An amphibious marine craft becomes fast first responder to any emergency on the water
The call came in to the Jamaica Beach Volunteer Fire Department one day in February. A fisherman in a little rubber boat in West Bay was adrift and helpless, the battery of his trolling motor having failed. The response was immediate, and the department’s newest water rescue boat, Sealegs, arrived at the scene to save the fisherman’s day.
“We’re a fire and rescue service, not a towing and salvage company,” said Lt. Ian Fundling, head of the department’s Marine Division.”We’ll get you ashore, but we’ll leave your boat.”
In this case, however, the boat was so small the rescuers just dragged it aboard the Sealegs and took it in with its hapless operator.
Sealegs is a 22-foot rigid inflatable boat with a special talent: It can drive down the road on its three wheels, turn across a ditch and around dunes, drive over the beach and launch itself into the surf under its own power. When the water is deep enough, its wheels lift, the 150 horsepower outboard motor takes over, and the boat becomes a fast first responder to any emergency on the water.
A 10-year-old design created by Sealegs Ltd. of New Zealand, the boat is the latest answer to the problem of combining land and water transportation in a single vehicle.
Until now, the most successful craft for this purpose was the DUKW, built for the U.S. Army to transport troops and supplies ashore during World War II. The name was not an acronym, but a manufacturer’s code, and it was immediately and forever known as the “Duck.” The German wartime counterpart was named with characteristic German logic: Landwasserschlepper (land water tractor). At war’s end, some remaining Ducks were turned to service as tourist attractions at several waterfront locations, including Galveston.
Where the Duck can travel at 50 mph on a good road, Sealegs can manage only up to 10 mph. The Duck afloat, on the other hand, is high-sided, cumbersome and slow, while Sealegs speeds to the site of an emergency at up to 50 knots. Its crew is able to drag a distressed boater or swimmer from the water over the boat’s inflated sides and into the rescue stretcher ready at the rail if needed.
Working with the U.S. Coast Guard, the stretcher and its human contents can then be lifted by helicopter to an emergency room. In fact, Sealegs, equipped with lifting eyes and harness, can be airlifted herself by helicopter to an offshore search and rescue site.
“We cover the bay and the beach from 103rd Street to San Luis Pass,” said Jamaica Beach Volunteer Fire Department Chef Kyle Baden.
The coast guard doesn’t operate boats in Galveston’s shallow West Bay, which isn’t considered “navigable waters” for its purposes. But the coast guard does work closely with Jamaica Beach, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol, and Galveston Fire, Police and EMS within an interagency framework called Galveston Marine Response, which was first seriously organized after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008.
Jamaica Beach, with a year-round population of about 900, swelling to between 3,000 on summer weekends, is the only city besides Galveston on the island. The Jamaica Beach Volunteer Fire Department is a private nonprofit organization, and so able to receive direct donations.
Sealegs, fully equipped with hydraulic motors to drive her wheels, and with radios, GPS, searchlights, loudspeaker, emergency medical supply box, fire pump and more, is “not an inexpensive boat,” Baden said. She takes her place in the Galveston Marine Response network as a result of a generous grant from The Moody Foundation, an island-based charitable organization.
As she speeds across the water, Sealegs embodies technology, philanthropy and the dedication of skilled volunteers, all coming together to make coastal waters safer.