After more than three decades in the service of Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach, the Response Boat-Medium 41 is slated for retirement, and the station is nearly finished certifying crew members to operate its $2.2 million replacement.
First announced in June, the new vessel is a Response Boat-Medium 45. As its name implies, it measures 45 feet LOA, from stern to bow, and is capable of speeds up to 42 knots, or roughly twice the speed of the RB-M 41, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Joe Baxter said during a Nov. 15 tour of the two boats.
The new vessel is also capable of handling 12-foot waves and 50-mph winds, opposed to the 41, which maxed out at 8-foot waves and 40-mph winds.
Currently the station’s crewmembers are wrapping up certifications for the new vessel. They must perform a range of practice missions, including search and rescue, anchoring, towing other vessels, damage control, navigation and security.
Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach houses 26 active duty personnel, 22 of whom will ultimately become certified to man the 45 RB-M.
“There’s a lot we have to do to get people trained,” Baxter said.
It really varies with experience and availability of equipment such as helicopters for search and rescue practice missions, he explained.
The 45 boasts an array of state-of-the-art features, not least of which is a vector control system for the Rolls Royce-designed water jet propulsion system. Tommy Dunn, a marine technician, explained that instead of the traditional dual-engine system, in which maneuvers are accomplished by alternately shifting the two engines into forward or reverse, the vector control system allows the boat to move in any direction. Coupled with a shallower draft and faster speed capabilities, he added that response time and area coverage will be substantially enhanced.
The new boat also contains an integrated navigation system, featuring three individual screens for multiple crewmembers to simultaneously monitor conditions. In addition to the display modules for both port and starboard engines, GPS and a Furuno RADAR system, the boat is equipped with Forward-Looking Infrared RADAR, or FLIR, which Dunn compared to night vision. Except, he said, the display illuminates the victim based on their body heat, providing a far more effective search and rescue tool than the 41’s spotlight method.
The relatively spacious cabin is outfitted with air conditioning and special shock-absorbing seats that reduce fatigue during long missions at sea.
“It doesn’t sound like much,” Baxter said of the comfort upgrades. “But simple things like that have a huge impact on our ability to focus and stay out for a long time.”
The new vessel is also designed with special attention to capsize prevention, as it boasts self-righting capabilities, unlike its predecessor.
While most of the approximately 170 RB-Ms have been deployed to Coast Guard stations around the country, the Wrightsville Beach station is just the second in North Carolina to receive one, after Emerald Isle.
Calling it a workhorse, Baxter explained that the 41 has performed just about every possible job during its 33-year career, including search and rescue, towing, fisheries law enforcement and recreational boating safety. But for a military outfit whose effectiveness depends on quick response and missions that take them miles offshore, he said the speed of the old boat was a significant drawback.
“You’re lucky to hit 22 or 23 knots,” Baxter said. “But it’s a fine boat; it still runs great.”
And while it has outlived its original 15-year life expectancy by more than twofold, the 41 might not be retiring from public service just yet.
Ultimately, Coast Guard engineers will decide its future, which could entail anything from the scrap yard to being repurposed as a research vessel for another government agency, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NASA, depending on the estimated cost of its continued upkeep.