Firm crafts next generation of ships
By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer
Commercial and military contracts for futuristic hull designs will bring millions of dollars to Honolulu ship research and engineering firm Pacific Marine.
The military has appropriated more than $20 million this year for Pacific Marine to design and build prototype ship hulls that could be part of the next major generation of Navy ships.
On the commercial side, Pacific Marine has built a $5 million smooth-running, low-wake passenger ferry that a California company is leasing for a commuter ferry service in San Diego. If that project succeeds, Pacific Marine officials say they will market the ferries to coastal cities across the United States, including Honolulu.
The military and commercial projects use unique technology developed by Pacific Marine: underwater "lifting bodies" that act like wings, lifting a boat out of the water for a smoother, faster ride than conventional hulls.
The technology is the culmination of seven years of Pacific Marine hull designs, starting with prototype ships such as the "Navatek I," a twin-hulled vessel built in 1990. A series of catamarans and hydrofoils followed, each with experimental lifting bodies and financed by a mix of defense and private dollars.
The military has added $8 million to a continuing Pacific Marine project to retrofit a 180-foot Navy research catamaran with a lifting body. The $15 million total project, begun last year and nearing completion, will let the Navy test a Pacific Marine hull in the field.
A related project has the Office of Naval Research giving Pacific Marine $17 million over the next three years to design a larger 210-foot version of that hull. It would be part of a prototype "littoral support craft" a floating radar, missile and helicopter landing platform for use in coastal waters.
Successful field trials could lead to the Navy ordering dozens of the boats within several years, Pacific Marine officials said.
A third project, considered the most advanced, will receive about $5 million in initial investment from both the military and Pacific Marine. The goal is to design a "hybrid" ship combining new single-hull technology, developed by Turkish scientist Erbil Serter and used in French and German naval vessels, and an improved Pacific Marine lifting body.
Pacific Marine has acquired the exclusive U.S. license for Serter's "deep V" hull.
The resulting ship, said Pacific Marine vice president and spokesman Michael Schmicker, would be much more "scalable" useful for large boats than catamaran hulls. Pacific Marine wants to have a prototype boat constructed probably at a Mainland shipyard and ready for testing in Hawai'i within 15 months, company president and owner Steven Loui said.
Loui said the latest design could be a breakthrough. The Navy is flush with money in the post-Sept. 11 environment of increased defense spending, and wants designs for a new generation of boats, Loui said. Pacific Marine is teaming with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to bid on the project, which likely would involve production of dozens or hundreds of support craft and be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The Department of Defense is really pushing transformation, getting rid of old 'legacy' technology, and that's accelerated everything for us," Loui said.
The company's passenger ferry, the 85-foot vessel Waverider, is a rudimentary version of the hybrid boat being designed for the military. The boat was designed in the early 1990s as a hydrofoil for use in runs from Los Angeles-area ports to Catalina Island, but the funding company ran out of money. Loui bought the boat in the late 1990s, scrapped the hydrofoil struts and retrofitted the hull with a titanium lifting body built in Russia.
The result: A ferry that Loui said is more stable than conventional boats, cheaper than hydrofoils, and makes a much smaller wake all desirable characteristics for urban commuter ferries. The company eventually wants to use its hybrid military hulls to build a more advanced passenger ferry, Loui said.
Pacific Marine is leasing the Waverider for about $4 million to SCX Corp., a San Diego company sponsored by the California state government to start a commuter ferry in San Diego. SCX officials could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.
Pacific Marine, started by Loui's father, has about 400 employees in several divisions including engineering and ship repair and construction. The company's research division has grown from about nine employees in the mid-1990s to 60, Schmicker said.