Hampton Roads


The Virginia Pilot Association, like many of its counterparts around the world, is bound by history and tradition. But its members have embraced new trends and technology with the arrival of each successive launch.

The association, based in Virginia Beach, took another big leap with Hampton Roads, a 56-foot pilot boat delivered in late June. The 1,400-hp vessel is longer, heavier and faster than its predecessor, Norfolk, built six years ago. It’s also the first in the six-boat fleet with Volvo Penta IPS propulsion.

Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding built the next-generation Chesapeake-class MKII aluminum pilot boat with a C. Raymond Hunt deep-V hull design. Hampton Roads is equipped with a Humphree Interceptor automatic trim stabilization system for better performance.

Virginia Pilot Frank Rabena said the launch has earned high praise for its responsiveness, torque and efficiency. Based on a 27-knot running speed, Hampton Roads is projected to reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent compared to a similar launch with conventional propulsion.

The electronics layout in the wheelhouse provides arm’s length access to all displays and controls. The joystick gives the operator precise control of the IPS pods when docking and undocking.

Courtesy Virginia Pilot Association

“It’s a great platform — a safe and stable platform,” Rabena said. “It is fantastic to have a longer, heavier, faster boat that burns less fuel.”

Virginia pilots primarily serve the Port of Virginia terminals around Norfolk, Newport News and Chesapeake. Pilots typically work about 10 ships a day, on average, 365 days a year, in weather ranging from sunny and calm to snowy nor’easters and tropical storms. Eight- to 10-foot seas, Rabena said, are not uncommon.

The association, which dates back more than a century, has 42 pilots and 20 boat captains and deck hands. Its fleet consists of six pilot launches, including Hampton Roads. Gladding-Hearn of Somerset, Mass., built five of them, including the 53-foot, 1,500-hp Chesapeake-class launch Norfolk. Since 1983, Gladding-Hearn has built eight launches for the association.

The Virginia pilots started planning for a new boat in 2015. An internal working group comprised of Rabena, port engineer Mark Kampfmueller, port engineer Ryan Bryant, pilot Jacob Johnson and pilot Jay Saunders developed criteria for the vessel. First and foremost, they decided, it must be safe and stable. Reliability, service support, speed and efficiency also were top priorities, in that order.

“Efficiency and speed — those are really nice benefits, but we had to back up and say how are we going to prove that it is more safe, how are we going to prove it’s more stable, and how are we going to prove the reliability?” Rabena said. “Because if the boat is down and not working, it is no use to us.”

Two Volvo Penta D13-700 engines drive a pair of Volvo Penta IPS propulsion pods, allowing Hampton Roads to cruise at 32 knots when fully loaded.

Courtesy Virginia Pilot Association

That working group considered several designers, shipyards and engine makers before circling back to Gladding-Hearn, C. Raymond Hunt Associates (now Ray Hunt Design) of New Bedford, Mass., and Volvo Penta, whose U.S. operations are located in nearby Chesapeake. The firms showed myriad benefits of installing Volvo Penta IPS propulsion instead of a standard propulsion system.

The overall length and placement of the wheelhouse are two examples. Hampton Roads is nearly 3 feet longer than Norfolk while maintaining virtually the same draft. The house is 4 feet farther back for a more comfortable ride, and the Volvo Penta engines produce about 12 percent more thrust at 20 knots.

“With IPS, the propellers and drive components are close-coupled to the engines, enabling us to move the deckhouse farther aft,” said Peter Duclos, president of Gladding-Hearn. “This (provides) a larger foredeck and more enclosed space. It also provides easier access to the machinery through a deck hatch behind the wheelhouse.”

The Volvo Penta IPS system also remains watertight if one of the propulsion pods is shorn off. Several years ago, a Virginia Pilot launch hit something in the water, lost a shaft and propeller, and began taking on water.

“When (they) showed us the different aspects of the IPS boat, it all started to add up,” Rabena said.

Volvo’s IPS propulsion remains relatively new in the commercial marine sector. The system provides an integrated steering, propulsion and exhaust system in a single package. Aft-mounted engines turn two forward-facing, counter-rotating props that effectively pull the vessel forward rather than push it.

