Superior’s Lake Assault Boats finds niche in fire, rescue craftsLake Assault Boats occupies a nondescript warehouse in the Fraser Shipyards complex on Superior’s waterfront, but it’s a busy place.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
When a woman sprained her ankle walking on the beach ice at the end of Minnesota Point in Duluth last week, first responders from a half-dozen agencies wondered how best to get her out.
There was too much ice to get to her by boat, and too much snow to get ATVs all the way to the end of the point. So it was up to the St. Louis County Rescue Squad and its air boat to do the job.
Chalk up another rescue for Lake Assault Boats.
Lake Assault occupies a nondescript warehouse in the Fraser Shipyards complex on Superior’s waterfront, but it’s a busy place. Welders, plasma cutting-torch operators, electricians and engineers move about in a ballet of sparks and clanging of metal. The crew takes sheets of aluminum up to a quarter-inch thick, cuts them to shape and forms them into high-tech fire and rescue machines.
Each boat takes about 90 days to build. But orders are backing up, and it could be up to a year before new orders are delivered.
Lake Assault, a subsidiary of Fraser Shipyards, is owned by the ever-growing conglomerate Capstan. The Duluth-based Capstan, formerly Reuben Johnson and Son, also owns RJS Construction Group, Atwater Group, Building Logic, Northern Engineering Co., Johnson Materials Co. and Viant Crane in the Northland. It also owns Energy Systems Co. in Omaha, Neb.
Lake Assault built four boats in 2010 and seven in 2011 but shot up to 13 last year and expects to churn out 18 in 2013. Each boat is “mission specific,” Lake Assault calls it, custom-designed and built from scratch.
“We’re right on that line of getting bigger. We’ve got the orders coming in now, and we need more people. We’re looking at more floor space, too,” said Chad DuMars, head engineer for Lake Assault.
The company currently employs 17 people full time — double their work force from two years ago — and is looking for more welders, engineers and other skilled tradespeople as they sell and build more boats for fire departments, sheriff’s offices and police departments nationwide.
One police patrol boat sat on its trailer, ready to head to Kearny, N.J., near Jersey City and across the Hudson River from Brooklyn. The design
was very specific —the boat had to be less than 7 feet high from the waterline so it could speed under low bridges.
“Fire and rescue boats, and law enforcement boats, have really become our trademark,” DuMars said. “That’s the direction we’ve been pulled in, and it’s working out well.”
The St. Louis County Rescue Squad took delivery of the “ice specific” air boat in 2011, the first one the boat-maker ever made. Since then the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade bought a Lake Assault air boat described by its operators as able to go on land, ice, snow, water and anything in between.
“There are a lot of other air boats out there. But, to be honest, none of them can stand up to this model,” said Dave Phillips, St. Louis County undersheriff who also oversees Rescue Squad operations. “We had it out a lot during the flood last year. There was so much debris in the water that it got a little dinged up cosmetically. But I think a lot of other air boats would have been destroyed in that mess.”
That’s the kind of high praise Lake Assault has been getting lots of lately.
“Air boats are a niche market, but we think it looks like a good one,” DuMars said. “It’s one way we’re hoping to grow.”
Phillips first saw a Lake Assault boat at the Duluth Boat Show nearly a decade ago. Even though the 23-footer was designed for fishing, Phillips and Tom Crossman, captain of the Rescue Squad, liked what they saw.
“We saw the hull design and really liked how rugged it was, and so beamy. We thought it would be perfect for the Rescue Squad,” Phillips said. “They gave us a deal we couldn’t refuse. They cut in a dive door for us and customized it for our electronics. … That was the beginning of a great relationship.”
Since then the county bought the air boat and a 28-foot traditional-hull search-and-rescue boat that’s been used often on Lake Superior, including last summer’s search for a missing pilot.
“When we got up to Two Harbors, there were waves coming over the breakwall. But that 28-footer rode it out beautifully. It’s incredibly stable,” Phillips said.
Phillips said Lake Assault has worked well to help modify design plans, even accommodating add-ons after the fact. This winter the 28-footer is being fitted with a small hoist to raise and lower an underwater sonar unit used in search and rescue.
