Need for tighter port security driving new demand for patrol boats

Security vessels for civilian operators have been getting a lot more attention in recent years, and that has been driving a wave of purchases. What’s causing the growth is a combination of factors, starting with recognizing the need for stronger security assets. That, in turn, highlighted the inadequacy of many older vessels, a need to support longer missions, pressure to move to cleaner power plants, and the opportunity to employ more sophisticated security, navigation and communication technology. 

“U.S. ports have been expanding at the greatest rate in the country’s history due to economic success. As a result, the value of the patrol boat resource is greater than ever before,” said Richard Scher, director of communications at the Maryland Port Administration. 

Port patrol boat units are rapidly developing and expanding throughout the U.S., mirroring in some ways what happened after World War II, Scher said. At that time, port security entities began deploying patrol vessels, often U.S. Navy-surplus motor torpedo boats (better known as PT boats). Those vessels were valued for their small size, maneuverability and low cost to acquire. Little more than a year before 9/11, which dramatically reinforced the need for greater domestic security, Scher said it was an act of terrorism against the Navy that raised awareness of the value of waterside patrols to counter the threat of vessel-laden weaponry.

“On Oct. 12, 2000, such a weapon struck USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden Harbor, killing 17 personnel and wounding 39 more,” he said. From that point on, port security directors were given the responsibility to implement a waterside means to identify, address and deter similar threats that might emerge against cargo vessels and cruise ships.

As a result, today’s patrol boats are designed for speed and maneuverability, are capable of mounting special weapons, and are equipped with radar and sonar. And, analogous to the boon provided by Navy surplus in the 1940s and 1950s, procurement now often comes with financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Port Security Grant Program.

“The baseline for port security is the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, SAFE Port Act of 2006, and 33 Code of Federal Regulations,” Scher said. The development and deployment of a patrol boat unit is greatly influenced by the intent of these federal regulations, he added.

Rising demand for law enforcement vessels has bolstered the order book at Louisiana-based Metal Shark. The shipyard’s list of patrol customers includes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has placed multiple orders for center console boats. 

Courtesy Metal Shark

In Canada, the story is generally similar, but with less specific direction or support from federal authorities, said Danielle Jang, senior communications adviser at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. For example, she noted, regulations are not driving the market for newbuilds. Instead, factors driving growth include the overall age of port fleets and advances in technology and materials. 

While port security trends in Canada are not as easily traced to events like 9/11 or the attack on USS Cole, there have been parallel developments. “For us here, the most significant change has been the requirements for ship escorts and terminal security,” Jang said. “These activities require longer loiter times on vessels, increasing the needs for crew facilities. We also benefit from the increased power and lower fuel consumption of newer engines.”

Canada’s biggest port security concerns are similar to those in the United States, although they might be weighted differently. They include navigational safety, protection of critical infrastructure, and waterside terminal and ship security. To tackle those challenges, Jang said the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority looks for vessels with capabilities that include improved communication and navigation suites, longer mission duration and range, and better crew amenities. 

In addition to security concerns about port infrastructure and commercial vessels, steady growth in recreational boating has increased the amount of overall marine traffic, putting more pressure on law enforcement agencies and their officers, said John Hotz, senior account manager and law enforcement specialist at Jeanerette, La.-based Metal Shark. Powerboating, paddle sports, fishing and wakeboarding have changed the surface dynamics and increased the potential for boater conflict, particularly on inland waterways.

“More than ever, patrol boats must be efficient, fast and durable,” Hotz said. “In order to safely operate on crowded waterways, they must be highly maneuverable and allow for greater situational awareness.” 

And that’s exactly what boatbuilders like Metal Shark say they’ve been working hard to deliver. “We place significant emphasis on developing crew-friendly, purpose-built law enforcement vessels that offer improved officer comfort and safety,” Hotz said. 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department tapped All American Marine to build Captain Murchison, an 80-foot, hydrofoil-assisted patrol catamaran. Features include a rapid-launch RHIB, an onboard drone for enhanced surveillance, and thermal-imaging video. “The vessel is definitely a game-changer for the Texas game wardens,” says Cody Jones, assistant commander of the department.

