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Gulf oil spill spurs nautical innovation

Dragonfly Boatworks and singer Jimmy Buffett are building flats boats to aid distressed wildlife

A Florida boatbuilder - with financial support from singer Jimmy Buffett - will build at least four flats boats modified to rescue wildlife from oil-soaked marshes along the Gulf Coast.

The wildlife rescue vessels are equipped with solar fans, a misting system, laptops, webcams and a collapsible canopy. Singer Jimmy Buffett is funding the project.

"Two days after the explosion, I thought, If this stuff ever moves into the marshlands and the estuaries it'll be a nightmare scenario," says Mark Castlow, owner of Dragonfly Boatworks in Vero Beach, Fla., and the designer of the 17-foot rescue boat. "Our business is shallow-water boats. It's something we know and we knew we had to do something."
Castlow called Dragonfly sales manager Jimbo Meador with his idea. Meador happened to be fishing in the Bahamas with his longtime friend Jimmy Buffett.
"Mark ran it by Jimmy and he really liked the idea and he said ‘Let's go ahead and start building some of these boats,' " says Meador, 67, who grew up with Buffett on the Gulf Coast. "[Buffett is] always interested in doing what he can for the environment, especially the marine environment, because his life revolves around water, especially salt water. The Gulf is his own, you know, so he's particularly interested in that."
Buffett is funding the construction of four Shallow Water Attention Terminal, or SWAT, rescue boats. The first was expected to be delivered in June to the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. (Buffett is an alumnus of the university.) Researchers will use the boat to rescue oiled birds and other wildlife.
The SWAT boats draw just 9 or 10 inches when loaded and a bow-mounted electric trolling motor will let rescuers approach wildlife quietly. For primary propulsion, outboard manufacturer BRP is providing 40-hp Evinrude E-TEC 2-strokes.
Castlow consulted U.S. Fish and Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Sharon Taylor to determine how the boats should be equipped. He initially thought the SWAT boats would serve as platforms for cleaning oil-soaked birds, so he planned to outfit them with two 150-
gallon water tanks. However, Taylor told him to forget about the tanks because it takes 300 gallons of water to clean just one bird.
That means the SWAT vessels are strictly rescue boats, and the researchers will hydrate the animals and record their vital signs.
Taylor also advised Castlow on the color of the boats. "I was going to paint the hull real bright orange or red, but she said that wouldn't be good because sometimes it's a signal of danger or a mating color to birds," says Castlow, a former part owner of Maverick, Hewes and Pathfinder boats. "Dr. Taylor suggested something easy and soft." He went with a sea-foam green.
A work table mounted amidships is coated with a non-skid material to prevent the animals from slipping.
Knowing the work will be done in heat that can be extreme, Castlow equipped the SWAT boats with solar fans and a misting system, and a collapsible canopy shades the entire deck. They also will have laptops and webcams on board, so anyone with an Internet connection will be able to watch the work in real time, says Castlow.
Castlow has put his Dragonfly business on the back burner to focus on production of the SWAT boats, and that's OK with his customers waiting for boats. Dragonfly builds 16- and 17-foot shallow-water boats and kayaks.
"I would love to have my boat, but this is more important," says John Huryn, of Vero Beach, whose Dragonfly 17 is under construction. "They have started laying up the hull of my boat. It probably would be finished in two to three weeks from now, but I can wait."
The SWAT project gained media attention thanks to Buffett's involvement. A distributor for the manufacturer of an oil-eating substance called Baad Bugs contacted Castlow after reading an article about the project. Scott Holmes, principal of Fort Pierce, Fla.-based MIHI Advisory Group, demonstrated the product.
Baad Bugs contains naturally occurring microbes that consume a variety of oils and oil byproducts, leaving behind carbon dioxide and water, according to Holmes, who adds that the microbes were used during the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Dragonfly Boatworks has bought 500 gallons of Baad Bugs.
Meador and company know their efforts are just a small part of cleaning up the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, but "every little bit helps," he says. "Instead of pointing fingers, we wanted to lend a hand. If everybody has got that attitude, then we can whip this thing."

Jimmy Buffett

See related article -

- Gulf oil spill: the devil's cocktail

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.