NEWPORT —When they wanted a prototype for their vision of a faster, more agile Navy, planners turned to a California firm headed by Portsmouth Abbey grad and Middletown native Bill Burns.
Looking less like a Navy vessel than the Batmobile on water, it must have been a disarming sight to a boatload of drug smugglers off Florida awhile back.
To test its abilities, Stiletto was participating in patrols off Columbia, the Bahamas and the Florida Straits when it encountered a high-speed suspected drug boat.
Probably expecting to outrun their pursuers as usual, the smugglers too off, Stiletto in pursuit. Two hours later, with Stiletto closing in at speeds hitting 50 knots, the smugglers realized they couldn’t outrun their pursuer so they headed for the shallows, not realizing that the boat behind them only draws 2.5 feet — not much for an 80-footer with 40-foot beam. The three smugglers (alleged) ran aground and are awaiting trial.
The boat’s unique look is part of the appeal.
“Of course, we like it because it looks cool,” Mr. Burns said. “It had to look sexy in a military sort of way — It’s cool-looking but it’s also mean.”
Mr. Burns is executive director, co-founder and chief designer of San Diego-based M Ship, a firm that had been focusing more on commercial boats, especially fast, low-weight ferries, when the military came calling.
The Stiletto project stems from “Navy after Next” think-tank work going on in part at Newport’s Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), a continuation of the direction charted by the late Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski at the Naval War College in Newport.
He and others had become convinced that the Navy needed affordable, smaller, faster and more nimble ships that could maneuver close to shore where the danger from terrorists, smugglers, and pirates (the “asymmetric threat” in Navy-speak) most often lurks. These boats could free up the Navy’s bigger ships for the blue water work for which they were designed.
Stiletto’s abilities are impressive.
Four 1,652-horsepower engines push the carbon fiber vessel (it’s the Navy’s largest built of the strong, light-weight material) at speeds up to 50 knots (57.8 mph). Even at speed and in rough water, the ride is smooth and quiet.
Mr. Burns describes what it feels like to open up the throttle:
“It’s deceptively fast. Since the boat doesn’t change trim very much from 0 to 50 knots and the ride quality is smooth, you don’t realize how fast you’re going until you start passing things on the water. The magic of the design is the M-hull technology under the boat. The four channels mix air and water together to create a lifting cushion that reduces drag and smoothes the ride. It’s been described like riding a magic carpet,” Mr. Burns said last week.
“Our original business plan called for creating environmentally friendly ferryboats that captured the bow wave energy to prevented shoreline erosion. We soon discovered, however, that our designs were not only low wake, but also more fuel efficient and surprisingly offer a really smooth ride.”
Mr. Burns got started in boating while growing up in Rhode Island.
“It’s hard not to be a sailor when you’re from Aquidneck Island,” he said.
He learned to sail at the Newport Naval Sailing Center, spent most of his summers on the water and then sailed at Portsmouth Abbey. He studied engineering at University of California San Diego, got an MBA at San Diego State but said it was “serendipity” that led him to this line of work.
“I was on my way to becoming a conventional engineer when I crossed paths with a couple of entrepreneurial characters. I can’t say I mapped out this career path, but I always knew that I wanted to be involved with the maritime industry and took advantage of opportunities to try something different.”
He has since worked with Navy researchers, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and America’s Cup syndicates. He is a founding member of CBTF Co., which designs high-performance sailing yachts featuring patented canting ballast-twin foil appendages, and he developed a Virtual Shipyard program aimed at making ship construction more efficient. Mr. Burns has received design innovation awards from Time magazine, Business Week and Sailing World.
Some of his work brings Mr. Burns back to Narragansett Bay. His company completed a small unmanned surface vehicle project at New England Boatworks last fall and is working with the government on expanding that effort next year. And, he’s looking into growing his Newport office, led by Senior Naval Architect T.J. Perrotti, to take advantage of the talent here.
Riding in the likes of Stiletto hasn’t cooled his enthusiasm for slower craft.
“I try to get out on the water as often as possible. I enjoy the experience whether I’m going really fast in the open ocean on a military boat or ghosting along at sunset in a sailboat. It’s more about being on the water than how fast or on what.”
He’ll be doing just that this summer.
“I’ve already chartered a boat for July. Nothing beats sailing in New England during the summer.”
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