Courtesy All American Marine

For example, he said Metal Shark’s center console vessels feature large tops with increased coverage, full-height glass windshields for weather protection, wide walkways to allow for easy crew movement even while wearing bulky gear, and integrated coaming pads and toe rails to make it easier to work alongside another boat. Similarly, the company’s pilothouse vessels feature a pillarless-glass design for improved visibility.

“Every facet of these vessels is designed with law enforcement and security missions in mind,” Hotz said.

Other shipyards are in lockstep with that approach. All American Marine of Bellingham, Wash., recently built a vessel for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that is “about as advanced as you can get,” said AAM marketing manager Bronson Lamb.

The aluminum catamaran, Captain Murchison, will patrol state and federal waters for the law enforcement division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. The 80-by-27-foot vessel features twin Caterpillar C18 ACERT D engines paired with HamiltonJet HM521 waterjets. One particularly innovative feature, according to Lamb, is Teknicraft’s Rapid RHIB launching system integrated into the stern of the vessel, which allows deployment of a rigid-hull inflatable boat in under one minute while traveling at up to 15 knots. The RHIB has a 170-hp Volvo diesel engine and HamiltonJet propulsion. 

The latest technology on the boat also extends to surveillance. Captain Murchison has a drone linked to radar and navigation systems so the crew can get a closer look at a suspicious craft without getting too close. 

One of the most prominent players in the patrol boat market is Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding of Somerset, Mass. Company President Peter Duclos said that since 2009, the shipyard has delivered 12 64-foot patrol boats to the U.S. Navy, two 70-footers and three 60-footers to the New York Police Department, and seven 57-footers for the Colombian navy for missions similar to those handled by the Coast Guard in the United States.

Maritime security needs are not limited to large ports, and smaller boats do not have to lack technology. In 2018, Lake Assault Boats delivered a 26-foot patrol boat to the town of Essex, Conn., for law enforcement on the Connecticut River. The enclosed pilothouse features sonar, radar and a thermal-imaging camera.

Courtesy Lake Assault Boats

Duclos said operators have wanted — and have gotten — ballistic protection for the crew (e.g., windows and bulkheads) and nuclear, biological and chemical filtration systems for the cabins. There also has been demand for non-lethal weapons such as water cannons and the Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a hailing and warning system similar to what’s been deployed on some Navy ships. And in terms of command, control and communication, there has been considerable interest in forward-looking infrared (FLIR) vision systems, integrated digital two-way radio systems, and satellite TV systems. 

Bob Beck, director of sales and marketing at Superior, Wis.-based Lake Assault Boats, said the specifics of each security vessel vary depending on whether it operates in open or protected waters, but sea-keeping and speed are always important. “You want to be able to catch the bad guys, or at least get to a protective position relative to the bad guys,” he said.

Today’s customers also value comfort for operators, such as shock-mitigating seating and more crew amenities. “Obviously, you may have to stay out for longer patrols, so anything that offers ease of use is big,” Beck said. That could be upgraded electronics, or the latest in engines and controls. For example, he said Lake Assault offers joystick controls, connecting the outboards, on many of its multi-engine boats. For efficiency reasons, higher-powered diesel outboards have become a popular option.

Beck said demand for patrol boats in the United States has been robust enough that he is seeing competition from Canada and elsewhere. “Internationally, (builders) are always looking for new markets, so we have seen some inroads by foreign manufacturers,” he said, adding that “because it is such a large market, they would like to have a piece of the pie that others currently have.”

Will growth in the sector continue? Probably, according to Scher, despite the advent of other security technologies. For a time, closed-circuit television (CCTV) was the technology of choice for most port security directors, he said. However, it was quickly determined that CCTV did not provide adequate landside and waterside perimeter security unless terminals were inundated with cameras, or the CCTV system included video analytics. It was that realization of the value of having personnel observing from multiple locations that helped energize interest in enhancing patrol boat capacity, Scher said. And that seems likely to remain as a core need.

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