Vice Adm. Charles Ray, Coast Guard Vice Commandant, approved the motor lifeboat service life extension project. The process of completely revamping the 107 motor lifeboats in service and in storage will take eight to 10years, giving the boats another 20 years of service.
Discontinued parts for existing boats and budgetary constraints on buying brand new vessels made it necessary to find creative solutions to ensure coxswains could carry out their duties safely.
Motor lifeboats (MLBs) operate in heavy surf and harsh weather conditions and are used for search and rescue missions in some of the most dangerous conditions in which Coast Guard’s men and women operate. Their reliability is key to the safety of the crew aboard, as well as that of the American citizens who rely on them in their most vulnerable moments.
“The equipment onboard [the MLBs] was becoming obsolete,” explained Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Molloy, commanding officer at the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS). “This was especially true of MLB engines.”
The catalyst for the motor lifeboat service life extension project (MLB-SLEP) was in fact their engines, which are no longer manufactured by Detroit Diesel, the company who had originally made the engines. This made the maintenance of the engines extremely difficult, as parts were hard to come by.
“The engines were getting harder and harder to fix,” explained the 47 MLB Platform Manager for the existing fleet David Shepard, (Office of Boat Forces, CG-731). “We didn’t have the budget to purchase completely new boats, so we started to think creatively how to fix this problem. The engine maintenance problems and lack of resources for a completely new fleet of boats was the nexus for the decision to move forward with the MLB SLEP.”
While addressing the MLB’s engine design was the most pressing problem, the Coast Guard took this opportunity to critically look at the design and functionality of the MLB and adjust several other features in this revitalization effort as well.
“Human performance [ability] and crew safety was essential in the redesign,” explained Molloy. “We went a long way to think of the crew’s comfort and safety for this because of the nature of the missions [MLBs are used for.]”
With this in mind, a total of 20 items associated with the design and function of the MLB are being overhauled through the SLEP.
The engine is seeing the biggest change in the new design. Not only is it a newer engine that will be supported by the manufacturer for many years, but it is also smaller, stronger, and quieter.
This is key in increasing the functionality of the space aboard the MLB. The smaller engine size allows engineers to maneuver safely around the engine while aboard. The additional horsepower allows the boat to accelerate faster, which can be a make-or-break factor when operating in heavy surf conditions. The engine is quieter and produces less exhaust which address longstanding concerns about crew health.
“We’ve noticed a steady decrease in performance on these old engines.” said Molloy. “The new design will be more reliable and accelerates much faster, which anyone trying to outrun breaking waves will appreciate.”
The new MLBs will also have five shock mitigating seats on the open bridge, rather than the previous two seats. This, in combination with modern navigation systems on both the port and starboard side will ensure that the redesigned MLB will be safer to operate and more capable than ever before.
Engineers will also have an easier job, as modernizing the boats will ensure the parts to maintain the MLBs are easier to find.
“For every coxswain out there, there’s an engineer that’s backing them up,” said Shepard. “Ensuring their job is easier was another goal of the MLB-SLEP.”
The contract to start the MLB-SLEP was awarded in August 2020 and has been successfully underway since. Operators were given the opportunity to provide feedback on the current MLB design, as well as the proposed redesign. With the operational assessment complete on the first boat which was delivered to the NMLBS in the fall of 2020, two additional hulls are going through the SLEP for the next phase of operational testing at Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon and Station Barnegat Light in New Jersey. Those two boats incorporate changes identified in the testing of the first boat.
Most coxswains and engineers will, however, need to wait a few years to use the revamped MLBs.
The MLB-SLEP—a partnership between the Office of Boat Forces, the Acquisitions Directorate (CG-9), and the NMLBS—is a crucial step in modernizing Coast Guard assets, infrastructure, and mission platforms, and is an essential part of the Coast Guard Strategic Plan.
- Acquisitions Directorate’s MLB-SLEP webpage