ROCKLAND — With ice-bound waterways breaking up and river flooding an increasing threat, the Maine Marine Patrol and the Maine Warden Service are well-equipped for search and rescue operations on both coastal and inland waters. Housed in the Marine Patrol's Rockland boat repair facility, a hovercraft is available to both agencies for search-and-rescue operations in the mixed terrain they often encounter throughout the year.
Purchased through grants from the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Maine Emergency Management Agency, the grant funds allowed the two agencies to acquire a hovercraft in 2012 and after two years of training, the Marine Patrol and Warden Service are prepared to use their new piece of equipment for rescues on ice-choked harbors and waterways, as well as coastal flats and other areas that are difficult to access by boat.
Manufactured by Michigan-based Hovertechnics, the hovercraft is propelled by fans mounted on the stern. Part of the fan thrust is ducted through the double skin hull to lift the craft off the surface on a cushion of air. This lift air is contained under the craft by flexible segmented skirts that keep the air cushion pressure up, which allows it to travel over a variety of terrain from ice to water to marshes.
Sergeant Ron Dunham, of the Maine Warden Service, said the hovercraft was like no snowmobile, ATV or watercraft that anyone would have operated.
"There's no resistance to the surface once you're on hover,” he said. "So it takes a unique set of skills. The operators have been hand-picked by the respective departments. We'll be training more operators as time goes on."
Dunham said the partnership between Marine Patrol and the Warden Service is very important because they cover similar areas and often times work together to perform searches and rescues.
"It's important to have a variety of operators in different parts of the state, and we're collaborating with the Marine Patrol to share that responsibility to have available operators in any emergency throughout the State of Maine," he said.
Marine Patrol Pilot Steven Ingram, who is directing the Marine Patrol operator training, said that as flood season begins this spring, this piece of equipment will be helpful.
"The Patriots Day flood in 2007 and the St. John Valley flood in 2008 were great examples of situations where the hovercraft would have helped us and the Warden Service in our search and rescue and evacuation efforts," he said.
Training was conducted by both agencies in January on Chickawauckie Pond in Rockland, during which officers from the Marine Patrol and the Warden Service took turns navigating the hovercraft over the ice and through a series of cones.
The grant money covered the hovercraft purchase, which was approximately $78,000. Hovercraft can play an important role in rescue operations. The capability of hovercraft to go where other vehicles cannot, gives the hovercraft important advantages in many rescue operations.
THIN ICE: Hovercraft can skim over thin ice and pull a drowning victim into the craft returning to safety in a few minutes.
FLOODING: Hovercraft are critical when residential areas are flooded and it is almost impossible to use boats to travel down flooded streets because underwater obstacles like fences, fallen trees, submerged walls and vehicles damage the boats propeller and put it out of action. A hovercraft is completely unaffected by underwater obstacles and is able to go over any depth of water.
SHALLOW WATER CONDITIONS: Hovercraft can be used all year round by rescue and law enforcement along coastlines where large boats cannot operate due to shallow water conditions. A hovercraft can navigate easily from water to land, over mudflats, marshes, beach areas, along muddy or sandy shorelines.
"It's important to have this type of technology," said Ingram. "It's another tool in the tool box. If this hovercraft saves one life, it has paid for itself for the rest of its existence."