BATH, Maine — Hodgdon Defense Composites, an affiliate of Hodgdon Yachts, will begin building new, Jet-Ski-like rescue vessels for the U.S. Air Force Special Command at a new headquarters on the Bath waterfront.
By unanimous vote on Wednesday, the Bath City Council authorized a 2.5-year lease with the firm to begin production of the high-tech crafts in city-owned property at 2 Town Landing Road.
HDC will subcontract with North Carolina-based Rapid Response Technology to build the Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft, or GARC, which is designed to withstand being dropped from a C130 military transport aircraft into rough surf, and then boarded by paratroopers on a rescue mission, HDC President David Packhem Jr. said Tuesday.
The rescue vehicle was originally designed by George Greenough, an underwater photographer and surfer known for tackling the largest waves in the world, according to Packhem.
Greenough “was distressed because he was using wave runners to rescue surfers who got in trouble, and wave runners can’t handle those waves,” Packhem said.
Rapid Response Technology, which now owns the design for the vessel, is finalizing a contract to build additional GARC vessels for the Air Force in 2012. HDC already received “advance authorization” to begin construction of the first rescue vessel — ideally in mid-January, according to Packhem.
“We hope by the middle of next year to able to build four [vessels] a year,” he said. “We’d like to anticipate a demand of 50 per year.”
The 13-by-6-foot GARC is certified to be dropped from the air into the water, where it can be boarded by a paratrooper as part of a rescue effort.
“They use a C-130 plane,” Packhem said. “They carry two of these in the hold, and if there’s a particular mission they’re shadowing, within 90 seconds paratroopers can have these things up and running.”
“The air drop is what distinguishes this aircraft from other rescue crafts,” Packhem said. “You could use inflatables, but those boats as rescue craft take a lot longer. Instead of 90 seconds, you’re looking at more than a half-hour, in the best case, before they’re up and running, and that’s if you do it properly.”
Search and rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and Air National Guard are among less dramatic uses of the craft.
The composite used for the GARC vessels “is not that complicated,” Packhem said, but because the vessels must be able to withstand being dropped from a plane, HDC’s experience with “composite laminate schedules” landed the contract.
Engineers must understand “what the layers are, how thick they are, and how well they’re going to glue together,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of research and have the ability to optimize the weight and performance characteristics … they came to us because of our understanding of composites, our ability to build high-quality boats and our experience with the military.”
HDC was founded in 2004 by Tim Hodgson, president of East Boothbay-based Hodgdon Yachts, to work with the Office of Naval Research to “migrate” advanced composite technology and Hodgdon’s boat building expertise for military uses, Packhem said.
In 2008, HDC manufactured an 83-foot MAKO technology demonstrator vessel prototype for the Department of Defense Special Operations Command. Previously constructed of aluminum, the new vessel is lighter, stronger and able to meet other classified objectives of the military, Packhem said.
“Hodgdon is at the forefront of building much stronger vessels,” he said. HDC develops design standards and manufacturing methods “so we guarantee [the vessels] will perform as they’re designed to perform.”
Under terms of the 2.5-year renewable lease approved Wednesday, HDC will pay the city of Bath $1,500 monthly through March 2012, and $2,000 a month through June 2014.
But the city will spend much of that income renovating the building for the company, City Manager Bill Giroux said Monday, in order to meet the terms of a $400,000 Community Block Development Grant secured by the city in 2004 during negotiations with former prospective tenant, Maine Monolite LLC.
At the time, officials from that startup company assured the city that they would create the 40 jobs required under terms of the CDBG grant, but lease negotiations ultimately fell through.
From 2007 until December 2010, Bath leased the building to U.S. Windblades, which folded late last year, Assistant City Manager Paul Mateosian said Wednesday.
But changes to the terms of the grant, in part due to the creation of a Pine Tree military redevelopment zone, now require Bath to create only eight jobs, including five low- to moderate-income positions, according to Mateosian.
HDC has already hired two employees, and an advertisement for three more positions is slated to appear in The Times Record this week, according to Packhem. He hopes HDC will employ about 10 people by some time in 2012, including six in “the manufacturing trades including composite technicians and systems and mechanical workers.”
“We’re thrilled to have the council consider this,” Giroux said Wednesday. “Hodgdon is a great Maine business that has created a lot of jobs over the years. We’re excited about having them come to Bath.”
“This is a premiere boat builder in the state and it sounds like it’s going to be state-of-the-art technology that they’re going to be producing right here in Bath,” At-large City Councilor Andy Winglass said during Wednesday’s meeting. “I welcome them with open arms.”
Packhem said city officials “have been fantastic to deal with, and … have moved at lightning speed” to get the firm into the building.
A number of principals at HDC worked together at BIW during the 1980s, Packhem said, and have been in the Bath area “for years and years and years.”
“We’re having so much fun … everybody’s excited about it and hoping this project will lead to doing more military projects,” he said. “It’s very hard to crack into the military industrial complex, but we’re hoping this will jump-start us.”
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