War Babies

Want a boat built to military specs? No problem—except for the rocket launchers.

Go out to buy a boat and you'll find yourself being pitched some of the most absurd hype imaginable. We've heard everything from "fiberglass requires no maintenance" to "the hull flexes to conform to the shape of the waves." Most of this is easier to see through than binoculars. But there's one pitch that can fog your lenses: A boat built to military specs is the best there is.

Admit it: There's something about the words mil specs that sounds impressive. A boat built to those standards must be tough and rugged-like a battleship. Yup, the mil-spec label is supposed to end any and all debates as to quality, right? Well, after going over some military boats, we weren't so sure. In fact, we weren't even sure what mil specs means.

So we began snooping and asking questions: Are the mil-spec boats purchased by the armed forces that much better than the ones we're buying? And if they are, should we demand that our boats be built the same way?

To find the answers, we first had to find out what mil specs actually means. We started by meeting with military purchasing agents. Then we visited Vectorworks, a top-notch building and design firm, to see a classified Navy SEAL boat under construction-learning as much as we could before they'd have to shoot us. Then we talked to other boat and engine manufacturers that build for the military. What did we find? Stand ready, mister, and listen up.

Alphabet Soup Military specifications don't encompass one neat set of standards that tell you how to build the ultimate boat. The specs come in many flavors, and not all of them would benefit us. For instance, one spec (MIL-STD-1791) for the current project at Vectorworks limits a boat's size. Since it needs to be deployed from a C-130 aircraft, it must fit inside the plane's cargo bay. This is called a mission-specific spec. Others, such as requiring that a boat have a maximum speed of 75 mph, a minimum draft of 2', and the ability to burn either jet or diesel fuel, are called performance specs.

The specs that are important to us are the build specs, most of which are standards that have been adopted from the civilian world. For instance, Vectorworks' SEAL project must meet the electrical grounding and bonding standards set forth in MIL-STD-1310G. These are exactly the same as those of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), a professional organization that comes up with the voluntary standards used by most recreational boatbuilders.

Other specifications, such as those for the Small Unit Riverine Craft (SURC), a boat currently out for bid by the Marines (visit www.marcorsyscom.usmc.mil and follow the links to SURC), refer bidders to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) specification 179.240. This is the same spec as set down in the document COMDTINSTMI6672.2. When we got through cross-referencing all of this, we found it's the same as the ABYC's standard H-8 for level flotation.

Other civilian agencies from which the military adopts its standards are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Having all these sources of standards is why the world of mil specs seems to be, to use the military's acronym, FUBAR (F---ed Up Beyond All Recognition). Also, most mil specs are for components rather than a complete boat-and as you know, there are a lot of components that go into a boat. For instance, ABYC has a standard for a nonmetallic fuel hose (P-4, 6.15.10.1). This same fuel hose will meet UL spec 1114 and SAE specification J1527, Class 1. Oh, brother! There is, however, no one simple specification for "boat, marine, attack."

Bottom line? There are no mil-spec boats, or at least not in the way we imagine them. But there are boats destined for specific military tasks. The basic parameters for these vessels are set by those who'll use them. But the overall construction is conveniently specified by such catch phrases as "best industry practice" or "COTS (commercial off-the-shelf)."

Confused? At this point, we were, too. So we turned to several boatbuilders to get a first-hand lesson in the application of mil specs.

The New Navy In the past, when the Navy needed a boat, it used a battalion of engineers to design it from stem to stern. We even found the specs for-no kidding-a gravy boat. Given that, it's easy to believe stories of $8,000 toilet seats. But the military is now operating under a new purchasing protocol.

What is it? "It's common sense," says an impressed Larry Graf, president of Glacier Bay Catamarans, which is supplying the Navy with boats for submarine escort duty. "They accepted most existing features on our boats. Changed only a few things. They also asked whether it was thriftier to buy a more expensive part and maybe save some money over the long term because of reduced maintenance." Could it be that the government has learned to become a better shopper?

The Navy found that Glacier Bay's 2680 Canyon Runner basically fit the bill right off the shelf. But some modifications were needed. The production boat has a vinylester resin skin coat, with subsequent layers using a polyester resin. Compared to polyester, vinylester is tougher, nonporous, nonflammable, and better at resisting blisters. It's also more expensive and harder to work with.

The way the Navy looks at it, a 22-year-old coxswain from Iowa isn't going to take the same care in docking this boat as you would. Plus, when dodging 50-caliber rounds, he won't hesitate to run at full throttle in 10-footers. Navy tests show that during the 6,000-hour-per-year service this type of craft puts in (the average boater puts on 45 gentle engine hours per year), vinylester extends hull life by as much as seven years. So for military use, the entire boat is spec'd to be laid up with vinylester. But there's no mil spec for a vinylester laminate. It simply comes under best industry practice. Just understand that even though it may be called "best," that doesn't mean it's right for your boat.

The Navy also wanted Glacier Bay to change to screw-down electric terminals rather than its standard slide-together type. The Navy claims slide-together terminals fail from vibration. But Glacier Bay insisted that its standard method of first tightly bundling the wire loom, then securing that loom to the back of the panel, prevented the terminals from coming apart. The new Navy, seeking a more streamlined purchasing path, agreed to try it. "They let us put it on the first boat and then came back asking for that method on the second," says Graf. After thousands of hours, the system has worked out fine-a good example of how recreational boats may have some components that are better than those spec'd out by the military.

Probably the biggest change that Glacier Bay had to make and then passed on to us is its battery system. Instead of the typical arrangement, where both batteries are charged by both engines, either simultaneously or individually, through a selector switch, the Navy wanted each battery to be charged by, and dedicated to, one engine. This ensures that the full 35-amp charging output of each outboard would be available to each battery. Each battery starts the engine that charges it. One of those batteries is used for house loads; the other is used only for running electronics and lighting. In this way, the chance of draining either battery is reduced. A parallel switch is rigged to ensure emergency starting. From this, a new best industry practice was born. Do you need it? Possibly. Is it that much better? Maybe. But if you insist, Glacier Bay offers it as an option.

Inflated Expectations Even on a boat as simple as a 12' inflatable, enough technology trickles down so that what we purchase has become close to what the military buys. According to Zodiac, its consumer models have a lot in common with those that may someday storm an Al-Qaeda stronghold. The stiff, high-pressure inflatable floor used on the Fastroller line of easily stowable inflatables was originally developed for rapid deployment and stowage aboard aircraft and submarines. Zodiac also developed the slide-off inflatable collar to replace the glue-on type. Tear up the collar and it's easier to replace, whether on a battleground or in your backyard.

For its stern drive RIBs, so popular with the military, Zodiac uses Yanmar diesels. Because these boats take a tremendous beating, its engines needed a stronger mounting system. "When a boat comes off a wave, there's always some hull twist, especially at high speeds and in RIBs," says Gary Kinishi of Land N' Sea in British Columbia, the Yanmar distributor that supplies motors to Zodiac. As a result, Land N' Sea, Yanmar, and Zodiac came up with a saddle that connects the motor mounts to keep the engine and drive aligned-and the motor on its beds. The saddle is now a stock Yanmar part (RIB Kit ZSEM SLP).

All Power, All the Time Los Angeles-based Willard Marine, known for its cruising trawlers, has been supplying the U.S. Armed Forces with boats for decades. When asked what the main difference is between its recreational and military lines, President Jo-Jo Nery says it's mostly in the engines. "Military boats run 24/7," says Nery, "so we install medium- or continuous-duty-rated engines rather than engines rated for light or medium duty, as is typical in civilian boats."

An engine with a continuous-duty rating is built to run at, or near, its maximum power all the time and can outlast a recreational engine by thousands of hours. A light-duty engine is generally designed to run at 80 percent of its power, 50 percent of the time. It's also less expensive and can run at higher rpm to give recreational boaters the speed we demand. Once again, mil specs aren't always appropriate for us.

According to Willard, a mil spec the company has to work with, and the one you're most likely to encounter at a marine supply store (and the one that can cause you trouble), is MIL-A-18001H (also ASTM B-418-73, Type 1)-the spec for zinc sacrificial anodes. Although this zinc alloy provides superior corrosion protection for steel in salt water, don't put it on your stern drive or outboard in fresh water because it will blister the paint off, or worse. You need a magnesium anode, something for which there is no mil spec.

The point of all this is that just because something is mil spec doesn't make it right for you. Boats for the military are not necessarily better than the one you own. In fact, they're often built to the same standards. The only reason to demand an all mil-spec boat is if you intend to mount an invasion. In which case, no boat, no matter how well built, can help you.