Top U.S. Coast Guard officials say the agency is well-prepared for Arctic missions, even as the agency shops for an amphibious Arctic craft that can handle treacherous sea ice and extreme cold off Alaska's northern coast.
Nationwide the agency operates scores of response boats that do everything from conduct rescues to fight fires to bust drug-runners to help defend America's coastline. But there's no fleet based in the U.S. Arctic, where an increasing number of ships ply the frigid seas off Alaska's shores in support of oil development, shipping and tourism.
As a result, the Coast Guard is looking for a versatile patrol vessel that fits into a C-130, a large cargo plane, and can be launched from shore to negotiate ice-choked seas, big waves and the Arctic coast's ever-shifting sands, the Coast Guard's research center announced this year.
The agency's search so far has yielded two bulky and strange-looking vehicles that the Coast Guard will review in live demonstrations this week in Barrow, the nation's northernmost community located along the Arctic Ocean. The peculiar craft are made by family-owned companies -- one from Alaska, the other from Canada.
They generally look like a World War II-era tank crossbred with a barge or a tug. Versatile they are, their inventors claim. They perform like boats in open water. But beneath their hulls, tracks let them rumble over sea ice and snowy shores.
The so-called Alaska Amphib is based on the patented design of an 81-year-old tinkerer from Ketchikan. It evolved from a glorified swamp buggy he built decades ago for duck hunting on mudflats up a Southeast Alaska river.
The competition is the Arktos, which can already be found operating at North Slope oil fields, where companies such as BP have purchased six of the $3 million machines as emergency-evacuation crafts.
The Coast Guard currently has no plans to purchase either one. That could change in the future, though.
"We're trying to investigate the latest and greatest technologies and what the realm of the possible is," said Tim Girton, technical director at the USCG research center in New London, Conn. "We have a very open mind as to how we can meet our mission needs."
The demonstrations are part of the Coast Guard's effort to rapidly expand its Arctic presence, where it has no facilities and no plans to install docks or ramps, the research center announced. With Royal Dutch Shell on the verge of drilling for offshore oil, the Coast Guard has positioned two helicopters near Barrow, launched cutter patrols in the Arctic Ocean, and begun testing oil-spill equipment.
Getting ready in Barrow
The two teams planning to showcase their crafts for five days next week are a study in contrasts.
The colorful Bruce Seligman is president of Arktos Developments in British Columbia, Canada. He'd spent Friday transporting the 32-ton, 50-foot-long Arktos vehicle to Barrow from an oil field run by ENI, the Spanish oil company.
He'd sailed the vehicle, leased from ENI, about 32 miles through the Beaufort Sea, then barged it another 200 miles from a Prudhoe Bay dock.
Seligman had a prize fighter's confidence in his invention. He was bummed because a summer storm had recently blown the ice off Barrow's coast, raising questions about whether he could "show off" in the ice.
Of his Alaska competition, he said they're "not really in the same ballpark as us. It's like Tiger Woods playing a preschooler in golf."
He developed the Arktos in the early 1980s for the oil industry, and he's sold several around the world. The vehicle doesn't meet all Coast Guard specifications, including fitting inside a C-130, but he'll modify it if the agency's wishes.
As part of the Arktos demonstration, Seligman asked the Coast Guard if he could display the crafts' ability to deploy boom, the linked floats that can help stop a spill, said a Coast Guard spokesman. Seligman plans to do that on Friday, the spokesman said.
The Alaska competition
The Amphib Alaska was built in Ketchikan by Tyler Rentals. Owner Randy Johnson, who this year sold Alaska Ship and Drydock to Portland shipbuilder Vigor Industrial, was more reserved.
"We're trying to be cautious in our optimism," he said. "This is new territory for us."
He purchased the rights to build the boat two years ago from his longtime friend Stanley Hewitt, 81. Johnson hopes one day to sell the Amphib to companies looking for a something that can perform rescues and do other work on water and land. His company has just finished building the Amphib days ago to the Coast Guard's specifications. It was tested off Ketchikan's ice-free waters, then loaded onto a C-130 for Barrow.
At 16,000 pounds, the Amphib travels about 10 miles an hour in water and a little faster on land, but it can be modified.
Hewitt was in Barrow on Friday, serving as mechanic for the Amphib. The former Air Force gunner and current pilot and welder built his first amphibious craft in the 1980s. It had wheels and bogged down in mud.
"I quickly found out when wheels go in the mud," Hewitt said, "it makes a mess on the first wheel, then the next wheel, and so on. I had 10 wheels on that thing, so I had a real mess."
Over the years, he's replaced easily dinged propellers with a water-jet engine. He switched out wheels for retractable tracks. He's raised the ground clearance and kept the craft as light as possible.
"Each one of these is 20 times better than the last one," he said.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com