Boatmaker Offers Feds Faster Ride

Smuggler Blues

As it cuts through the choppy, gray waters of Boston Harbor, the Night Cat sends out a subdued howl until driver Richard Doyle pushes the throttle forward. Quickly the 27-foot boat with a unique catamaran hull is traveling 75 miles an hour with twin engines screaming.

Instead of the bone-jarring whomping of conventional patrol boats - which results in fatigue and injuries for drug-enforcement personnel - the Night Cat seems to hug the water with unusual stability. When Mr. Doyle makes a sudden right turn, the boat seems to grab the water.

Looking over the driver's shoulder is owner and designer Bob Perette. After four frustrating years of banging on the doors of federal agencies to prove Night Cat's remarkable abilities, Mr. Perette finally sees his boat getting some respect.

A recent US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) internal memo says, "It is a technological breakthrough. Let us not let this project sit on the shelf."

What Perette's boat can do is run faster in rough waters with greater stability than any other vessel around. "This boat will give the nation a tool for drug interdiction and other uses that is really exceptional," says Rep. William Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts.

The US Naval Surface Warfare Center agrees. It issued a preliminary report concluding that the Night Cat is "a superior riding and handling craft when compared to any craft in the present inventory."

Last week in Washington, Representative Delahunt brought officials together from the Customs Service, the US Coast Guard, the US Navy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the DEA, and staff from the office of Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, to discuss the next step. In a time of tight budgets, no agency has yet moved to procure the boat. "Next year I think we'll be working to secure funding," he says.

Partly, this is the classic American story of the tenacious entrepreneur battling formidable odds. Perette has spent not just time, but $400,000 of his own money to get the attention of agencies seeking weapons in the war on drug smuggling.

But he sees it a little differently.

"Politics," he says, explaining why he was ignored. "I'm just a grain of sand. Who would stick their neck out for a guy who owns a little car-repair business and did this? But now the US Navy is telling the politicians and everybody that this guy has the best boat of its kind."

Perette, with little boating experience, designed the Night Cat after reading a newspaper article some five years ago. "US Customs was chasing a boat with $15 million of heroin in it," he says, "and the Customs boat broke down. I turned to my wife and said, 'I can help these guys.' "

Patriotic motives

His motivation has always been patriotic, to build excellence into an interceptor boat, and not to mine a commercial market. "Our nation is polluted by drugs," he says. "I want to help stop the stuff from coming in."

He did research on boat builders around the world, settling on the idea of a catamaran with its reputation for smooth riding in the water. He bought a catamaran from another designer, and ended up sitting in a Jacuzzi watching water flow through a model catamaran he built. "People thought I was losing it," he says.

After trial and error with the larger boat, Perette realized that as the twin hulled boat slices through the water, it cuts a monorail of water and air down the middle. "The boat pierces the water and forces the water down the tunnel, creating a monorail," he says. "The faster the boat goes, the more solid the monorail becomes."

It differs from other fast catamarans, which ride higher in the water, because of a wider tunnel through the boat and deeper keels.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., did tests to confirm how the Night Cat moves. Most important, the boat minimizes the vertical acceleration (up and down whomping in rough seas) that has characterized single hull boats in use by federal agencies chasing drug smugglers. Continual banging means neck and back injuries for crews on the boats, and limited hours on patrol.

"Our biggest problem is crew fatigue," says Waldemar Kropacek, who has ridden in the Night Cat, and is the director of the National Marine Support Center of the US Customs Service in St. Augustine, Fla.

"Especially in Puerto Rico," he adds, "where we run in rough seas on a daily basis. With the stability of Perette's boat, if we get involved in a chase, instead of stopping [drug runners], we will also have the option of following and letting them pan [bang] themselves into submission, and take the fight out of them."

At first, neither the US Coast Guard nor the Customs Service was interested in the Night Cat. They said it had a single mission application, and they wanted versatility. Even the Navy was lukewarm after Perette detailed his boat's advantages. No funds available, said the Navy.

"Bob was confronting the fact that he is an unknown," says Cliff Goudey, marine advisory leader with the Sea Grant program at MIT.

"This is the way the system works," he says. "I'm not sure it's wrong. The government needs to protect itself from the people who have good sales techniques but don't have the right technology. I think Bob has the right technology."

Eventually Night Cat's engines were tested at the Navy's request, but Perette balked when the Navy asked him for $60,000 to pay for complete Navy tests.

"You are the government," he says he told them. "You pay for it. Why should I fund the US government?"

Letter-writing campaign

Perette continued to knock on doors. "He's the most tenacious man I've ever known," says Amy Baker, Night Cat's assistant driver.

While he kept his auto-body shop in Hingham, Mass., going, he wrote letters to Delahunt, Senators Kerry and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, and President Clinton detailing the advantages of the boat. "Clinton wrote a letter to US Customs," he says, "and suddenly I'm starting to get a little attention."

Finally, the Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center (CTAC) of the ONDCP had good news. CTAC was willing to fund the Navy tests.

"Al Brandenstein [head of CTAC] was the only guy that said, 'OK, let's put up money and take a look at this boat,' " Perette says.

"The boat is better and cheaper than what Customs and the Drug Enforcement Administration currently have," says Mr. Brandenstein. "Jamaican boats are coming up from the islands in the middle of the night and dropping off drugs, and the Coast Guard and the local people can't keep up with them. [Perette's] boat takes a four-man crew and costs less than $200,000. But we have to have the willing participation of the end user."

The outcome of last week's meeting in the congressman's office may be development of a 40-foot version of Night Cat loaded with the latest technology and surveillance equipment. "Everybody knows now this boat is something unusual," says Mr. Kropacek, "and Perette has done a remarkable job. I hope we'll have a lot of different agencies working together on one project, but there is still the bureaucratic ladder to climb."

Perette remains cautious over the prospect that a government contract might be just around the corner.

"I'll probably write a book about this," he says. "I have endless stories of people who told me to go away. If I don't get government support sometime soon, I have no choice but to go the commercial route."

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