San Diego Business Journal

At 114 feet long, it’s a small craft in the U.S. Navy fleet.

The 260-ton boat is a fraction of the size of the 41,000-ton, cargo-carrying behemoths that go together several miles to the north at Nassco/General Dynamics Corp.

But the Range Training Support Craft is a small necessity as a previous generation of training boats ages and the Navy changes its requirements.

Marine Group Boat Works of Chula Vista delivered its first Range Training Support Craft to the Navy on July 23. It’s part of a three-boat order worth more than $30 million.

Family-owned Marine Group Boat Works hired 30 employees in December 2008 to help it build the three support boats. The South Bay business expects to complete the project in 2013, and anticipates keeping its new hires working after that, said Todd Roberts, the business’s vice president. In total, the company, formerly known as South Bay Boat Yard, employs 115 people.

The government might not limit its purchase to three. Roberts said the Navy has indicated an interest in buying more.

The Navy’s new support craft has an aluminum hull, put together on a specially made jig at the yard. The process involves building the hull upside-down, then turning it over.

Green Power

Roberts said the boat’s environmental credentials include two engines able to run on 100 percent biofuel if needed, with the help of a special fuel filtration system. The boat is also able to run entirely on shore power while tied up at a pier, eliminating the need to run the diesels and cutting emissions.

As far as Navy craft go, “it’s probably the greenest ever made,” said T.K. Ekrom, a representative with Reliance Metalcenter of National City. The local division of publicly traded Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. took 8-by-20-foot sheets of marine-grade aluminum from another supplier and cut them to shape for the hull, interior and deck pieces. The lightweight metal cuts the boat’s fuel consumption, Ekrom said.

The Power Systems Division of Hawthorne Cat, the San Diego Caterpillar dealership, supplied the boat’s two 1,800-horsepower engines.

Ekrom said he was able to tour the new boat a few weeks ago, and was impressed by its construction, its power and its compact nature.

Roberts added that civilian crews can run the new generation of Navy craft.

35 Pages of Requirements

The support craft is a replacement for the Navy’s Torpedo Weapon Retrieval boats, which were commissioned more than 25 years ago. The builder said its Navy customer asked for a boat able to support aviation, surface and subsurface warfare training. The Navy provided 35 pages of requirements for the design-build project, Roberts said.

The predecessor craft were optimized for anti-submarine warfare training, the builder quoted its Navy customer as saying.

Roberts estimated that one-quarter of the Chula Vista yard’s business is new construction for the Navy. Navy repair and commercial repair make up other portions of the business. “We have more Navy repair work than we know what to do with,” Roberts said.

In recent years, the yard has publicized its work on yachts exceeding 100 feet in length and owned by business leaders. These days, Roberts reported, individual yacht projects bring in less money — a $1 million job is now a $500,000 job — and customers are more demanding. It was a good time for Marine Group Boat Works to diversify, the manager said.

In the spring, the business opened a multimillion-dollar boat repair yard in Baja California, Mexico. The facility in San Jose del Cabo encompasses 200,000 square feet of land and water. It includes a 150-ton crane and an out-of-water storage facility that can accommodate 100 boats.