BOOTHBAY – Navy SEALs are tough guys by nature but they take a beating from their patrol boats: bruises, bumps and sore backs, even sprained ankles and chipped teeth.

An all-composite version of the aluminum Mark V patrol boat constructed by luxury boat builder Hodgdon Yachts is aimed at reducing the wear and tear on boat operators and SEALs by absorbing the impact as the vessel crashes through the waves at 50-plus knots.

The goal is to deliver Navy SEALS in shape to carry out their missions and to reduce the long-term neck, back and joint injuries inflicted on operators.

“The idea is to build a boat out of the best carbon-Kevlar composite that we can build to reduce those slamming forces,” said David Packhem Jr., president and chief executive officer of Maine Marine Manufacturing, a military spinoff of Hodgdon Yachts.

The 82-foot research prototype unveiled Friday looks similar to the current patrol boats, but it has a new hull made from the advanced composite materials.

Though it’s designed to reduce slamming forces, the prototype is actually 50 percent stronger – and slightly lighter – than the aluminum version. Packhem thinks even more weight can be eliminated without sacrificing performance.

“This extraordinary boat is going to be of extraordinary value to the Navy and to our SEALs,” said Sen. Susan Collins, who christened the vessel with a bottle of champagne during Friday’s ceremony.

The original Mark V, known in military parlance as the MK V Special Operations Craft, was created in the mid-1990s to get special operations forces, primarily SEAL combat swimmers, quickly in and out of messy situations.

And the vessel is indeed quick: Powered by a pair of diesel engines, the twin waterjets propel the vessel to a top speed of about 60 mph.

The problem is that the operators and up to 16 combat-ready SEALs take a beating, literally, as the boat skips through the water.

The aluminum hull is stiff and lightweight, but the ocean’s force is transmitted to the occupants in bone-jarring fashion.

Fighter jet pilots are subjected to forces up to 10 times the pull of gravity, but the Mark V has produced forces upward of 20 Gs slamming against waves, said Lt. Damon Shearer, senior medical officer of Naval Special Warfare Group 4.

Soon after the vessel went into service, the Navy began getting reports of injuries. It responded by installing shock-absorbing seats.

While that helped, there continues to be a problem with back, neck and joint injuries that occur over time, Shearer said in a telephone interview. Furthermore, SEALs are sometimes weary from the beating by the time they arrive for their mission, he said.

Navy Capt. Evin H. Thompson, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 4 in Norfolk, Va., who attended the ceremony in Maine, said he hopes the new vessel dubbed the Mark V.1 will build upon the lessons learned at sea with the original vessel.

“We’ve learned along the way about the power of the sea,” Thompson said. “The sea can be cruel.”

For the project, Hodgdon Yachts worked with the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center. Maine’s congressional delegation secured $14 million through a series of earmarks over several years.

The prototype developed for the Office of Naval Research and the Special Operations Command was created using multiple layers of carbon with a foam core and an outer layer of Kevlar for additional strength, Packhem said.

Dubbed MAKO, for the shark that frequents the Gulf of Maine, the vessel will undergo shipbuilder testing this month in Maine’s coastal waters before traveling to Norfolk, Va., for further evaluation by the Navy.

If it performs as expected, it could be deployed within two to three years, Thompson said.

The Navy wants to move quickly because the patrol boat plays an important role in the war on terrorism. The original Mark V deployed SEALS to Iraqi oil platforms to protect them at the opening of the Iraq war, he noted.

AP-ES-01-11-08 1513EST

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