The Patrol Boat, Light or PBL, can trace
its lineage back to the “Skimmer” of the Vietnam
Era. The Skimmer was generally a 13-15ft Boston
Whaler, powered by a single outboard with an armed
crew but no mounted weapons. Indeed, The Seal Team
Assault Boat or STAB contributed to the beginnings
of the PBL as well, with its mounted weapons and
twin outboards. The modern Special Operations Craft-Riverine
(SOC-R) now in use, is the direct result of the
successful PBL program
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the
Special Boat Units used 22ft Boston Whaler ‘Outrage’
utility boats. Yet, still they were unarmed and not
used for Direct Action. The Outrage had twin
Johnson, 140hp engines and an unusual covered bow.
Harbor Patrol Unit, Combat Craft
Division in the Panama Canal, developed the first US
navy PBL’s by using two, 18ft Boston Whalers of the
old, twin V-hulled design. These craft were entirely
field expedient. Frankensteins, if you will.
To mount weapons, two M-60 LMG’s, and
aluminium beam was cut to closely contour the inside
of the hull in the bow. Plates were welded to the
ends and four holes were bored towards the corners
of the plates. Identical plates were placed on the
outer hull and bolted through the hull to the plates
on the beams. RTV was used as the sealer.
Two pintels were bolted to the port and
starboard side of the athwart ship beam for mounting
the M-60’s. The two spotlights mounted on the
console had homemade aluminum sheet reflectors
mounted on the bottom of the lights as to limit the
light effect on the gunner’s eyes. The boats were
powered by a single Mercury 115hp outboard.
Later, in approximately 1984, the unit
received two Ramo Raiders. These were the first,
manufactured PBL’s. The basic hulls of the boats
were the 22ft Outrage already in use in SBU’s.
However. The basic hull was then sent to the Ramo
Corp. for outfitting of the weapons system and
The Ramo Raider had two .50 cal MG
mounts and a single M-60 mount that traversed on an
oval rail system around the boat. The mounts also
had ballistic plates for the .50’s. These mounts
were heavy and dangerous if not locked to the rail
when the boat maneuvered at hi-speed. In addition,
they were fair weapons platforms at best and not
conducive to inserting or extracting troops.
The PBL Comes of Age
Although, the usefulness of the Ramo
Raider was questionable, the benefits of a heavily
armed, small Riverine craft had found a niche.
The primary riverine craft of the era
were the Patrol Boat, Riverine (PBR) from the
Vietnam Era and the Mini Armored Troop Carrier (MATC)
developed in the early 70’s. Although the PBR was a
tried and true boat with massive firepower for its
size, and the MATC had troop carrying capacity, they
were so large as to require a C-5 Galaxy to
transport them by air as well as large prime movers
necessary to pull them, 5-ton trucks. This limited
the locations the boats could deploy because of the
length of the airstrip required to accommodate a
Mobility was the issue. The first
deployment of the HPU “Frankenstein”, was done with
2 C-141 Starlifters. Both boats, the prime movers
were US Navy, white Dodge Pick-up trucks, a
communications van and supplies. The Ramo Raiders
deployed on two C-130 Hercules aircraft a boat and
truck on each. With mobility greatly increased and
simplified, The Riverine capabilities were from the
constraints of expense and limited AO’s.
Riverine, for the first time, was truly
HPU evolved into SBU-26, primarily
because HPU was stealing SPECWAR’s thunder, in 1987.
Communism was a fading threat and Cocaine was
becoming king. There was a shift in priorities to
the new “War on Drugs”
On paper, SBU-26 was comprised of the
three MKIV PB’s and three PBR’s for the defense of
the Panama Canal and manning for the unit was as
such. In reality, SBU-26’s had a secondary mission
of training and operating with Latin American
countries in support of counter-drug initiatives.
This task could never have had happen using PBR’s
although a large quantities of PBR’s were engaged in
combat in the Colombian Marine Corps in their
efforts against the drug cartels. Again, mobility
was the issue. PBL’s were the answer.
A partnership between Special Warfare
and the Drug Enforcement Agency was struck. The DEA
at the time as now, was short of assets to train
Latin riverine and coastal units. They themselves
were heavily occupied in actual operations.
