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Gulf spill leads builder back to his roots

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New Orleans native designs 'Piranha' skimmers to aid cleanup effort in estuaries, offshore


Megayacht designer Jon Overing grew up sailing on the Gulf of Mexico and has lived most of his life along the Gulf. So it's natural that when the clarion call went out for ideas and technology to save this resource from the worst oil spill in U.S. history, Overing went to work designing a skimmer specifically for the cleanup.

"On Mother's Day, I realized that this problem was not going to stop anytime soon," says Overing, 51, of Ocean Springs, Miss. "I also realized they don't have the right vessels out there [for the cleanup]."

Seven weeks later, he had designed two prototypes with proprietary technology and negotiated a nearly $7 million order - billable to BP - for 14 skimmers for the state of Mississippi. Dubbed the Overing Oil Piranha, his 40-footer sucks up 6,000 gallons an hour of an oil-water mixture that is 90 to 95 percent oil. "That is virtually the reverse of a lot of vessels out there," he says.

Shallow-draft and with a generous beam, the skimmers - a 30- and a 40-footer - can work in estuaries, but also can operate offshore and skim Gulf waters in 2- to 3-foot waves without losing their efficiency in capturing oil, he says. "With the addition of a mother ship, you can bring a school of these Piranhas out to the leak site itself and put them to work 50 miles from shore," he says.

Overing's first aluminum-hulled Piranha - a departure from the typical skimmer, which is designed for use in the calm waters of harbors and marinas - was launched July 9, two weeks after construction began. He expected to deliver all 14 at a rate of one or two a week and to keep building them as states and oil companies see the need for them. Overing says the skimmers are designed to multitask: find oil with sensors, skim the oil, rake up tar balls in the water, spray microbes into marshes to eat up the oil and - when not doing cleanup - carry up to 5 tons as cargo carriers.

"These vessels have a life after the spill as well," he says.


Overing joins another familiar name in megayachts, Trinity Yachts of Gulfport, Miss., in the skimmer market. Earlier this summer, Trinity was building 21 skimmers and barges - not Piranhas - as oil and tar balls began to creep eastward and toward the state's pristine barrier islands and shoreline. Five of those were for the state of Mississippi, the others for private contractors. Trinity's offerings include a 30-foot skimmer, a 35-foot shuttle barge, a 40-foot oil storage barge and a 56-foot skimmer, all trailerable.

Gov. Haley Barbour put out a call for skimmers built locally that would be purchased with some of the $50 million BP set aside to reimburse Mississippi for cleanup costs.

Construction of the skimmers continued even after the well was capped to fulfill the purchase contracts but also because "there's still a lot of oil under the surface that hasn't come up yet," says Overing. "This is not going to go away in two days or two weeks or two months."

Building workboats, military vessels and commercial ships is not new to Overing, who has designed, built and refit 10 megayachts since opening Overing Yacht Designs in Ocean Springs in 1989. "I started in military and commercial vessels before I got into yachts," Overing says, but his dream always was to build big pleasure boats.

Born in New Orleans, Overing started getting his sea legs when he was 6 or 7 years old. His family sailed a 60-foot Alden ketch, Sunshine, which they took out to Horn Island or Ship Island, both part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Overing's father was a sailor. His grandfather was a sailor. Overing wants to teach his young son to sail on the Gulf, too - a splendid playground for so many sailors, boaters and anglers. "I have a house on the water," he says. "I boat. I grew up on boats. ... We are seeing our environment destroyed. My motivation is to preserve my backyard first and go from there [cleaning up the rest of the Gulf]."

Artistic even as a youngster, Overing began sketching boats at age 10. By the time he was 14, he was apprenticed as a junior draftsman to the Dutch naval architect Frank van Bentem. Overing did drawings for van Bentem while completing - as a high school student - an intern program in naval architecture at the University of Southern Mississippi. At van Bentem's, the prodigy was given the opportunity to work on every kind of ship, from simple tank barges to complex 190-foot offshore supply vessels, buoy tenders and oceangoing tugs.

He went on from van Bentem to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., where he worked as a field engineer for a refit of two nuclear submarines and as a systems designer for a DD993 Class destroyer. Then it was on to New Orleans and Houston, where he worked again on military and commercial vessels.

In 1989 he founded Overing Yacht Designs. Ocean Springs was not the obvious location for a megayacht design firm, but the decision reflected his love for the Gulf Coast and his desire to stay in the town where he grew up.

Overing designed and oversaw construction of the first Mississippi-built megayacht, the 112-foot trideck Bon Bon, in 1993. Five years later, he designed a 10-foot extension for the yacht. It now charters under the name Shogun, with an elegant Asian decor. Overing has specialized in bluewater passagemakers and trideck motoryachts - vessels as long as 330 feet that the company describes as luxurious but "workboat tough."

Though he does design planing and semidisplacement hulls, he is best known for his stout, bulbous-bow full-displacement designs, and for stout structural systems akin to those on military vessels. His designs - the expedition yachts, especially - are stylish but "built like small ships," he says. Yet Overing says that from time to time he still does workboat designs for the Navy, Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. "We still reach back to our roots," he says.

Not content to suck up oil in open water with skimmers, Overing is working with partners to develop oil-eating microbes to attack it in marshes and on beaches.

"The marshes," he says - spawning grounds for vast numbers of marine species and nesting grounds and habitat for waterfowl and shore, marsh and sea birds - "are a major part of our ecosystem in the Gulf. We can't let them be destroyed."

He continues: "What are we going to do to restore them? We're going to use Mother Nature to restore them." He says microbes can work the marshes where skimmers can't.

Need being the mother of invention - and the need for new cleanup technology in the Gulf is great right now - "we're just filling the void," Overing says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.



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