CBP testing high-speed interceptors

Published on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 by Meg Olson

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The bad guys on local waters already face a fleet of fast, technically sophisticated watercraft. A new addition to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s marine division literally leaves them all behind.

The prototype for the new Interceptor class boat spent a week stationed in Bellingham, so that local officers could try it out and give their input, and The Northern Light was invited along for a ride.

The 43-foot vessel combines a $480,000 high-performance speedboat with $375,000 worth of state-of-the-art sensors and cameras. It travels at a dizzying speed, while its passengers glide along in shock-mitigating seats, and corners like it’s on rails.

It can hit a top speed of just under 75 miles per hour within seconds, powered by four 350-horsepower outboard engines, then lean into a tight 180-degree turn, still going almost 60 miles per hour.

On August 19, the vessel was in Anacortes and responded to a Coast Guard request for assistance with two swimmers in distress off Point Roberts. It made the trip in 23 minutes. “It was moving,” said Chris Gallaspy at the controls.

Using the day/night thermal imaging infrared cameras we tracked a speedboat a mile away and could clearly see two people in the cockpit. With the naked eye all that was visible was a dot with wake behind it.

Unlike earlier versions of the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, this one is auto-tracking and gives officers information about distance, course and speed of the target. “It’s a huge difference,” said local CBP marine officer Allen Gustafson. “They went a long way in putting in everything they could.”

With a 600-gallon tank full of high-octane fuel, the vessel can travel at cruising speed, 45 miles per hour, for ten hours before it needs to fill up. A fill up at the Point Roberts marina when they helped in the search for murder suspect Ryan Jenkins would have cost $2,214.

Paul Pope, one of the four-man crew that is traveling with the boat to locations across the country, said the vessel’s nationwide tour was to find out “what works and what doesn’t” before building 50 of them to replace the 40 Midnight Express Interceptors the agency now has. “It’s good to see they’re going to make this huge investment and they actually ask the guys in the field what would work,” Gustafson said.

Pope said they had aimed for the most sophisticated technology but still worked to keep costs down. ‘Pretty much everything is the latest and greatest,” he said, but they avoided custom components.

“We’re trying to buy off the shelf if it meets the mission,” He added they also turned to leaders in performance boating, such as steering guru Bob Latham, for design help. “He said this is the most powerful hydraulic steering system he’s ever seen,” Pope said.

CBP’s marine division in Bellingham, established in 2004, has four boats and expects to add four more, according to Gustafson. He said while CBP and the Coast Guard often work together, CBP is focused on law enforcement issues. “What we see here is mostly narcotics, moving both ways: weapons, cash, drugs,” he said. Besides preventing illegal movement of goods and people, their mission also includes preventing terrorism and port security.