast Guard has made significant changes: a stern-launch recovery system, improved damage stability, a fixed-pitch propeller instead of controllable pitch, a sturdier mast to carry more equipment, and limited endurance (five days of independent operations are plenty for a typical mission).

According to Mark R. Schwender, the project's technical director for the Coast Guard, the tradeoffs evened out.

"A lot of people were wondering, how are you going to take a parent craft and add all this Coast Guard stuff to it and still get the same performance?" he said. "The answer is they found a boat that had some things we didn't need. — We allowed for some growth in the weight and in the centers of gravity, but our boat is almost identical to the parent craft, so we can essentially guarantee performance."

The Coast Guard is looking for a cutter that can do 30 knots. The threshold requirement is 28, which Schwender expects it will easily make, even at the end of its service life.

The propulsion system consists of two MTU 20V 4000 Tier-2 diesels turning highly skewed fiber-plated Schaffron propellers via ZF gearboxes. The bow thruster is a first for the Coast Guard, at least in its patrol boats. "I'm sure we'll find some people who don't use it" said Schwender, teasing about the service's traditional pride in managing without such newfangled devices.

The 01 deck offers full access, exterior to the ship, all the way around the spacious pilothouse, which has 360-degree visibility. Great care was taken with the pilothouse layout — in Bollinger's yard is a 20-ton mockup that has been used to tweak the design. Before the bridge consoles were put in, for example, the C4 subcontractor, L3 Communications, used foam core and cardboard stand-ins and invited comments on their placement.

"For a former Coast Guard guy this is incredible," said Skip Bowen, a former Coast Guard officer who was plucked away by Bollinger from a Beltway contractor as the yard's program manager.

The 154-footers will carry a new generation of integrated electronic charting systems called Seawatch, a command-and-control package incorporating situational awareness that will be rolled out to in-service cutters as well.

The pilothouse also controls the main gun, a 25-mm R38 Mark 2 machine gun mounted on the main deck. "You don't have to send somebody up forward other than to reload," said Schwender. Four 450-caliber machine guns are located on the 01 deck for a better vantage point.

Small-boat launch and recovery uses a stern notch approach similar to the Coast Guard's 87-foot patrol boats — a much safer arrangement than the single-point davit on the 110s. The stern notch is lined with a slick polymer rather than rollers, reducing maintenance. The small boat is new, a 26-footer with a top speed of 40 knots designed by Naiad, a New Zealand company, and built under license in Middletown, R.I.

All berthing is farther aft than on the Island-class boats — the chief engineer's berth is in a particularly sweet spot, low and aft — and the mess can seat the entire crew of 24 (recently increased from 22). The berthing area is designed for any combination of male and female crew. The showers are separate from the heads.

Construction of the 154-footers is taking up most of the space at Bollinger's Lockport yard, and Chris Bollinger, executive vice president for new construction, expects it to stay that way for a while. The current contract is for eight vessels, with a current value of $410.7 million, but it contains options for up to 34 cutters and is worth as much as $1.5 billion. The Coast Guard wants to build 58 cutters in all.

"This is the biggest program we've ever had," Bollinger said. "We're replacing the class of vessels we built 25 years ago. It's the next generation class of vessels and the next generation of Bollinger families." Bollinger puts the work force at 400 to 500.

Inside the main assembly building in Lockport is a dramatic demonstration of the lengths Bollinger has gone to reap the benefits of serial production with the 154 footers: a high, busy platform running the length of the shed that allows employees access to vessels at the 01-deck level, eliminating the need to climb up or step down. The building accommodates three hulls in various stages of completion. There are dedicated areas for machinists at each station, and the arrangement allows the yard to pump air conditioning into the work spaces.

In the aluminum shop, where the superstructures are built, Bollinger revamped its entire welding facility with help from Miller, which makes arc welding equipment.

As the boats move forward — Webber was launched in April and the second, Richard Etheridge, in August — Bollinger and the Coast Guard are using their experience to make system improvements. "There were big improvements to the wiring after boat one," said Bollinger's Bowen, a point underscored by an electrician working aboard Webber.

According to Schwender, one design modification came late in the game: a decision by the Coast Guard's naval engineering technical authority to enhance the resistance to torsional buckling of some of the longitudinal structural members on the main deck and 01 deck. “It was a little painful, it cost us some time, but in the end of the day it gives us more margin to meeting our service life," he said.

It is not clear whether the relationship between Bollinger and the Coast Guard will be affected by the suit filed in August by the Department of Justice to sue Bollinger over hull-strength calculations during the ill-fated attempt to lengthen some of the 110-footers into 123-footers. Bollinger said in a statement issued by its law firm that it is "fully prepared to defend our good name."

But Schwender can' wait for sea trial towards the end of the year. "I'm looking forward to putting the throttles down," he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff