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High-Speed Vessel Proves Worth During Disaster Relief Mission

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

CHUKSAMET, Thailand, Jan. 28, 2005 – With a shallow draft only about 14 feet and the capacity to move 530 tons of cargo alone, the WestPac Express can get nearly an entire reinforced Marine battalion and its gear anywhere it needs to go, the ship's civilian captain Ken Kujala said.

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Ken Kujala, captain of the WestPac Express, stands at the controls of the civilian high-speed vessel. Originally designed as a passenger ferry, the Navy leases the vessel and has assigned it to the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. Its usual mission is to move troops and gear for training exercises. It was recently tasked with moving communication equipment to Thailand in support of the tsunami disaster relief effort.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"We have the potential (to transport) almost 970 personnel and all of their "toys"," Kujala, a former U.S. sailor, said.

And it can accomplish that task quickly, though its top speed is sometimes more theoretical than actual.

"The ship is, quote, designed to go 40 knots," Kujala said. "It doesn't quite do that. Maybe in the perfect conditions, it will do that."

Able to haul everything from trucks to helicopters, there is only one piece of equipment the WestPac can't handle. The M-1A1 main battle tank at some 68 tons is simply too heavy.

Until this high-speed vessel started its tenure with the U.S. military, it would have taken five or six days of constant C-130 flights to get everybody and everything where it needed to be, Kujala said.

Because it has such a shallow draft, the WestPac can also go where others can't. It only requires a water depth of 15 or 16 feet to maneuver, Kujala said. This makes it a very unique asset for the Navy, which is used to having to stay in deeper waters.

Owned by an Australian ship company, leased by the Navy and assigned to the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, the vessel's normal duty is moving Marines and their gear for training exercises.

Its maneuverability, cargo capacity, speed and easy loading and unloading make it a valuable asset to the Navy.

Most recently, those capabilities were used to transport communications gear from Okinawa to Thailand to support tsunami disaster relief efforts in the Southeast Asian region.

The 2,300-mile trip began on Jan. 4 in Okinawa and ended when the WestPac arrived in Chuksamet, Thailand, on Jan. 9.

Besides the communications gear, a detachment of 17 Marines, headed by Chief Warrant Officer Perry Smith, made the trip. Their role upon arrival in Thailand was to secure the cargo and provide security for the WestPac and it's 14 civilian crewmembers.

Essentially, Kujala said, the Marines were there to "make the ship self- sufficient."

Designed to handle 530 tons, the humanitarian mission stretched the vessel's cargo capacity, Kujala said. The WestPac carried 630 tons of equipment on its trip between Okinawa and Thailand. "That was absolutely maximum," he said.

The WestPac was expected to be tasked with moving relief supplies to various areas within the region affected by the tsunami. Generally, those areas wouldn't be serviceable by other vessels.

Originally designed as a passenger ferry, the twin-hulled, aluminum catamaran gets 40,000 horsepower out of its four Caterpillar engines, which operate four water jets. Because of its lightweight construction material and the power available, the WestPac is built for speed.

"We operate on water jets instead of propellers," Kujala said. "So, it's a giant water ski."

Water ski or not, the WestPac, home ported in Naha, Okinawa, is technically a commercial ship and so must juggle commercial rules and regulations with those of the military. And sometimes it's the little things that no one would think of that cause the problems.

Because it was designed as a passenger ferry, there was no reason to accommodate a permanent crew. Therefore, there was no berthing.

"We had to get an exemption from the Coast Guard because it doesn't fit normal space requirements for merchant seamen," he said. "There's a lot of things like that that everybody kind of had to work together and say, 'OK, this is the spirit of what we need to do. Let's just make it happen.'"

There are, however, all the comforts one would expect on a passenger ferry. The plush seats and snack bar make for an enjoyable trip. Add the video system and the vessel's ability to make its own fresh water and you've got a regular floating barracks.

Unlike regular barracks, however, the HSV must constantly be aware of the weather. The WestPac must stay within four hours of a safe harbor in case a storm crops up. Kujala said that 10-12 foot seas slow these vessels down and are cause to look for a hiding place.

"Considering typhoon season," he said, "we go hide a lot."

Previously flagged Panamanian, the WestPac was reflagged American when it began carrying U.S. troops about three years ago.

The WestPac's Kujala added that HSVs could become much more common as the Navy, like the other services, transforms into the 21st century.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageOriginally designed as a passenger ferry, the Navy leases the WestPac Express, a high-speed vessel. The WestPac is assigned to the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force with the usual mission of moving troops and gear for training exercises. It was recently tasked with moving communication equipment to Thailand in support of the tsunami disaster relief effort.  
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