Story last updated at 7:58 PM on Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Boat of the Week: RV Thunder

By Michael armstrong
Staff writer

On its towering catamaran hulls, the RV Thunder looks imposing. With a 17,000-pound crane, a 17-foot-4-inch aluminum stabi-craft skiff and a roomy cabin, the Thunder could be some Lower 48 billionaire's Kachemak Bay play boat. Left unpainted aluminum, and with no fancy trim, it doesn't look like a yacht -- or a commercial fishing boat, either.

"The boat draws a lot of attention from people walking by," said owner and designer Joe Loffredo, 45, a lifelong Alaskan who grew up in Valdez and Anchorage. "The biggest question is 'What is the boat for?'"


Photo by Michael Armstrong

The bow of the R/V Thunder shows its cataraman construction. With a draft of 2.5 feet, the Thunder can cruise shallow waters, and go dry on its bottom if necessary.

That "R/V" offers a clue. It stands for "research vessel," its official U.S. Coast Guard designation. Although the Thunder might look like a high-tech yacht, it's a 100 percent working boat, designed to take on anything short of sea ice from Ketchikan to Kaktovik.

Loffredo designed the Thunder for his Anchorage-based company, Northern Telecommunications Consultants. Its main mission is to do marine and coastal survey for NTC's telecommunications projects. Sleeping 16 and with 3,500-gallon fuel capacity and a 600-gallon a day water maker, it can be a platform for any long-range oceanographic research.

The Thunder worked in 2008 on survey and engineering work for the Great Pacific Cable Company project, a fiber optic network from Homer to Kasitsna Bay, Seldovia, across Cook Inlet to Williamsport and back to Anchor Point. That project is now in the federal permitting process. Its current project is the Northern Fiber Optic Line, another communications network linking Kodiak to Prudhoe Bay.

"It's an incredibly stable, heavy-weather cataraft design," Loffredo said. "That's what makes it such an ideal survey platform."

Loffredo spent five years designing the Thunder. Construction started in late 2006, and the Thunder was launched in 2008. Bill Greenstreet's company, In Demand Marine and Propulsion of Homer, put in the powertrain for the Thunder. It has a Hamilton jet propulsion system, and the lack of propellers to entangle cables or air hoses makes it perfect for telecommunications and diving work.

"We work around divers a lot," Loffredo said. "It provides for additional diver safety."

With a draft of 2.5 feet, the Thunder can motor close to shore or right up to the beach -- even go dry, if needed. The Thunder does great in rough seas, too. Its wheelhouse rides so high it's never taken a wave over the bow. The worst weather it's seen has been steep, 12-foot seas.

"The boat handled beautifully," Loffredo said. "The boat will take a lot more heavy water than the crew."

Loffredo runs the Thunder with Capt. Ik Icard. Steering is with a joystick.

"It's an incredibly easy vessel to handle," Loffredo said. "It can spin 360 degrees on its axis or go sideways and crab walk in any direction. It's like playing a real-life video game."

An Anchorage-based company, NTC provides telecommunications and engineering services, including fiber optic cable system and lightwave transmission design, telephone transmission and network engineering and design, and marine and remote locations engineering. NTC and the Thunder also do surveys of Cook Inlet oil and gas pipelines for ConocoPhillips with Penco Marine.

For more information on NTC, visit its Web site at

Michael Armstrong can be reached at