New England pilot boat builder diversifies by finding a military use for its design

The U.S. Navy is buying 12 64-foot screening escort vessels from Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding. The boats, to be operated by the Coast Guard, have a top speed of over 30 knots. (Dom Yanchunas photos)

It’s built for speedy maneuvering alongside ships, and the order arrived in the nick of time for one New England shipyard.

Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding, Duclos Corp., is constructing a dozen screening escort vessels for the U.S. Navy. The 64-foot aluminum deep-V monohull vessels are the first-ever military order for the Somerset, Mass., boatbuilder, which normally specializes in pilot boats and ferries.

The contract was awarded two years ago, just before the economic downturn stymied the normal flow of commercial orders for small shipyards. Instead of cutting costs and laying off workers, Gladding-Hearn was able to hire 20 additional employees and build a 12,000-square-foot building and a new storage area as a result of the Navy order.

“It really changed our company,” said Peter Duclos, Gladding-Hearn’s president. “It’s a new market for us. Having the volume of this project made it easier for us to cope. … At the moment, we have no passenger vessels under construction. Ten years ago, that was certainly the mainstay of our business.”

For 54 years, Gladding-Hearn built only commercial vessels. In June 2008, the shipyard delivered the first 64-foot escort boat in the 12-vessel order. The boats are owned and maintained by the Navy and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for use in offshore U.S. port security operations. They accompany military ships in and out of harbors where those ships might otherwise be vulnerable to terrorists.

Tim McAuliffe, of Gladding-Hearn, discusses the propulsion system with Machinery Technician 3 Valerie Thrall and Fireman Steve Dugan, members of a Coast Guard patrol boat crew in New York. The boat’s two MTU 10-cylinder engines power a pair of Hamilton waterjets.

Gladding-Hearn recently finished the fifth vessel in the order and demonstrated it to invited guests in New York Harbor. The deep-V shallow-draft monohull, designed by C. Raymond Hunt Associates Inc., is based on a 70-foot pilot boat the companies developed for the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.

“It has become the standard rough-water monohull,” said Winn Willard, vice president at C. Raymond Hunt. “It’s a very stable boat in rough water, and that’s why the pilots have chosen it almost everywhere.”

On the screening escort boat, two Hamilton waterjets are powered by a pair of MTU 10-cylinder patrol-boat-rated engines. Top speed of the boat is over 30 knots, while maintaining precise maneuvering characteristics in any direction at the command of a three-axis joystick.

“It turned out to be pretty close in terms of size and performance to the standard 70-foot jet boat that we have — a little bit smaller and lighter with the same amount of power,” Duclos said. “Whether it’s a pilot or a screening team, the job is really the same. It’s coming alongside in rough seas to get people on and off safely.”

The fifth vessel was scheduled to be delivered to the Navy by March 2010 for security duty in Washington’s Puget Sound. It will contain undisclosed remotely-operated weapon systems and high-performance ballistic protection.

The Navy preferred the aluminum for attributes including its light weight and durability.

“When you want to go fast, it really comes down to aluminum or a composite construction,” Willard said. “Some of the purchasers like aluminum because it’s tougher and it can take more abuse.”

This particular government contract was handled through the General Services Administration, allowing small shipyards like Gladding-Hearn to bid on the work without the need to qualify as a Department of Defense contractor.

Willard said his New Bedford, Mass.-based company, which normally designs custom yachts and police and fireboats, appreciated the timing of the Navy’s order.

“We don’t have a single pleasure-boat contract,” Willard said in January. “That business is dead as a dodo right now. It’s just terrible. We are very pleased that we have commercial and military work, or we’d be in tough shape, for sure.”

Duclos said the government may be considering other future military applications for the 70-foot deep-V monohulls — including drug interdiction and anti-piracy operations.

“There are some procurements that we hope to be a part of,” Duclos said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff