Manufacturers of government boats are bemoaning the contraction of the market, but that hasn’t stopped Zodiac Milpro from expanding.
In February, the military and professional division of Zodiac was sold to Oaktree Capital Management, a Los Angeles-based global investment firm. Marc Lavorata, a 30-year veteran of Zodiac, is now the CEO of the Paris-based manufacturer.
“We are focused on our mission of building boats for those who work on the water,” said Lavorata. Zodiac Milpro supplies inflatables and rigid-inflatable boats (RIBs) to military forces and government and professional users worldwide.
While the name might be new, the change in ownership did not result in a company upheaval. Lavorata said that the Milpro division had always operated autonomously while serving its specialized clientele. Zodiac Milpro makes 60 different models of boats ranging from simple inflatable rafts to high performance tactical RIBs.
The U.S. headquarters of Zodiac Milpro is in Stevensville, Md., just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis, Md., and less than an hour from Washington, D.C. The facility was originally developed as a sales office for Zodiac’s North American market. The boats were manufactured in Europe, Australia and Canada.
That was before the U.S. government decided to apply “Buy American” regulations to one of Zodiac’s biggest selling products, the FC-470 inflatable boat. The boat, used by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, is a rubber raft with removable floorboards and an outboard. In 2010, the Defense Department decided that the boat’s rubberized fabric must comply with the Berry Amendment, which specifies that certain products sold to the government must be made in the U.S. with U.S. materials.
Rather than lose the contract, Zodiac found a domestic source for the material and transformed the Stevensville offices of Zodiac North America into a manufacturing facility.
“We were able to transfer the technology from our Spanish plant and train local workers,” said Jake Heimbuch, technical director and sales operative who oversees contracts for the FC-470. “We worked with a domestic manufacturer and helped them create a polyester weave coated with neoprene and chlorosulfonated polyethylene that meets the spec. Within a matter of months, our workforce went from 10 to 50 when we began making the boats here. We are delivering an average of 20 boats a month.”
In the production area behind the office, sheets of the fabric are cut and prepared for gluing, and two sewing machine operators sew accessories like D-rings into the fabric. Then the rafts are assembled and glued together, tested, tested again and prepared for delivery.
The testing is rigorous because the boats are used in difficult conditions by Navy SEAL teams and other commando units. These boats function as a vehicle for lightly armed teams to slip over the horizon and get to shore quickly and quietly. The RIBs must be able to be disassembled, rolled up, discharged from a submarine, dropped from an airplane or deployed by a helicopter. They are designed so a crew can use the boat to land and then hide the vessel by submerging it until they need to move out.
“These boats are all made by hand,” said Heimbuch. “They have to be very tough.”
Zodiac Milpro is hoping to land another large contract to produce a boat for the Army and Navy that requires different construction techniques. The boats must be welded together instead of glued.
“We have preemptively taken steps to increase our footprint, our workforce and our equipment in order to hit the ground running should we be awarded the contract,” Heimbuch said. “We are transferring technology from the Spanish plant for this project in the same way we did for the FC-470. We have brought trainers over and sent people to see the operation there.” A total of 50 additional employees will be needed when production begins.
Beyond the inflatables built in Maryland, Zodiac Milpro also produces a second brand, the Hurricane RIB. These high performance RIBs are manufactured in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We believe we have set a new standard for a special operations boat with our newest Hurricane MACH II 955 RIB,” said Lavorata.
The Military Air Channeled Hull (MACH) is a design born of a collaboration between Zodiac and Sarasota, Fla.-based naval architect Michael Peters. It debuted at the 2008 Multi-Agency Craft Conference and has become a favored platform not just for commando units but also for police and rescue operations.
Peters’ stepped-hull boats are some of the fastest racing and sport fishing boats on the water. The MACH II is a two-step hull with an air channel integrated along the keel to stabilize the boat during high-speed maneuvers.
STEALTH MILITARY RIB
Zodiac Milpro President Jean-Jacques Arignon said that other innovations have added to the overall performance of the newest version of the Hurricane MACH II 9-meter, the H955.
“In military and search-and-rescue operations, you need to act very quickly but also to focus on what you need to do. I like to say that the Hurricane RIB is built for speed, stealth and safety,” he said.
As an example, Arignon pointed out a continuous monitoring system that checks the air tubes to keep the pressure constant, one less distraction for the operators. There is also a new hybrid tube system that is a full tube forward that tapers to a D-tube in the cockpit to provide more room for payload. The tactical H955 is a stealthy matte-black RIB powered by triple Evinrude 300-hp outboards.
The first contracts for the new special operations boat have come from Europe and the Middle East, but Lavorata expects to see other orders soon.
“There is a growing demand globally for high-end RIBs in general, and we are capturing that demand,” he said.
The “professional” users of the Zodiac boats include first responder units, police and port security details. While they may not have the requirements for stealth that the tactical units do, they need the rugged durability and often the speed.
The New Jersey State Police have a fleet of eight Mach II RIBs that patrol the state’s coastline from Cape May to New York Harbor. “Dramatic situations, like Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, Sandy, show the important role our boats play,” said Lavorata.
A new search-and-rescue boat from Zodiac Milpro made its debut at Seawork 2013 in Southampton, England, in June. The SRA-750 is a 7-meter RIB that employs the same D-tube technology as the H955 but with an aluminum hull. The SAR craft uses the flat side of the D-tube to reinforce the boat by attaching directly to the hull. This will give the boat greater strength in extreme situations. It is available in inboard and outboard configurations.
Small, lightweight and nimble, yet lightning fast and competitive, the Zodiac Milpro boats reflect the vision of the company.
“We have a mission of growth, expansion and innovation,” Lavorata said.