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ROTA, Spain — The High Speed Vessel Swift may be the most unlikely vessel in the U.S. Navy inventory: a fighting car ferry.

But this is no ferry tale. It’s the story of a high-speed, high-technology vessel that may be the shape of things to come for the Navy.

The HSV Swift is one of the fastest ships in the Navy inventory, a sleek, 320-foot long, 11,000-ton vessel that can reach 47 knots — warp speed on water.

It’s affectionately known as “the vomit comet” because uninitiated sailors and Marines are prone to throwing up during their first trip on the Swift. It’s so fast, say crewmembers only half jokingly, that the next generation HSVs will have weapons that only point to the rear because nothing will outrun them.

Yet the Swift can carry up to 600 tons of cargo.

It’s an aluminum catamaran “with what amounts to four very high-speed jet skis strapped to the back,” says Lt. Commander Kevin Morrison, Swift executive officer. “It is a civilian design, yes. But we’ve made changes from the ground up.”

In just two years, the HSV concept — built by the Hobart, Tasmania-based International Catamarans of Australia — has a number of firsts. The Swift is the Navy’s first paperless ship, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kent Jones, a quartermaster. Its digital ocean charts and other documents are all computerized.

An HSV prototype, the Joint Venture, was the first U.S. ship in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Before the war actually started, it was the “mother ship” for Navy SEALs and Marine quick-reaction teams securing off-shore oil wells, said Lt. Col. Larry Ryder, HSV project director for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Norfolk, Va.

The Joint Venture also was the mother ship for Marines infiltrating into Umm Qsar, Iraq, at the beginning of the war, Ryder said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Because HSVs have no rudders or screws and only need 15 feet of water, the Joint Venture “negotiated a treacherous river channel, ripping up and down the river fully loaded at 38 mph, where it’s too shallow for [other] ships to go,” Ryder said.

Though HSVs are unarmored and not designed as tactical ships, “we saw a lot more fireworks than we’re supposed to” at Umm Qsar, said Petty Officer 1st Class James Ottman.

“Navy guys are supposed to be farther back, watching the action,” said Ottman, the Swift’s electrician’s mate and the only sailor to serve on both the Joint Venture and the Swift.

Ottman, Jones, Morrison and the 39 other members of the Swift crew already have gotten a lot of exposure since they picked up the Swift in Australia on Aug. 12. The Swift cruised from Casablanca, Morocco, to Spain on Tuesday, the last leg of West African Training Cruise 2004. It flew the flag in seven countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Under the Rumsfeld doctrine of lighter, forward-deployed forces and expeditionary structures nimble enough to react instantly to a world of flash points, it’s a region to which the ship may return sooner rather than later.

Australia has used HSVs to transport troops and supplies in East Timor and other hot spots to battle al-Qaida-linked Islamic fundamentalist groups, Ryder said.

The Swift has a flight deck for helicopters and is configured to haul Marines and their equipment. It also can be used as a command-and-control ship — an entire limited-access section of the Swift’s utility deck is stuffed with the latest communications equipment.

That’s one of a dozen missions for which the craft can be used. The Swift can be anything from anti-submarine warfare craft to a raiding craft.

The ship design features — swooping bow, wraparound wind screen and all-digital bridge instrumentation — suggest an airplane more than a boat. Marines are looking for aircraft-like capabilities from the high-speed concept: the ability to move a full battalion and its equipment to war zones in hours rather than days or weeks, Ryder said.

The Joint Venture is capable of taking a full load of troops and equipment 1,200 miles in 34 hours, according to Marine documents.

Yet the HSVs are anything but utilitarian.

On the Swift, 120 plush airline-style seats face Plexiglas windows looking out on the seascape. Television monitors hooked to the ship’s closed-circuit video system are recessed into the ceiling.

The Swift evokes unsolicited admiration from the crew. It’s more spacious and comfortable because it was built to civilian specifications, said Jones while on guard duty in Casablanca. Cooks have more space, so they cook better food, he said. “In the Navy inventory, she takes the cake.”

Clearly there were glitches on this maiden cruise. The Swift was running on three of four engines on the Casablanca-to-Rota leg after losing one to seal problems, said Jonathan Scholefield, territory customer support manager for the Caterpillar Marine Division’s Madrid, Spain-based Mediterranean operations. The ship also has a tendency to fishtail at high speeds.

But Ryder pointed out that the entire HSV project is basically an experiment.

The U.S. military currently has three ships — the Swift, the Joint Venture and an Army HSV called the TSV 1X Spearhead. All are one-year leases with four one-year renewal options.

If the Navy keeps the Swift for five years, the total contract value would be about $88 million, or about $17.6 million per year. If the U.S. military decides to buy versions from American shipyards, Ryder estimates each HSV will cost between $160 million and $170 million. By comparison, a destroyer costs more than $1 billion.

Official talks about the future of high-speed vessels are under way with the Navy, with talks coming up with the Army, Ryder said.

“We’re pushing hard. We’re over the hump of proving this kind of technology works. But we have to decide what we want ... and the right way of getting it.”

From ferry boat to Navy speedster

When the Navy got the High Speed Vessel Joint Venture in 2001, it had completed two years of ferry service. The interior still looked very much like a ferry, down to the bar still in place, according to Petty Officer 1st Class James Ottman.

International Catamaran of Australia, or InCat, spent 60 days modifying the vessel, “then said, ‘OK military, try it out,’” Ottman said.

In two years, U.S. sailors have suggested a lot of improvements, and InCat has complied, producing the Navy’s second HSV, the Swift, he said.

Since ferry trips are generally at sea three hours or less instead of weeks and months, the Navy had to add water systems for showers and cooking, more storage space and even a place to carry engine oil, Ottman said. And because ferries always go to the same place every day, InCat had to modify the ship so it could plug into electrical and water sources no matter where or how it docks.

A third Navy HSV is under construction.

Swift basics

• The Swift is powered by four, 10,000-horsepower Caterpillar Co. 3618 diesel engines.

• It has a crew of 42. The small crew is something of a problem in that it means the ship has fewer people to maintain the four giant diesel engines, said Jonathan Scholefield, territory customer support manager for Caterpillar Marine Division.

• Range is 4,000 miles.

• Home stations: Naval Station Ingleside, Texas, and Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va.

— Terry Boyd

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