“Having them in our backyard, it’s allowed us to work with them and make changes and additions. We run things by each other all the time,” Phillips said. “I think we help them and they help us.”
That includes seemingly little extras, like adding rubber pads permanently affixed to the outside of the rescue-patrol boat “so we can run up along other boats and not have to worry about throwing bumpers out,” Phillips said. Lake Assault liked that idea, too, and they’re now on most of the boats that leave their floor.
Don Potter heads the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade near Cook, the group that started a few years ago after a lake home burned down and residents realized they had no way to fight fires from the water. Thanks to a generous donation from a wealthy lake resident, the department has not only purchased an air boat from Lake Assault but also one of the boat-builder’s premier fire/rescue models, a 36-foot landing craft powered by twin 300-horsepower Suzuki outboards.
“The airboat is like a tank, but very maneuverable,” Potter said. “The big landing craft: We can beach that boat on shore and run an ATV out of it if we want. That boat has absolutely everything on it. It’s probably overbuilt.”
That model — a flat-front landing craft with a bow plate that raises and lowers — has become the standard now for Lake Assault boats sold to fire departments in recent months in Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and other states. They can hold 8,000 pounds of gear, gadgets and crew and have ample space for rescue workers and victims.
The Lake Vermilion fire boat is equipped with everything from radar, sonar and infrared imaging. All the fire boats are equipped with a water-pump powered by a 5.7-liter V-8 GM truck engine and capable of supplying water to several fire hoses at once.
“Just the water coming out will propel the boat backwards at 8 knots; that’s how powerful that pump is,” DuMars said. “We definitely have to train people when we deliver these boats.”
Earlier this month, a similar 36-foot landing craft fire-rescue boat was getting its finishing touches on the Lake Assault production floor before it headed to the Madison, Ill., Fire Department for duty on the Mississippi River. The department will pay just over $300,000 for the fully equipped boat.
“I was out in Westchester County (N.Y.) a couple weeks ago, and they have a very nice rigid-hull inflatable, a 40-footer with a jet drive. But that boat cost $800,000,” Phillips said. “A lot of the grants we get now require a one-quarter match. And most local governments just don’t have that kind of money.”
St. Louis County’s 28-foot rescue boat coast $90,000; the air boat $62,500.
“We think they would be the best boats out there at any price. But their low price is definitely a great selling point,” Potter said. “When we shopped around, the cost-benefit ratio definitely pointed right at Lake Assault.”
From fish to fires
Lake Assault was founded in 2003 in Elk River, Minn., by Jerry Atherton, previously president of a Circle Pines, Minn., plastics and metal manufacturer, Bermo Inc. Atherton decided to strike out on his own to make aluminum fishing boats.
“I turned 50 and had a mid-life crisis of sorts. But instead of buying a Harley or a Corvette … I built a boat and started a company,” Atherton joked.
Lake Assault started making big, tough, custom-order aluminum fishing boats aimed at walleye anglers. But it was a crowded market with companies like Lund, Alumacraft and Crestliner already established in Minnesota. To make matters worse, when the economy tanked in 2008, so did the recreational boat business.
But Atherton had already had started building a few fire/rescue boats in 2004. And while the fishing boat industry was slow, Lake Assault quickly found a market making boats for public agencies.
“We did our first landing craft-style fire boat in 2004 for the Long Lake (Minn.) Fire Department. That got things started in this direction,” he said
By 2009, Atherton said, the business was getting too big for him to handle, especially the financial end, so he sold it to Fraser Shipyards, the Great Lakes ship-building and repair facility that dates back to 1889. He remains on staff as the head of marketing and sales. He also trains new boat buyers and helps in boat design.
“Lake Assault has been a great addition to Fraser Shipyard and vice-versa. It’s been a great relationship both ways,” Atherton said. “I love bringing customers to the plant and they see all those big ships and big cranes out there. They know we’re serious about building boats.
“There’s a legacy on that waterfront, and we’re proud to be part of that.”