Speedy Shearwater creates new opportunities for offshore research


The scientists at Duke University Marine Lab had a good idea for what they wanted in a new research vessel. It had to be quick enough to keep pace with the speedy pilot whales, and efficient enough for voyages well offshore.

The 77-by-26.5-foot Shearwater checked all the right boxes. The 1,600-hp aluminum catamaran designed by Teknicraft and built by All American Marine is outfitted with modern scientific equipment, multiple lab spaces and comfortable accommodations. It provides greater range and endurance, opening new doors for Duke students and researchers.

Teknicraft designed Shearwater specifically for the Duke University Marine Lab.

“It really has allowed us to think about working in areas that were going to be difficult for us, had we had to charter a vessel from another institution,” said Andrew Read, a marine biology professor and Duke Marine Lab director.

The Duke Marine Lab, located in Beaufort, N.C., is part of the Nicholas School of the Environment. It was founded in the 1930s, and has operated numerous research vessels over the years, including the 135-foot Cape Hatteras and 50-foot Susan Hudson, which the university retired in 2012 and 2014, respectively. It also operates several smaller crafts for daylong excursions.

Shearwater can travel up to 400 miles round trip, far enough to reach the Bahamas without stopping for fuel. It can achieve this thanks to its 1,500-gallon fuel capacity and a watermaker that can supply 700 gallons of fresh water a day. Shearwater can carry 30 passengers and has berthing for 14. It typically operates with three crew.

“We deliberately tried to keep her small and fuel-efficient and relatively inexpensive for folks who want to charter,” Read said. “We think that there’s a market there for folks who are in the $5,000- to $6,000-a-day range for charters, rather than the $10,000- to $12,000-a-day charters that a lot of these vessels are charging.”

The vessel is outfitted for myriad research areas, including marine ecology and conservation, biological oceanography, and renewable energy development. Specifically, Duke students and faculty are interested in learning how human activities offshore affect marine life.

“That’s where conflicts between things like renewable energy, oil and gas interact with fisheries and conservation of marine invertebrates are happening,” Read said.

Achieving this kind of range, speed and efficiency within a 77-foot catamaran platform — particularly one so loaded with scientific equipment — was no small feat. Naval architect Nic de Waal, managing director of Teknicraft Design in Auckland, New Zealand, said the ship was tailored specifically to Duke’s needs. 

The hydrofoil system is a key component of the design. The foils provide lift, which reduces draft and drag when the vessel reaches a certain speed. The primary foil is installed between the demi-hulls of the catamaran along the vessel’s center of gravity. It functions much like a wing on an aircraft. Two stabilizing foils near the stern ensure that the vessel remains stable when  “flying” along at speed.

“The most important feature of it is fuel consumption. It only works well on a boat of this size that is going to do more than 20 knots,” de Waal explained. “You want to have enough power so that you can get over the 20-knot speed … and the higher the speed of the boat, the more efficient the foil becomes.”

The vessel burns roughly the same amount of fuel per nautical mile when making 24 or 25 knots as it does churning along at 20 knots, he said.

The design has another benefit, particularly for researchers not accustomed to operating in rough waters. “You can feel as soon as you start taking off, she gets up on that foil and just cuts right through any sea and provides an absolutely incredible smooth ride at high speed,” Shearwater Capt. Matthew Dawson said.

These seakeeping attributes came in handy during a recent student voyage from Miami, Fla., to Key West, a trip Dawson estimated to be about 160 nautical miles. The group decided to press ahead with the voyage despite the forecast, and the vessel maintained 18 to 20 knots in relative comfort despite 6-foot seas and a 20-knot headwind. 

The ship also shines during longer, less intensive trips, Dawson said. The ship’s first mission involved coordinating with one of the university’s smaller boats and a U.S. Navy ship on a whale-tagging mission. Shearwater spent four days idling on station, during which time it burned roughly 100 gallons a day.

“Certainly five to seven days without refueling is feasible,” he said. “But for full-on transit speed, it’d be more like three, four days. And at high speed, we can burn through all our fuel in 17 hours.”

“Fuel,” Dawson added, “is our only real limiter.”

Shearwater’s propulsion system consists of twin 803-hp Caterpillar C18 Tier 3 engines from N C Power paired with ZF V-drive reduction gears. The V-drive arrangement puts the gears forward of the main engines, which are located directly over the shafts running aft. The engines turn twin five-bladed VEEM propellers. Its range at the 24-knot cruising speed is between 350 and 400 miles. 

VEEM, based outside Perth, Australia, machines narrow grooves onto the trailing edge of each propeller, allowing for placement of small nylon interceptor strips. These strips can be changed, which in turn changes the pitch of the propeller, de Waal said. These strips can be removed using basic hand tools, without hauling the vessel out of the water.

The Duke Marine Lab operates year-round, and the university expects Shearwater will spend 100 days a year at sea between student and faculty research and charters. Local schools also will have a chance to come on board for field trips and other learning experiences. 

The $11 million gift that allowed the school to build Shearwater included an endowment that will facilitate community outreach at local schools and clubs to introduce children to marine biology, especially those underrepresented and underserved in the field. The university hopes to attract a more diverse group of students into the profession.

“Just to allow students to imagine that there’s a path forward to marine science I think is really important,” Read said. “If we can expose a couple thousand students, and four or five of them think seriously about a career path that way, I think that’s awesome.”

Shearwater is outfitted with a wide range of scientific equipment and instruments, offering flexibility among Duke’s own researchers as well as potential charterers. The vessel’s aft deck has a robust A-frame and a Toimil crane that can lift more than six tons of gear. The crane also can deploy the ship’s Willard Marine workboat.

Inside the vessel, there are wet and dry lab spaces, each occupying about 63 square feet on the main deck. The vessel has a full galley and separate mess on the main deck, four cabins below deck in the hulls and one cabin on the main deck. Electrical power comes from two 24-kW Kohler generators.

The elevated pilothouse offers nearly 360-degree views. Dawson described the vessel as having “a real Starship Enterprise-type bridge” with Furuno navigation electronics, an Iridium GO satellite communications system, and Icom VHF radios. Shearwater also has a flying bridge atop the wheelhouse and an aft control station.

These features let the operator keep an eye on all the equipment as it’s launched off the stern while staying in communication with the deck crew. The wide deck allows for good visibility for whale watching, and the ship’s nimbleness makes for easy docking.

“They’ve really thought of everything,” Dawson said, referring to All American and Teknicraft. “The build quality and forethought that went into the build and the layout I think is totally intentional. I haven’t been on any vessel as well-built and planned and laid out as this one.”

By Professional Mariner Staff