One Tough Outboard
When it comes to building motors for the Special Forces, Raider Outboards can’t afford to fail.
Five pararescuers peer out the wide cargo door of a KC-130 more than 1,000 miles off the coast of California. From the vantage of the large military aircraft, the Ocean Applaud, a cargo ship, looks like a toy bobbing in the Pacific Ocean several thousand feet below. It’s late August and the rescuers have been called in to recover an injured sailor who has fallen more than 30 feet.
With their target in reach and the mission set, the crew slides a large package out the door. It contains an inflatable boat rolled up like a hot dog with an outboard engine. The shoot immediately opens. Five men follow, waddling toward the edge of the door with dive fins on and decked out in tactical gear. One by one they step out of the plane with zero hesitation.
When they hit the water, the resucers use a dive bottle to inflate the boat. In just a few minutes, they have the engine running and head toward the ship. The rescuers stabilize the injured man, and the next day he’s flown to Stanford Hospital. Another mission accomplished, but this one, and thousands of others, would not be possible were it not for a very specialized outboard engine.
“It’s all about getting our troops home,” says George Woodruff, the director and patriarch of Raider Outboards, a company he founded with his son Chris, a boat guy with an engineer’s skill set.
To achieve that goal, Raider builds two fully submersible outboards, a 40- and a 50-hp, that run on gasoline, diesel and even jet fuel, that help the Air Force’s Guardian Angels, Navy SEALS and many others do the hard work needed to fulfill their missions. After Hurricane Harvey, search-and-rescue teams relied on Raider engines to extract flood victims and their pets in devastated neighborhoods. Special Forces use the motors to navigate froth-filled surf when landing on the beach, sometimes at night, which often leads to rolled boats and soaked outboards. Raider Outboards can take the abuse because they’re over-engineered and beefed up, but at their core they are basic two-stroke engines. Chris Woodruff lovingly refers to them as dinosaurs for both their lack of computerized electronic parts and also their toughness.
Based in a Lego-shaped, nondescript building in a quiet industrial area of Titusville, Florida, just north of Cape Canaveral where companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin look to explore worlds beyond the sky, Raider Outboards has quietly grown into a major player in the world of marine defense contracting. The building’s lobby is cased in American flags. The welcoming committee consists of a life-sized cardboard cutout of Donald Trump and Dexter, the shop dog. On the walls hang drawings of the patents the company owns. Several outboards sit on stands in a line, showcasing the evolution of the motors Raider designed before landing on its second-generation outboard, which is currently employed by U.S. troops around the world.
The company starts with a Tohatsu two-stroke outboard and strips it down to the bare block. After taking apart the engines, they build them back up with new parts, all of which Raider makes on the premises with a staff of 18 machinists, welders, painters and other craftsmen. Crates of new Tohatsu motors sit at one end of the shop—more two-stroke engines than I have seen in a decade. Raider needs to obtain special waivers from the EPA to import the outboards because they don’t meet today’s emission requirements.
The shop floor buzzes with a chorus of air wrenches, lathes and classic rock. As I tour the 10,000-square-foot space, the Marshall Tucker Band is muffled out by a worker disassembling an engine with rapid movements, his fingers and hands operating on muscle memory. I bet he could take this engine apart with his eyes closed. When the motor is rebuilt, it will have 167 new parts, including locking handles, wiring harnesses, heads, shifters, brackets and much more. The finished product will be way more stout than a typical outboard, kind of like a cop car versus a similar stock model.
“It’s insane the abuse these motors take,” Chris tells me. “These are young kids full of piss and vinegar. The little things make a big difference.”
Water in the fuel, for example, is the arch-enemy of outboard engines deployed around the globe, so Chris came up with the idea of making the carburetor bowl out of clear plastic. If the motor is running poorly, a quick peek under the cowling will let the operator see if there’s anything milky in the carb. It’s these commonsense solutions to real-world problems that keep the motors running strong in the field.
Raider Outboards run best on gasoline mixed with two-stroke oil, but in a pinch they’ll run on diesel, a cocktail of gas and diesel, straight kerosene or JP8, an aviation fuel. There’s a dial under the engine cover that the operator can adjust to run the various types of fuel. But where Raider outboards really shine is how they deal with full submersion. Previous motors used by the armed forces required up to 30 minutes of yanking on the pull start and lots of priming to break the motors out of hydrolock and start them back up after taking a swim. Soldiers in the field don’t have that kind of time. If an inflatable powered by a Raider rolls in the surf, the operator can dewater the engine in just a few minutes.
“Our claim to fame is the dewatering process,” Chris says as he points to a blacked-out lever behind the gear shift on a 50-hp outboard sitting on the shop floor. After the engine is submerged, the operator puts the switch in the open position and slowly pulls the pull start 10 times. If the engine has an electric start, which most of them do, you hit that for four seconds. This process pushes fuel out of the carburetor which in turn forces any water out of special valves in the back of the heads. Then you close the dewatering switch, prime the bulb in the gas line, push the engine primer five times and start the motor. When the mission is complete, the motor needs a thorough freshwater washdown. The motor must then be run for 30 minutes and sprayed with an aerosol anti-corrosion protectant.
“These motors can be submerged in 60 feet of water for a week or two, dewatered and still run,” says Kyle Stinson, a maritime specialist with the Air Force who previously worked for Raider. “The span of time they say is 24 to 36 hours, but we’ve lost motors in training and brought them up a week later and they started right up.”
