The OPC Race: Vigor is "In it to Win it"
Vigor Shipyard’s unique entry into the ongoing U.S. Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutter Competition turns heads now, but ultimately may change how we look at Homeland Security on the water – for good.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s well-publicized, although clearly flawed recapitalization campaign is alive and well. Spurred by the need to replace as many as 25 medium endurance cutters, the nation’s primary homeland security provider on the water has domestic shipbuilders queuing up to design and build its next generation vessel – the so-called offshore patrol cutter (OPC). At least three shipyards can be considered serious candidates for the first installment, but only one – to date – has succeeded in generating genuine excitement with an innovative design proposal.
According to Matt von Ruden, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and Program Manager at Vigor Shipyards, the Coast Guard has been talking to industry about the OPC for some time. von Ruden retired as Director of Fleet Maintenance for Coast Guard Maintenance & Logistics Command Pacific in Oakland CA in 2009 and eventually brought his experience to Vigor Shipyards. As the Program Manager for OPC, he has led Vigor’s pursuit of the $8B, 15 year vessel construction contract since 2010. He told MarineNews in September, “Given the importance of this recapitalization effort, they (the Coast Guard) really are taking a low risk approach.” Vigor began discussions with the Coast Guard in late 2008. Out of those discussions came four unique, key metrics for the OPC concept. These include:
Endurance on the order of 8,500 to 9,500 miles range;
Excellent seakeeping essential to all missions;
Affordability – they need to replace as many as 25 hulls; and
A low risk approach embracing proven hull forms and technology.
Vigor’s startling and early release of their design concept surprised some observers, but company officials wanted people to get used to the idea that such a revolutionary design could work for the Coast Guard. “It’s different and we wanted to put it out there early to let it sink in and let people understand the facets of it. We want people to be comfortable with it – it is not a high risk concept. It’s a great fit, actually, for the Coast Guard’s requirements,” von Ruden adds.
Without a doubt, and if it eventually comes to fruition, Vigor’s introduction of the Ulstein X-Bow is destined to change the perception of what a U.S. Coast Guard cutter should look like – and more importantly, why.
Released in June of 2011, the Coast Guard is quickly coming to the end of the Draft RFP portion of the bidding process. A final RFP is expected at the end of September, with proposals from competing yards probably coming in January. From that list of entries, the Coast Guard will winnow the field down to no more than three shipyards to enter phase one, which is a preliminary 18 month contract and design effort.
According to Vigor’s von Ruden, shipyards will either have to pair up with a designer or they’ll need to have organic capability. He adds, “That’s part of the Coast guard’s low risk approach. The Coast Guard needs to know that the vessel can be built affordably, with high quality and delivered on time. During this time, there will be program and design reviews, and close involvement by the Coast Guard.
Eventually, there will be another proposal submittal and they’ll select one shipyard to complete detailed design and building for the first vessel. We expect that to be roughly two years later from the January 2013 time frame.” Initially, the Coast Guard would likely order and build one vessel per year, starting in 2017, eventually doubling that production schedule. The first contract will likely be for up to 11 vessels, with another subsequent “re-compete” for another 9 vessels. Eventually, it is intended that the Coast would build 25 vessels.
More than Just a Pretty Hull
The Vigor strategy involves a lot more than just putting forth a revolutionary new hull form. Matt von Ruden explains, “We partnered with Ulstein for the concept design. It’s more than just selecting one of their PSV’s and painting it white. They were involved early on and the first challenge was that the requirements are export controlled. So, we needed a technical assistance agreement with the government, to bring in Ulstein. We did that and involved them in the concept design. They used their patented X-Bow, as well as other characteristics in their other vessels, and put them all together to best meet the Coast Guard’s requirements.”
These requirements include a minimum speed of 22 KT, high endurance and certain beam restrictions. As they went forward, Vigor also knew that Ulstein couldn’t operate in a vacuum when it came to mapping out just the right design. “We educated Ulstein about the Coast Guard using our in-house team of subject-matter experts. They conveyed what life is like on a Coast Guard cutter as well as the various functional needs of the vessel – not just the hull form.” Pooling the expertise of both parties, a concept design was born.
Beyond the Ulstein concept, Vigor’s team also includes its U.S.-based design agent, CDI Marine of Glen Burnie, MD. Consistent with the Coast Guard’s desire to invoke the recently developed ABS Naval vessel rules – which are also export controlled – there is the third party rule itself, which is going to classify the vessel. According to Vigor, CDI’s considerable experience with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Government’s National Security program will be a welcome asset. With a license agreement in place to use their unique hull form, Ulstein remains interested in ensuring that the hull form meets the design specifications of the vessel. Any kind of change going forward will thereof need to be blessed by Ulstein, ensuring that the boat performs just like each of the other 43 other X-Bows in service today.
The X-Bow today is widely in service for the commercial sector. Vigor’s proposal therefore brings about an arguably radical change within the Ulstein hull form. Or, does it? The same advantages enjoyed by the commercial oil & gas industry afforded by this hull will now be available to the U.S. Coast Guard. Originally designed for service in the North Sea, sea conditions are typically not good. Von Ruden adds, “In those settings, the X-bow allows you to do is get on station sooner, and back sooner. That’s one of the main jobs for an OSV. For a seismic vessel, it means being able to stay out there for several months and being able to map the ocean floor. Waves in the north Atlantic are typically above 2.5 meters, 74% of the time. Ulstein wanted a design that can perform in those kinds of conditions, so they put a lot of money into research and development and came up with the X-Bow design for the oil & gas industry.”
