Company aims to cushion crew in small craft from a bumpy ride

The small, bubbly plastic cushions made by Skydex give runners a gentler ride in their Nikes and cushion the helmet-to-helmet blows dealt by NFL players.

Skydex President Mike Buchen figured the technology could work for another group of people who take a pounding - the military.

About eight years ago, the Colorado-based company began manufacturing deck mats for small boats. The inch-thick synthetic mats ease the chop and bounce from high-speed chases and long patrols.

Buchen claims his product - essentially sheets of small, plastic hemispheres in various configurations - cushion shocks far better than standard Navy deck coverings.

The company's military business is taking off, he said as he showed off his products this week at the Multi-Agency Craft Conference, or MACC, at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. A Department of Defense official recently inquired about making the product a standard feature in new models of mine-resistant vehicles, he said.

The Navy has begun to recognize the wear inflicted on sailors operating regularly aboard small vessels. Engineers have designed new hull shapes, devices and seating in an effort to reduce the pounding on a crew.

The impacts can be especially hard on SEALs and special boat crews spending hours getting to a mission, said Tim Coats, a mechanical engineer with the Navy's Combatant Craft division. "If they don't get injured," he said, "they're still fatigued."

The Department of Defense has recently required contractors to meet minimum standards for shock mitigation on a new generation of special warfare boats, Coats said.

Naval Special Warfare created a fitness lab at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base this year to help prevent injuries to SEALs caused by their demanding assignments. Special Warfare leadership estimates that up to 10 percent of the force is out of action at any given time because of injuries.

Several of the 150 companies at the three-day MACC conference showed off their latest in cushioned seats, consoles and deck coverings. One popular addition to rigid hull boats and patrol craft has been seats stabilized with various types of springs and hydraulic shock absorbers.

Sean Gerrett, sales manager for Shockwave Seats, pulled on a metal cage attached to two seats and a steering console. The cage rocked smoothly and quickly settled.

Gerrett explained that the combination of springs and hydraulics protects a crew from the vertical bounces and side-to-side rolls. A helm equipped with the package allows sailors to more easily adjust global positioning systems, weapons and electronic controls at high speeds, he said.

The package of two seats and a shock-absorbing cage goes for about $50,000, he said. The Canadian company's primary customers are the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and various special forces, he said.

Gerrett said boat drivers often tell stories about shrinking 2 inches over the course of their career or retiring on disability. "It's not like you're going out for a weekend jumping waves with the boys," he said. "You have a mission."