If marine patrol required officers to cruise around in peaceful, calm waters and wave to all the happy, well-mannered, law-abiding boaters, then the kind of vessel you captained in this fantasy wouldn't really matter. Anyone who has spent a few hours on this duty will tell you, the truth is far grittier. The wind whips; the swells grow higher and closer together, striking with kidney-jarring force. Various sundry objects in the water seem to be waiting to turn a navigational misstep into a costly error. As a result, inflatable boats are becoming more familiar to law enforcement agencies, with many versatile and useful features to keep ports safe and secure.
RIBs reduce risks
The nature of marine patrol requires frequent contact with other vessels, for example, pulling up alongside to conduct a search, providing assistance or making an arrest. If a traditional hard-sided watercraft is used, an agency or department risks being sued.
"There's a lot of litigation because of damage done to boats while boarding or tying up to them," says Chris Choich, manager of sales and marketing for Seattle, Washington-based Northwind Marine Inc. This is why many agencies are increasingly looking to add Rigid-hull Inflatable Boats (RIBs) to their marine patrol fleets.
RIBs typically have an aluminum hull that is topped and surrounded with an inflatable collar. Some collars are entirely air-filled, and others are hybrid collars comprised of an air-filled bladder wrapped in foam. Hybrid collars are usually D-shaped, a configuration that allows for more interior space. Some collars are completely foam-filled, which makes them harder and less bouncy than the air-filled or hybrid collars, but still kinder to subject boats than traditional patrol vessels. Various propulsion systems are available, depending upon the manufacturer, as are fuel systems such as gas or diesel.
"The inflatable collar acts as a big shock absorber," explains Choich. "It's a fantastic fendering system and the collar morphs when tied up to subject vessels, which makes it safer and more comfortable for boarding other boats.
"Compared to hard-sided boats, RIBs offer improved flotation and absorb impact," Choich continues. "You can run the boat at higher speeds in rougher water without tearing your body apart." He says there is much more sea-keeping ability than hard-sided boats that can handle rough conditions in smaller boats compared to the same size traditional patrol boat. "The combination of the deep 'V' design with the collar makes for a very stable work platform at rest," says Choich. "But at the same time, because of the design, it really slices through the water."
"Forgiving" and buoyant
Because these boats are so forgiving, they are ideal for agencies that may not have full-time marine patrol units, says Mike Sandeman, of North River Boats, located in Roseburg, Oregon. Officers can go from patrol vehicle to patrol boat and manage the vessel quite capably, even if they don't have a vast amount of experience on the water, he explains.
Another advantage of RIBs versus hard-sided patrol vessels is their buoyancy, Sandeman says.
"If the boat were filled with water, the outboard motor would still be above the waterline, and the boat would still float," he says. "It's virtually unsinkable."
For all of these reasons, they prefer these boats to fiberglass, says Lt. Peter Croop, manager of marine patrol for the Pierce County Sheriff's Office in Tacoma, Washington.
RIBs vs. hard-sided boats
The Pierce County marine division has 18- and 19-foot inflatable boats, used primarily for patrol on Lake Tapps, located in an urban area. "This lake can get really rough," Croop says. "You can start out with water that is very calm and end up with 3-foot chop coming at you from all directions."