Hampton Roads deftly maneuvers next to the containership Maersk Atlanta during a promotional run in August for the Virginia Pilot Association. “If (a pilot boat) doesn’t go alongside the ship and get away from the ship safely, nothing else matters,” says Peter Duclos, president of Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding.

Casey Conley photo

IPS pods function similarly to azimuthing stern drives on modern tractor tugboats. The units rotate up to 27 degrees in each direction to steer the vessel. For docking and undocking, a joystick next to the steering wheel allows for precise control.

Volvo Penta introduced the IPS system in 2004, and its first commercial application came about a decade later aboard the 50-foot Thomas Paine operated by the Massachusetts Environmental Police. Pilot boats operating in Tampa, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., also have Volvo Penta IPS.

Capt. Jay Saunders, a Virginia Pilot, has found much to like about Hampton Roads, including the joystick control feature. But working alongside a ship is where the vessel really shines.

“Right off the bat, its responsive-ness and maneuverability,” he said during a recent interview when asked about the vessel’s strengths. “It’s responsive at idle, while underway and at the higher end.”

“The more maneuverability we have around the ship and the more responsive it is, the better the boat,” Saunders said.

Hampton Roads has a heated deck and handrail system to take the edge off chilly transits and increase safety during shipside operations.

Courtesy Virginia Pilot Association

The Humphree Interceptor system installed at the transom adds lift to the vessel and reduces longitudinal running trim, lowering resistance upon acceleration to save fuel. The Humphree coordinated turn optimization system reduces pitch and roll, and allows for a tighter turning radius.

The launches serve as transportation for pilots riding to or from a job, putting comfort at a premium. The heated and air-conditioned cabin on Hampton Roads features five NorSap shock-mitigating seats, as well as a galley, berth and head down below in the forecastle.

Electrical power comes from a single 12-kW Northern Lights/Alaska Diesel genset. The wheelhouse features a Furuno navigation system and FLIR thermal imaging camera, among other components.

C. Raymond Hunt introduced the deep-V hull form nearly 50 years ago, at a time when many thought flat-bottomed boats were ideal for going fast. His innovation was a high deadrise and V-shaped hull that ran from the bow to the stern.

“The V-bottom boat with the sharp bow allowed you to go fast in rough water,” said Winn Willard, the president and CEO of Ray Hunt Design. “And if you happen to jump out of the water from wave to wave, that ‘V’ going all the way from the bow to the stern softens the landing.”

The Chesapeake-class hull has undergone numerous changes since it was introduced in the early 2000s. However, the overall vessel has remained mostly true to its origins while undergoing multiple refinements.

NorSap seats allow transiting pilots to ride in comfort, and a Humphree Interceptor automatic trim stabilization system helps tame choppy seas.

Courtesy Virginia Pilot Association

“It’s built like a battleship,” Willard said. “These are built better than most commercial boats are built. The way Gladding-Hearn builds boats for this service, they just don’t want any faults.”

Duclos said the shipyard has delivered almost 90 aluminum and steel-hulled pilot boats since 1958. Although the vessels have gotten more powerful, efficient and faster over the years, their overall function has not changed.

“It doesn’t matter how fast it goes,” he said during a recent event for Hampton Roads in Virginia Beach. “If it doesn’t go alongside the ship and get away from the ship safely, nothing else matters. … Our pilot boats do that. Every Gladding-Hearn pilot boat from day one has been focused on getting a pilot on and off the ship.”

Duclos praised the Virginia pilots for the conception of Hampton Roads. “Not all pilot organizations are as forward-thinking as the Virginia pilots,” he said, adding that the vessel will bring “tremendous benefits to their bottom line.”

Getting to this point took some effort. Rabena and others in the working group held presentations to inform fellow pilots and make sure most members agreed with the vessel concept.

“The result thus far,” he said, “is that Hampton Roads is everything that was represented and has received nothing but positive feedback.”

By Professional Mariner Staff