ANCHORAGE - Looking to find a small boat that can operate in shallow, silty Arctic Ocean waters off Alaska's northern beaches, the Coast Guard this month will test a 28-foot jet boat that drafts just two feet.
The prototype, manufactured by Metal Shark Aluminum Boats of Jeanerette, La., for possible production for the Coast Guard, can operate in water two to three feet deep and in waves up to eight feet high.
Areas of shallow water off Alaska's north coast can be hazardous to large boats.
"This potentially could be one of the small boats for close to shore," said Lt. Glenn Katsuki, who will assist in the testing.
The Coast Guard has increased its presence in the Arctic Ocean as global warming has caused ice to recede for longer periods of summer. Spokesman David Mosely said Friday testing had been set up for the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay, but it later was switched to Cook Inlet outside Anchorage due to logistical concerns.
The agency last year tested boats with outboard engines in the Arctic Ocean and decided to consider alternatives.
"It's a silt and rocky bottom, so if you bump bottom, you're most likely to do some damage to the props," Katsuki said. "If you lose a prop up there, you're pretty stuck, because there's not a lot of options to come out and help you."
The jet boat's propulsion system sucks in water and blows it out again to push the boat forward. It sacrifices efficiency and power for the ability to run in shallower water. How it handles silt is another concern.
"It's a very fine silt, and we're not sure how the impellers are going to handle it, whether it's going to cause damage to the seals or whether it will get sucked in and blown out without a problem," he said.
Depths of just three feet are common near shore.
"With the ice blowing through and all the storms that they get, it varies constantly," Katsuki said. "The channel that was there a month before, a storm can come in and completely relocate it."
The boat will be carry a crew of two to six. It's equipped with two 295-horsepower inboard diesel engines. Katsuki said he has run the boat just above 35 knots, or just more than 40 mph.
The boat is equipped with shock-absorbing seats that can be folded up if crew members prefer to stand. Removable ceramic armor protects the sides of the cabin. Doors and windows can be removed if the boat is assigned to a warmer climate.
The boat is ringed by an inflatable collar that acts as a bumper when tying up to another vessel.
"It's rigged and ready to do search and rescue, law enforcement, port security - all of our missions, we'll be ready to do off this boat," Katsuki said.
The Coast Guard faces the challenges of operating in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas out of communities that have minimal port facilities.
"We're also looking at launching directly from the beach, just trailering onto gravel beach and craning it in using lifting straps," Katsuki said.
Testing last year was in open boats.
"This has an enclosed cabin and they actually installed a heater in it. We'll be quite a bit warmer than last year," Katsuki said.