Inflatable boats to the rescue

     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."

     Both RIBs are gas outboard motor vessels and reach a maximum speed of 50 mph. One thing Croop likes is that the vessels obtain this speed pretty rapidly. "What you need is the ability to hole shot, to accelerate quickly and get up on someone fast," he says.

     The RIBs are designed with a console located in the center rather than to the left or the right, which affords better visibility on both sides. It also has a towing tower and reel, and 100 feet of tow rope, allowing for patrols to easily tow an average-sized ski boat, or even one twice as large, depending on the conditions. The vessels are equipped with GPS, department RF and VHF marine frequencies — critical for multi-agency uses, says Croop.

     There are concerns if fully inflatable collars need constant re-inflation or if they will puncture easily. Croop says they haven't experienced any of those issues, although he notes the tubes do need replacing after 10 to 15 years, depending on use.

Functional and versatile
     Darren Reid, assistant chief of Camano Island Fire and Rescue, located on Washington's Puget Sound, uses a 19-foot air-filled inflatable and a 17-foot rigid foam-filled collar.

     Reid likes that the vessels can be launched from almost any point "without issue" and the boats can run in shallow water. This is especially important because they have mud flats, he says.

     These two examples illustrate some of the factors agencies need to consider when choosing a RIB. If officers patrol an environment with sharp objects, puncture is a consideration. In this instance, a hybrid or foam collar might be a better choice. If shallow water is an issue, this could determine the decision made about propulsion. For example, Sandeman says their vessels, when equipped with a diesel jet, can run in as little as 12 inches of water without damaging the hull or propulsion. If more interior space is desired, a D-shaped hybrid could be the ticket.

     The body of water to patrol and the conditions presented will help dictate the size of the boat.

     "If you're using these vessels in open, rough water, the bigger the better," says Craig Henderson, president of Bullfrog Boats Inc., located in Bellingham, Washington. "You also want to think about how many people will be on patrol." A typical number of rescued individuals carried at any time also must be considered.

     Size should also be taken into account when considering the propulsion/fuel system, says Sandeman. "For example, gas jets are good on small boats, but on larger, you want diesel because they are more powerful and the fuel consumption is less."

Quick-response RIBs
     Eric Ingraham, a volunteer with the Pyramid Lake Piute Tribe Search and Rescue, says weather and lake conditions determined their watercraft of choice, a 27-foot RIB with a hybrid collar. Located 30 miles north of the Reno/Sparks area, this desert lake can turn ugly in seconds due to the wind. Ingraham says wind is a factor in about 80 percent of their rescues.

     "The water here is very unique. It can be dead calm and then suddenly the wind comes up, and it's a wall of wind," Ingraham says. "You can actually see a blue line coming at you across the lake from the wind." Ingraham says these dangerous conditions have caught people off-guard, swamping boats and sinking them.

     "But this is when our boat performs beautifully," he says. "I wouldn't feel comfortable in any other boat."

     As specifications indicate, over the years, these vessels have become a great deal more sophisticated.

     "The old term 'inflatables' once meant a simple rubber raft," says Ken McFalls, vice president of sales for SeaArk Marine Inc., located in Monticello, Arkansas. "Nowadays, we may be describing a complex, multi-mission, twin diesel powered, high speed, 40- or 50-foot craft."

     These sophisticated choices can be overwhelming for agencies. The following manufacturers offer varying options and choices to law enforcement agencies based on individual needs and situations:

  •      Bullfrog Boats Inc. manufactures a rigid aluminum hull, inflatable-style boat. The collar is filled with flotation foam rather than air. According to Henderson, this patented design has resulted in a boat that is virtually unsinkable.

         Although their boats primarily find their way to the general public, they are increasingly being used by the search and rescue community, says Henderson. The RIBs are available in 10-, 11-, 13-, 15-, 17-, 21- and 27-foot sizes. Dependent on length and horsepower, top speeds range from 40 to 60 mph. Bullfrog boats are gas, and utilize outboard engines, primarily Hondas.

  •      North River Boats Inc. recently purchased Almar Boats and continues to manufacture inflatable vessels under the Almar RAIV (Rigid Aluminum Inflatable Vessel) brand. These vessels range in size from 18 to 45 feet, in 1-foot increments. Widths vary from 8 to 14 feet.

         Available propulsion includes single, twin or triple outboard; single or duel gas inboard/outboard; single or duel diesel inboard/outboard; single or duel gas-powered jet; and single or duel diesel jet. Speed ranges from an idle speed of around 3 mph up to 57.5 mph, although not every boat they make will go this fast, Sandeman says, adding that sometimes agencies will specify a minimum speed rather than a maximum. The company has a GSA general contract and will build a vessel to agency specifications.

  •      Northwind Marine Inc. offers several open-water RIBs including the 36-foot PilotMaster with a hybrid air/foam collar and the 35-foot Interceptor, a triple outboard, inflatable collar boat designed to carry 250-horsepower engines. Both have 586 aluminum hulls.

         Northwind, which has a GSA contract, has also developed an unmanned, surface RIB called the SeaFox that operates by remote control, says Choich.

         Although developed for use in Iraq, "The advantage this offers port security is that you can have one person in control of several of these vessels, because what we're running into in terms of port security is a manpower/resource scarcity," says Choich.

  •      SeaArk Marine Inc. manufactures RIBs under their RAM Series product line, developed by adding a collar to the existing hull designs of the Commander and Dauntless series, according to McFalls.

         Vessels in the Commander Series are available in 21-, 23-, 25- and 27-foot sizes with horsepower ranges from 225 to 600. The Dauntless Series consists of eight different sizes ranging from 28 feet up to 55 feet. Horsepower ranges from 600 to 1,300, and propulsion is provided by twin outboards.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California. She specializes in writing about public safety issues.

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