Both commercial and military applications for this hull form are driven chiefly by pure economics. In smaller sea states, the X-Bow, with more volume up forward and high up over the waterline, absorbs the motions of ship through the added buoyancy of the hull. A controlled submergence prevents the bow from ever being submerged, virtually eliminating green water on deck, lessening the loads and accelerations associated with that. Markedly reduced hull (and crew) fatigue and more efficient propulsion are key benefits of this metric. Depending on the sea state, this allows significantly higher speeds and significantly better fuel consumption. And, given the vessel’s wide range of expected mission mix, the vessel will therefore be fitted with a diesel electric propulsion system.
It all sounds great. But, with the Coast Guard in no position to make another mistake, the track record of the X-Bow is arguably unrivaled by any other design in the oil patch. Receiving great reviews from early customers such as Bourbon Offshore, there are now actually eight different shipyards producing the hull all over the world, in series, with a combined output to date of 43 boats serving as OSV’s, anchor handlers, and seismic vessels. With that kind of proven functionality, two more are under construction in Norway right now.
The hull form lends itself to series-build economy of scale, and this could eventually help Vigor demonstrate that they can produce an affordable hull for the Coast Guard. The scalable hull is today being built in various sizes; from 85 meters all the way up to 130 meters, with a 16 meter beam and up. The Coast Guard version will probably entail a 100 meter LOA design with a beam of 54’. Von Ruden adds, “It’s reasonably slim in a ‘cutter’ form, aside from that boxy bow. The length-to-beam ratio is more slender than its predecessors. That’s because we looked at that early, and matched this to the Coast Guard’s speed requirements.”
With accommodations planned for 126 to handle a myriad of missions and a crew size of about 90, this OPC hull will try to replace both the 210 foot medium endurance cutter (crew of 70) and the larger 270 foot medium endurance cutter (crew of about 100). Staying true to the Coast Guard’s mission of delivering coast guardsmen out to where they are needed, the crew size will average out to about the same, but Vigor says the hull will be more flexible, doing more missions with one platform.
Reality Meets Requirements
Operational requirements often have a painful way of colliding with political and financial realities. The Coast Guard may eventually only get 8 national security cutters – indeed, they may only get 6. Those are intended to replace 12 high endurance cutters, four of which will very soon be decommissioned. As such, the old mantra that every Coast Guard Commandant hates to hear – doing more with less – will once again come into play. Eventually, then, the OPC will have to step up and fill some of those capabilities. For example, today’s 270-foot cutters are not suitable for operations in the Pacific and their 210-foot cousins are likewise not well suited for extended offshore operations, either.
Utilizing the Ulstein X-Bow, the Vigor OPC design could likely fill that gap and deploy in the Bering Sea’s harsh, Arctic conditions. And, although the Coast Guard has no public plans to augment new designs with “ice-strengthened hulls,” it is worth noting that Ulstein does produce ICE 1A classified (DNV) vessels, so this class of vessel could be strengthened. Vigor’s von Ruden says, “We’ve been watching that closely, being up here in Seattle, especially with the increased activity in the Arctic.”
In it to Win it
Vigor Shipyards and the Pacific Northwest itself already boast a good reputation for quality. The firm has shown what it can do in terms of series-build construction. The Washington state ferry projects have, by most reports, gone well, winning awards for delivering seven hulls in a row, on-time and on budget. Beyond this, Vigor has also performed more than its fair share of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard repair work. Vigor’s von Ruden insists, “They can be comfortable with our stewardship of their dollars,” adding for emphasis, “We’re in it to win it – absolutely. We’ll submit in January, and selections will be in the June time-frame. I would expect the contract to be awarded by the end of the fiscal year (2013), with the Coast guard down-selecting one more time in 2015 for the single yard.”
In addition to the futuristic Ulstein X-Bow design, Vigor brings three new construction facilities and a skilled workforce to the competition. For the production and engineering tasks, Vigor will employ ShipConstructor, an AutoCAD based shipbuilding CAD/CAM software suite. Matt von Ruden said that the program had been used with success in the Washington State ferry efforts. Widely used in Tier II shipyards (like Vigor), the cost-effective software is, von Ruden reports, continually getting better. Rounding out the Vigor team are well-known maritime industry stalwarts DRF Power Control Technologies and L-3 Communications.
That the Coast Guard is insisting upon a proven hull form for their fledgling OPC design and build program comes as no surprise to industry analysts. On the other hand, Vigor’s early unveiling of a hull concept that could not only change, but significantly enhance operational capabilities has many doing a ‘double-take.’ Imagining a Coast Guard cutter in this unique package will, for some, take some getting used to. Once that happens, however, there may be no going back. And, given the pedigree of this team and its chosen design, why would anyone want to?
(As published in the October 2012 edition of Marine News - www.marinelink.com)
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