Navigating the ever changing waters of Finland and keeping everyone living, working and recreating there safe is a demanding experience. Search-and-rescue (SAR) vessels have to contend with harsh climates, frozen waters and thousands of small islands, meaning they must be small, nimble and robust. As a result, older SAR vessels made out of aluminium are often not up to the task and can often put SAR crews in harm’s way.

Arctic Airboats was founded in 2007 after a friend of Henrik Paersch asked him to help him build an airboat that would enable him to visit his summer house during the winter. Realising the potential that these vessels could have in the SAR sector, they formed a company to start making more of them.

Today, Arctic Airboats has built and delivered dozens of their unique SAR boats and airboats to volunteer sea rescue organisations, fire stations and coast guards in Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Greenland and Sweden, with plans to broaden their customer base further.

Credit: Arctic Airboats

Operating in Finnish waters has a vast set of challenges. The seas around the Scandinavian country are seldom higher than 3 m, while it has a coastline of 4,600 km and the world’s largest archipelago. To combat this, SAR vessels operating in the region need to be faster and lighter compared to those operating in the North Sea.

Complicating matters is the ice water. Most larger vessels that use aluminium hulls are taken up for service during the colder months, meaning smaller and more nimble vessels are preferred in the winter.

It was during their early days as a company, however, that Henrik discovered that polyethene would make a better building material for constructing airboat hulls than the traditionally used aluminium, which can often freeze in ice water.

“A hull made of high-molecular weight polyethylene can take more beatings and ground hits compared to one made of aluminium. In addition, boats that are more than 5 m long and use a polyethylene hull are considerably lighter and quieter, effectively dampening the engine noise during use,” Henrik said.

“After having made more than 25 airboats using polyethylene, we figured that if it is strong enough to take the impacts of hard ice, it would be the perfect material for building rescue and work boats.”

At its core, polyethylene is the simplest and most commonly used type of plastic in the world. It is used to make things such as shampoo bottles, children’s toys, and even bulletproof vests. Its simple molecular structure, combined with its high-impact resistance and lightweight composition, makes it an ideal material for building SAR vessel hulls.  

By using a material as adaptable as polyethylene, Arctic Airboats can custom make each of their vessel’s to meet customer requirements.  

“We have developed a hull structure that is very light and stiff, like a honeycomb between the deck and the bottom.”

“Our hulls are welded together from pre-cut polyethylene sheets that fit together like a puzzle. We don’t use any moulds so we can customise our vessel’s to meet different client needs,” he said.

“The extra advantage to this is that we can make constant improvements to our designs after each build.”

Credit: Arctic Airboats

One of the most recent lifeboats that Arctic Airboats custom built and delivered was a new rigid boyancy boat (RBB) to the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (DGzRS).

The 9 m-long cabin boat uses two 200 hp stroke outboards for power and seats a crew of just four. As a result, the vessel has plenty of space for storing crew, first aid, and SAR equipment.

This feature is common among Arctic Airboats’ vessels, which uses D-shaped pontoons to allow for a wider deck space compared to traditional RBBs and rigid inflatable boats (RIBs).

Henrik noted that this particular vessel was custom made for the DGzRS. “They were looking for a faster and more nimble RIB. This vessel has been designed to be faster than other SAR boats operating in the North Sea and Baltic inland waters.”

What makes Arctic Airboats’ vessels stand out further are their focus on ensuring the SAR crew operating them are kept safe. “Our boats are unsinkable,” he said. “They are also self-bailing and some of our bigger boats can even right themselves.”

“The 9-m cabin boat, the design that was sent to DGzRS, has a high gunwale around the cabin so it is incredibly difficult for the crew and any other personnel to fall off,” he added.

Some of the company’s smaller vessels can also be equipped with CO2 self-righting bags to further ensure crew safety. 

Credit: Arctic Airboats

Some of the design features developed by Arctic Airboats are a result of the company’s continuous work with life-saving organisations around the world, including the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF).

“We cannot make boats if we don’t know the problems that SAR people face. By staying in touch with the community and learning from their experiences, we can further improve our designs, build better boats and help SAR personnel wherever they may be.”

Henrik pointed out how working with the IMRF gives him the opportunity to engage with SAR personnel from outside their current customer base. “Being a member of the IMRF has given us the chance to get new ideas directly from crew members in other countries. This is something were going to continue to do going forward as the SAR space continues to change.”

Looking forward, Henrik noted how Arctic Airboats is planning to use modern vessel technologies to improve their vessels further. “Hybrid drive, if not 100% electric drive, is coming. We want to be a part of that conversation, especially as we look to make our vessels more sustainable.”

He also added that the company is looking to expand its vessel offerings. “We’re looking at developing our own plastic pollution collection craft using the techniques and technologies we have at our disposal. We’re always looking to see what more we can do.”