The Cape class is a ship class of eight large patrol boats operated by the Marine Unit of the Australian Border Force (previously the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service). Ordered in 2011, the vessels were built by Austal Ships to replace Customs' Bay-class patrol boats, and entered service from 2013 onwards. Following availability issues with the Armidale class, two vessels were chartered by the Royal Australian Navy from mid-2015 to late 2016. A further two vessels were ordered at the end of 2015 by the National Australia Bank, who will charter the patrol boats to the Department of Defence from completion in 2017.
The Bay class was due to be replaced in 2010, but it was not until June of that year that a request for tender was issued for eight new, larger patrol boats. Austal Ships received the tender for eight patrol boats on 12 August 2011. Each vessel is 57.8 metres (190 ft) in length, with a beam of 10.3 metres (34 ft) and a draught of 3 metres (9.8 ft). Propulsion machinery consists of two Caterpillar 3516C diesel engines, providing 6,770 horsepower (5,050 kW) to two propeller shafts. A 160-kilowatt (210 hp) bow thruster is also fitted. Maximum speed is 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph), with a range of 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km; 4,600 mi) at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph), and an endurance of 28 days. Each vessel has a crew of 18, and two crew groups are assigned to each vessel, alternating between operating the patrol boat and shore duties, to ensure maximum vessel availability. Each Cape-class vessel is armed with two .50 calibre machine guns, and carries two 7.3-metre (24 ft) Gemini RHIB interception craft in cradles at the stern, along with a small boat carried amidships. Several updates and reconfigurations were implemented in response to issues found with the previous class of patrol boats built by Austal, the Armidale class operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
According to media reports, prior to the tender process, information about the project was leaked to Austal by a senior Customs official. The leak was reported to occur during an investigation of claims that the tendering requirements had been set up to favour Austal. Customs stated in March 2013 that reports of leaks during the tendering process were unfounded, and that internal and external investigations of the accusation concluded that the tender process had not been compromised or set up to favour a particular tenderer.
Construction of the new vessels started in February 2012, with entry into service planned for between March 2013 and August 2015. The first vessel was launched in January 2013, and named Cape St. George on 15 March 2013. The boats have been named after eight capes in Australia: Cape St. George, Cape Byron, Cape Nelson, Cape Sorell, Cape Jervis, Cape Leveque, Cape Wessel, and Cape York. The final vessel, Cape York, was delivered at the end of August 2015. The project cost A$330 million, including in-service support to be provided by Austal: the largest procurement undertaken by the Customs and Border Protection Service. Although originally due to leave service in 2010, ships of the Bay class remained in service until the Cape class fully entered service. In Australian service, the patrol boats were initially identified with the ship prefix "ACV" (Australian Customs Vessel); this was changed to "ABFC" (Australian Border Force Cutter) following the establishment of the Australian Border Force.
On 13 December 2015, Austal announced that two more Cape-class vessels had been ordered. The $63 million contract is with the National Australia Bank, who will charter the patrol boats to the Department of Defence on their completion in mid-2017. The new vessels will be included in the in-service support contract for the Border Force patrol boats, and if Defence does not continue on with the charter after the initial three-year period, the National Australia Bank can sell the patrol boats back to Austal for residual value.
Permanent berthing facilities at East Arm Wharf in the Port of Darwin (the ship's main base of operations) were commissioned in December 2015 and became fully operational in February 2016.
Following availability issues with the Armidale class, Cape Byron and Cape Nelson were chartered by the RAN from July 2015 to the end of 2016 to supplement naval patrol boat availability. In naval service, the patrol boats are manned by RAN personnel, operate from HMAS Cairns, and are identified with the Australian Defence Vessel (ADV) prefix, but retain the blue-and-red customs colour scheme.