Iceland in the house

If an award existed for the greatest distance traveled to exhibit at this year’s Maine Boat Builders Show in Portland, Maine (March 23-25), it would have gone to Iceland’s Björn Jónsson, who travelled over 2,300 miles. Remarkably, this was only 400 miles farther than an exhibitor from Houston, Texas, traveled. Who knew Reykjavík was that close? Certainly not me.

For Jónsson, the trip was an opportunity to introduce Maine to Hefring Marine, a data-driven electronic system that assists the operators of high-speed boats, and also to an unconventional-looking hull design pioneered by a company called Rafnar. Jónsson has high hopes for Rafnar’s patented öK Hull. In a recent email he repeated something he originally told me in person, which was that the design “has the potential to ultimately disrupt the marine industries globally.”

A bold statement, for sure. But he just might be on to something. In the Rafnar booth, Jónsson had me watch video of one of the large, rigid-inflatable boats (RIBs) Rafnar Shipyard builds. Think rescue- or chase-boat, the kind commercial operators use to get places in a hurry, often with two or three high-powered outboards. In the video, a 36-foot RIB with an imposing-looking enclosed cabin flies effortlessly across the open ocean, the vessel seemingly oblivious to waves. There’s very little of the choppy motion you’d normally associate with high speeds in rough conditions, and barely any spray being thrown. According to the Rafnar website, “The specially designed and crafted öK Hull cleanly cuts through the sea and waves, resulting in significantly improved seakeeping and maneuverability, as well as a safer and more comfortable ride for the crew. The öK Hull design generates greater grip and traction at low and high speed . . . the unique keel prevents drift and eliminates the typical bounce and slam experienced in conventional crafts.”

In 2016, to prove the hull’s viability, Jónsson and a few of his coworkers delivered one of the 36-footers to the High-Speed Boat Operators Forum.

In Sweden.

The trip across the North Atlantic was 1,300 miles and took them just over 50 hours traveling at an average speed of 26 knots. There was no support boat. They stopped in the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands and Norway before reaching their destination of Gothenburg. It was, Jónsson said, “quite simply, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Some of the success of this voyage can likely be attributed to the folks who helped Rafnar perfect the öK Hull. Specifically, the Icelandic Coast Guard and the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR). Operators from these organizations were given prototypes of Rafnar RIBs and told to “drive them like they stole them.” “Then we’d all sit down [afterwards] to discuss what could be improved,” Jónsson said. “This has been an extremely valuable cooperation for us at Rafnar and has fast-forwarded our R&D well beyond what we could have otherwise completed by ourselves.” At the time the Coast Guard and ICE-SAR crews were first being utilized, around 2011, “None of us in the small Rafnar team were experienced enough in handling RIBs in the extreme conditions in which we wanted them tested,” Jónsson said. “In particular, the worst winter storms we experience in Iceland.”

Right now Rafnar isn’t interested in exporting finished boats to the U.S. Ideally they’d license the design to boat builders here. Maine is flush with boat-building talent, of course, but the main reason they’re shopping their wares in Maine is that they were asked to – by Lárus Ísfeld and Dan Bookham, two representatives from the New England Ocean Cluster, a Portland, Maine, organization that fosters marine-related businesses.

At the Maine Boat Builders Show, Jónsson said they had a steady stream of visitors in the booth, and their presentation in the show’s lecture hall on the öK Hull, Rafnar, and the open-ocean voyage went well. Outside the show they had meetings with representatives from local production yards and boat builders, university people and other local contacts. All in all, Jónsson said, it was a good trip.

“I’m happy to say that we were very well-received in Maine and everyone we met made us feel welcome,” Jónsson said. “It was nice to hear that almost everyone we met had either visited Iceland or very much wanted to. That, in itself, makes you feel welcome. Interestingly, we met an Icelandic couple at the hotel where we were staying who plan to open an Icelandic restaurant in Portland. While we did enjoy many of Portland’s nice restaurants and local cuisine, who knows – maybe we’ll be able to try an Icelandic restaurant in Portland during our next visit! And yes, there will be a next time.”

As usual, the scant (by comparison) 230 miles I drove to the 2018 Maine Boat Builders Show was well worth the trip. For more on the show, please go to page 70.