SBU-26 would supply the manpower, the
DEA would provide the equipment. The PBL’s would not
be permitted to engage in High Value Transit in the
Canal, as that was a Navy issue. However, coinciding
operations could be taken full advantage of, such as
in-country unit training which occurred primarily on
Lake Gatun and at Ft Sherman at the north end of the
Canal. The bullets for training and etc, rations,
uniforms and prime movers in addition to the boats
and trailers were supplied by the DEA.
The prime movers were 1991 GMC 3500’s
with 454 Tonawanda engines , 4X4 and off-road tires.
The problem was on steep ramps, using regular navy
pick-ups, it was common for the entire detachment,
sans driver, to get behind the truck and push, to
get the boat and truck up the ramp. Also, I remember
in Puerto Carreno Colombia, I watched a guy on a
bulldozer, plow a ramp out of the riverbank. Nothing
like getting muddy before you get underway on an op.
But to ease your mind, we didn’t have air
conditioning or a stereo system.
There were four cycles in a Detachments
year. The detachments were Alpha through Delta. Mine
The first cycle was familiarization with
you new boats, yes we got new boats every year, how
cool is that?! To do this we went though training to
buff us up on those perishable skills. Mainly these
were boat handling and shooting, trailering/launching
and shooting, Driving the prime mover with trailer
and shooting, Blowing shit up, and shooting, tactics
and communications and shooting and finally, the
part I hated most….shooting. All the while the
training cadre is keeping an eye on you so the
skipper gets a warm and fuzzy. It generally fun but
it sucks a bit for the new members of the Det.
Cycle 2 is the Deployment For Training (DFT)
cycle. This meant we went to a host country with two
boats, one truck, one pallet full of a Seal
platoon’s stuff, and a SEAL platoon.
Besides personal gear, we had 10,000 rounds of ammo
in one boat for us and 10,000 rounds of ammo in the
other boat for the SEALS. They’re personal stuf was
on the pallet.
The primary purpose for the DFT, was to
train us in a place we may well fight one day. The
price was, we had to play with our hosts. Indeed,
that is why we brought so much ammo. Oh, did I
mention we brought 10 toilet seats and 2 cases of
toilet paper with us as well. We made a lot of
friends. The SEALS would train with they’re
counterparts, us ours with a few joint deals the
closer we got to the final FTX. There is where you
had to be careful, as the our host frequently tried
to conveniently get us involved in stuff weren’t
authorized to do. I couldn’t blame them. We
certainly were a force multiplier and they new we
wouldn’t bag it on them if they got in the shit.
Cycle 3 was pretty flexible. You could
keep your boats and do more DFT’s and support our
training cadre as well as the US Army Special Forces
when one of the battalions from the states came down
to train at the Jungle Operations Training Center at
Ft Sherman. Then again, it could be a Mobile
Training Team Deployment (MTT), usually to Colombia
or Bolivia. This was us training them, on their
boats, in their country.
The fourth cycle was usually down time
for leave or training back in the states. Some guys
would go on MTT again and some would go to Spanish
Immersion in Antigua, Guatemala or at Ft Buchanan,
in Puerto Rico.
The main boat converted for use as a PBL
during its heyday, was the 25ft Boston Whaler
‘Guardian’. It had was powered by two Johnson
Commercial 155hp outboards, various communications
equipment and radar. The weapons were one .50 cal M2
HB forward and two M-60 E3’s aft.
As we received new boats every year, the
radar mast configuration might be different. The
first versions had the mast secured to the front of
the console. Another version, the one I preferred,
had the mast mounted aft. In the aft mast version It
was easy to lay the mast down and toss some
camouflage nets over the boat ,without interfering
with the range of motion of gunners. My aft gunner
would straddle the mast and respond to either side
easily. If you dropped the mast on the foremast
version, it would get in the range of motion of your
forward gunner. Additionally, it was a vision
problem while driving and you couldn’t use a bimini
top like on the aft mast version. That top helps
while your sitting in the locks, frying in your own
Guess those guys that thought I was full
of crap will have to eat crow, as the mast on the
SOC-R is aft.
There are many improvements on the
SOC-R, especially in the weapons and the aluminum
hulls are definitely more durable than the
fiberglass. See, while Coastal Guys hate to scratch
their boat, a Riverine Guy wants to trash his….Ooops!
Was that a river bank I just hit?…..Well, I didn’t
see this tree branch and that’s why my radome is
dangling, Skipper!. And my favorite, “Howie! Back
down on that throttle when you get airborne!”