Gunboats on the Sound

Are the Washington state ferries defensible?

Since the attack on London’s subways, there’s been frenzied Coast Guard activity on Puget Sound. A small fleet of fast patrol boats were airlifted from San Diego to guard the Washington state ferries. The patrol boats are inflatables with rigid bottoms (RIBs) fitted with machine guns fore and aft. The guns are mounted and uncovered despite the corrosive environment. They are ready for immediate use and meant as a obvious warning: we are ready to kill if required. But a question remains unanswered. Are the ferries defensible?

For the past week the RIBs have been shuttling back and forth across the Sound with blue lights flashing, shadowing the ferries. Two boats are assigned to each ferry route. Their primary task is to interdict any vessel violating the security zone and safeguard the ferries.

For sometime now there has been a 500 yard security zone extended around all vessels greater than 100 feet in length transiting Puget Sound. The experts are concerned that a small, fast boat packed with explosives will plow into the side of a crude oil tanker or a Washington state ferry. It has happened before in other parts of the world. It could certainly happen here.

The Coast Guard is faced with a simple navigational problem — a calculation of speed, time, and distance. A boat traveling at 40 mph will take less than nine seconds to cross the security zone and impact the hull of a ferry. Nine seconds.

Nine seconds is  not enough time to request confirmation from shore. Whatever decisions are made in those nine seconds will be made by the boat’s coxswain and crew. They must have received standing orders to unlock weapons and fire at their discretion. Anything less would make their presence  an empty threat.

On any sunny summer day the waters of Puget Sound are crowded with small pleasure boats moving fast. Any number of those boats will pass close aboard a ferry underway.

The crew of the RIBs will first try to warn an approaching boat by radio. Marine radio communications are typically torturous even between professionals. Among amateurs, they’re largely non-existent. The lack of response to their radio challenge can hardly be considered confirmation of evil intent but it will waste seconds in a scenario that may play out in less than a minute.

The RIBs carry an M-60 machine gun mounted on their bow. An M-60 fires a 7.62 mm round with a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second, 100 rounds per minute — enough firepower to shred fiberglass and marine-grade plywood, tear flesh and shatter bone.

An 18-year old kid from Idaho likely stands behind that gun as the RIB pounds across choppy water at flank speed. His blood is full of adrenalin. His head is full of pop culture icons like Rambo. He can hardly hear the coxswain’s voice over the sound of the wind, the waves pounding against the hull, the scream of the outboard engines. Was he ordered to fire? Is he supposed to fire? He can hardly hold himself in position against the RIBs violent motion. How is he supposed to fire?

It probably won’t make any difference whether he fires or not. A terrorist with any boat handling skill could determine the weakness of the Coast Guard’s moving defense and approach the security zone at the point of greatest distance from the RIBs. The largest ferries are 460 feet long, too long even for a fast patrol boat at one end to turn and close the distance in the time allowed.

Are the ferries defensible? Probably not, at least, not from attack by a small boat traveling at high speed and driven by a skilled boat handler willing to die. The simple fact is that nothing — and no one — is defensible against someone willing to sacrifice themselves in the attack.

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3 thoughts on “Gunboats on the Sound”

  1. If the safety zone is 500 yards, that’s x 3 = 1500 ft. A hostile boat speeding at 40 mph (= 59 ft/s) takes 25 seconds to travel 1500 ft., crossing the safety zone. Assume speedboat attacks broadside and leads the target.
    Even 25 seconds is precious little time for a defender to notice an intercept, train field glasses between bouncing boats, identify friend or foe, and maneuver to intervene. A gunner on the (stable) ferry could respond more efficiently.
    During a state of alert, any unofficial boat intercepting at 40 mph might be presumed hostile, and damn the radios.

  2. If the bad guys want to get their boat dangerously close to a ferry- they can put it on a trailer and drive it on.
    Coast Guard gun boats will not be able to defend the ferries from an Oklahoma City style event. They would do well against pirate boats, but the bad guys prefer sneak attack, not naval duels.

  3. Dick, that’s why we have dogs sniffing the undercarriage of everything that rolls onto the ferries. At least, we did. It’s been a while since I’ve driven onto a ferry so I can’t speak to the current level of paranoia.

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