Barracuda: high speed stealth gunboat interceptor built in Cork
Moored beside a beautifully restored wooden trawler on the East Ferry marina in Cobh, is Ireland's only machine gun-toting, stealth-enabled high-speed military interceptor.
The super-fast attack boat has been developed at a cost of around €1m over the last two years by entrepreneur Frank Kowalski at his nearby Safehaven Marine in Youghal.
Safehaven is the country's largest specialist boat builder and owner Kowalski thinks he has created a vessel that will be bought by special forces, drug enforcement agencies and security groups around the world.
"Do you get seasick?" Frank asks as he guns the engine. There are seat belts on the racing car-style seats in the four-man cockpit. Frank isn't wearing his - so I don't put mine on. Until we hit the first wave at speed and my feet leave the ground.
Throttle up. We slice through Cork harbour, bouncing off the crests of waves on our way out into the Atlantic. Not for the first time does consuming an Irish Rail sandwich feel like a bad idea.
The waves grow bigger. Much bigger. But as Kowalski explains, the Barracuda's innovative hull design means that the boat can carve through the waves without compromising on speed.
"I like driving the boats in rough weather," he smiles. "I find it boring in calm weather."
Depending on the propulsion system, the Barracuda can travel at 40 knots plus. As we blast through another wave and become airborne, Frank tells me that the craft has "self righting" capabilities. We spend about half an hour vaulting from wave to wave - before I take the controls and steer us back to the berth in the marina. It's probably one of the most fun things you can do in the sea with all your clothes on.
Kowalski returned to Ireland from London 30 years ago. His mother came from Cobh.
"I've always been involved in the sea in one way or another. When I first came over I started a shellfish business and a sea charter in Cobh."
In 1995, he decided to design and build a boat. "Luckily I still had an existing business to sustain us through the first few years. I did my first design and it was a success."
The Interceptor 33 was a 10m sea-angling charter boat. His timing was spot-on, as many fishermen had given up commercial fishing to move into sea angling, he says. The Interceptor 33 began as the Interceptor 38 and then the Interceptor 42, as his Safehaven Marine scaled up, building around 35 boats in the next couple of years.
"In 2005 we broke into the pilot boat market - and that was really the turning point for us," he says. The Port of Cork had been looking for a new pilot boat. "We took a gamble and designed and built a boat. We won the tender."
The Glenmore was a success and orders "snowballed". Pilot boats are specialist bits of kit. They need to be as tough as a Munster second-row, but far more manoeuvrable. They aren't cheap either, costing between €600,000 to €1.2m.
Safehaven built more pilot boats for the UK, France and further afield. Some 30 have already been manufactured at the company's factory in Youghal, which employs 30 people.
But creating and designing a vessel with military or security applications was on Kowalski's mind. "We'd built a few patrol boats for navies and saw an opening there for something unique like this. There's nothing like this on the market."
The Barracuda looks like a floating stealth bomber, with a specially angled superstructure designed to deflect radar waves. Coating it with special top secret "stealth" panels will make it almost invisible. At the press of a button a panel at the front of the boat opens and a heavy machine gun rises from the bowels of the boat.
It is gyroscopically mounted (so it can fire accurately even in heavy seas) and it is operated from a joystick and screen inside the boat. Having the armaments concealed within the superstructure of the vessel serves a number of purposes; it reduces the radar profile, protects the weapon, helps manoeuvrability -and looks unbelievably cool when it slowly appears.
"The first design was done about two years ago when the idea dropped into my head. I took about a year to research and design everything and then we started production in March last year. Pretty much a year later we launched the first one," he says.
The R&D of the Barracuda has cost the bones of €1m, Kowalski says. Enterprise Ireland helped. "They were very helpful. They gave us a R&D grant to develop the boat and the design. They were fantastically supportive."
But there's still plenty of work to do.
"We have to fully test it, sea-trial it and develop the specialised systems on it. Then we'll market it to navies and law enforcement agencies around the world," he says. "You won't sell something like this overnight. It'll take a while to get the reputation out there - but hopefully we'll be able to sell a good few of them."
A Barracuda will cost north of €1m - but that cost will rise depending on the armaments, propulsion systems and other bits of kit. You can even tool it out with a grenade launcher.
The Barracuda is pitched at a range of military and security customers, ranging from special forces and anti-terrorism units to law enforcement agencies seeking to intercept drug smugglers. Gulf States could be potential customers.
Kowalski's Safehaven Marine is the largest specialist shipbuilder in Ireland and is forecast to generate revenues of about €5m this year.
"We've been successful and profitable and we've always reinvested our profits back into new designs. Every two or three years we develop a new design, so it all goes back into the business.
"The Barracuda gives us another niche market to fall into if the other markets slacken off," he says. There are plenty of other building projects underway at the factory.
"We have a full order book for the next 12 months. There's a large catamaran for Germany, a 60m hydrographic survey boat, a pilot boat for Luanda and so on," he says.
Safehaven builds around six to seven boats a year. "But that depends on the size. It could be seven or eight smaller ones, or three or four bigger ones," he adds. The Barracuda is the 108th vessel built by the company over the last two decades.
If the Barracuda sells and sells well, Safehaven may need to expand. "We have the facility to expand. We have land, so we can always build a new building - but at the moment the existing building is large enough. It'd just be a question of getting more specialised staff."
The economics of boat building are changing. "Costs are rising. Everything is going up. We're being killed by sterling as much of our equipment comes in from the UK," he says. However lowish oil prices means that the key plastic for the super-light composite hull is less expensive.
Kowalski's mission - to create the world's most revolutionary stealth interceptor in a field near Youghal - is a remarkable adventure. But it shows that despite a rising cost base manufacturing in Ireland is still viable and highly profitable.
The key to this is developing a specialist and high-end product - one that can't be mass produced by less-skilled workers in cheaper countries. Of course, it helps if it is sleek, black, dangerous-looking and bristles with machine guns.
Source: Irish Independent