The Patrol Boat, Light (PBL)

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Howie Nash, QM1(SWCC)

 The Patrol Boat, Light (PBL)


 


Introduction
            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

 Development
            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 electronic suite.

            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 C-5.

            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 unchained. 

Cocaine
            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. 

The Deal
             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.

 Cycles
            There were four cycles in a Detachments year. The detachments were Alpha through Delta. Mine was Delta.

            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. 

Then…….Cycle One!!! 

Conclusion
            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 fat.

            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!”


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