Raider Outboards came into existence when George retired in 1999 after a long career working for large corporations like Lockheed Martin and IBM. But Titusville isn’t known for its retirement scene like other parts of the Sunshine State, so I asked him how he ended up here. “I own a 1963 Corvette,” he said, “and Eckler’s is here. I always bought parts from Eckler’s. I thought, I might go there. I’m a terrible golfer, but I fish.” He bought a condo on the Indian River, and for six months he did nothing. “I love my wife, but I was getting really bored,” he admitted.
George started working on some engineering and software projects for various defense programs and pulled his son Chris in. They worked on a range of jobs, but their focus changed in 2009 when they heard the U.S. Special Operations Command was on a quest to find an outboard engine that could run off multiple fuels, was fully submersible and could be dropped out of an aircraft. The outboard the government had been using at the time, built by BRP, the Evinrude and Johnson parent company, was being phased out.
The father-and-son team submitted a proposal and won a $2.5 million contract to develop a non-gasoline-burning engine. They took the name Raider from an elite unit of the Marine Corps that used rubber boats to make beach landings during World War II. They were called the Marine Raiders, and many consider them the precursor of the Navy SEALS.
In 2013, Raider delivered six motors to the Guardian Angels for testing. One engine was submerged while they conducted fuel and maneuverability exercises on the other motors. They ran them off of diesel and JP8 and flipped the Zodiac twice—the engines restarted. After all of the testing, the first motor was pulled out of the water to test the dewatering process. It started up with no mechanical or electrical failures.
“It was a painful process to get that first engine,” Chris says. “I was taking things on a much more technical route. We submitted software for the engine to know what fuel it was burning. It was a nightmare to fix those. Without a laptop you could not fix them.”
Initially, Raider was using a four-stroke motor with electronic fuel injection and tweaking its CPU to get the motor to run on the various fuel sources. The challenge of making it work had Chris at the end of his rope. Then George rolled into the shop a 35-hp OMC IMARS (Improved Military Amphibious Reconnaissance System), a two-stroke outboard used by the military for several years. George looked at Chris and said, “Why can’t we build this?”
“That was the night Raider was born,” Chris says. “We decided to go old school—that’s what set us apart.” No more fuel injection and no more computerized parts.
The company has some 1,200 motors in the field and sends 15 to 20 engines out the door every week. One secret to their success is that they listen to the men and women who run these motors and use that feedback to constantly improve the product. For example, they created a battery switch on the outside of the engine cowling to prevent battery drainage when the motors are stored for long periods. They also installed a port so you can charge a cell phone or search light, or use the outboard as a power source to run tactical radio systems.
“We pride ourselves on listening to the operators,” says Matt Sester, Raider’s director of operations and a retired veteran with 20 years’ experience in special operations warfare. “The charging port was another mod based on disaster relief efforts in Hurricane Harvey. You need a source of voltage? We can do that.”
The Next Generation
Since Evinrude, which owned 85 percent of this niche, exited the outboard industry this summer, Raider’s business has boomed. The company ran out of space and bought a larger building across the street. The growth is certainly appreciated, but the company is banking on some of its developmental projects to propel it to the next level. Raider has been working on electric and diesel outboards as well as an enclosed prop that you can bolt onto an existing lower unit in about 10 minutes. They call it the Safety Jet, and it was designed in house after hearing stories of operators slicing off prop blades on trees, street signs and other debris in flood zones. The enclosed prop also makes it much safer to rescue swimmers. It’s a brilliant, simple idea that will be a big win for the company when it becomes available in 2021.
As I enter the electric propulsion area of the shop, I see a shiny aluminum electric motor mounted on what looks like a typical lower unit. Chris’s son Michael runs this part of the shop. He looks pretty young but speaks knowledgeably about the complicated wiring and belt drives he’s been experimenting with to make the system work. The company won a contract to develop these motors for minefield detection. This particular motor isn’t about reducing fossil fuel usage; it’s about lowering frequency and noise so they can sweep a minefield without triggering destruction. The prototype passed its first round of tests with the Navy, but there’s still work to do—one of the belts in the drive proved too small.
“We buy the motor off the shelf,” Michael says. “We’re more concerned with the drive system and noise reduction.” They use a 15-pound stainless coupler between the lower unit and the 70-hp motor to decrease noise. When I ask what type of batteries run the motor, Michael opens a giant waterproof Pelican case roughly the size of a coffee table. It’s filled with Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf car batteries and miles of wiring. The equipment weighs more than 250 pounds, but they recently ran the motor for six hours at 1,000 rpm, and the batteries were only halfway drained. Battery life depends on how hard the operator runs the motor, but these engines won’t be used for high-speed work in the field.
Michael pulls out his phone to show me how he can monitor voltage output, battery life and more on an app. I ask him if he coded the app. “No,” he says, but he did all the wiring to make the app work with the batteries. I’m impressed. “Did you go to school for this?” I ask him, and he laughs. “No,” he says, “I start college next week.” Yes, this teenager spent his summer working in the family business. His older brother David, an engineering student at the University of Central Florida, is also active in company projects. And the best part is, the boys enjoy it. They see the value in the products they’re making, and they feel proud knowing that Raider is serving our troops.
“Our niche is going to be a submersible electric motor,” George says. “An electric motor that can come out of a sub and is air-droppable. That’s our forte.”
The future for Raider looks bright. They plan to move assembly of the Tohatsu two-stroke outboards here to the U.S. They also hope to offer some of their products commercially. And as for George, he beams with a sense of satisfaction that comes from turning his retirement gig into a lasting family legacy that also keeps our troops safe which, in turn, saves lives.