Nichols Brothers shipyard lands another ferry contract

There are a lot of smiling faces at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders this week.

Tim Neraf assists Michael Christensen

There are a lot of smiling faces at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders this week.

Company officials announced the signing of the firm’s second $17-million contract this year with Seattle’s Vigor Industrial to build the superstructure of a new 144-car state ferry.

The Freeland shipyard began work on the first boat earlier this year. Although it was unlikely that Nichols Brothers would not work on the second ferry as well, there were no guarantees, and CEO Matt Nichols was happy to confirm that the deal was finalized early last week.

“Signed, sealed and delivered,” a smiling Nichols said.

The two jobs combined, totaling $34 million for the small Whidbey firm, has allowed the company to hire an additional 100 workers and means steady work until the end of 2013, Nichols said.

Many of those hired are young people from the community, continuing a long trend of Nichols Brothers being a generational employer.

“We have three generations out here right now: grandfathers, fathers and sons,” said Nichols, adding that they have a few granddaughters working in the yard as well.

According to Washington State Ferries, construction of the two boats tabs out to $225 million — about $112.5 apiece — but construction management, contingencies and furnished equipment will bring the total cost to $277 million.

The primary contractor for the construction of both vessels is Vigor, which will build the hulls and put together everything below the car deck. Their responsibilities represent about two-thirds of the total job.

The remaining one-third, the superstructures, will be built by Nichols Brothers. As subcontractors, they signed a contract with Vigor rather than Washington State Ferries.

The first ferry is scheduled to go into service in early 2014, and the second boat will follow in early 2015. Although it’s not yet certain where they will serve, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, promised one will go to the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route if the decision is made under her watch.

“It will if I’m there,” Haugen said.

The longtime legislator is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, a position that carries great influence over the state’s transportation budget and the placement of capital projects, such as new ferries.

Haugen had a large hand in the decision to build three Kwa-di Tabil class ferries to replace the Steel Electrics, which were retired suddenly in late 2007. Two of the new ferries serve the Port Townsend-to-Coupeville route and the hulls and superstructures of all three were also built by the Vigor-Nichols Brothers team.

But Haugen’s power will remain only if she is in office and right now that’s not certain. The veteran senator was beaten in the August primary by challenger Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

Where ever the new ferry serves, most Nichols Brother employees are just happy to have steady work planned until the end of next year.

“It’s pretty comforting to know you are not going to be laid off for the next year and half,” said Micah Noack, a Coupeville resident.

Staffing levels have to be supported by available work. Nichols said his hope is to retain his existing workforce indefinitely with future work and is in the process of bidding on about 25 jobs.

Things are looking good for the boat builder. Along with the ferries, the shipyard recently landed contracts to build two 100-foot, Z-drive tugboats for Harley Marine Services. They will be the seventh and eighth in a series of tugs Nichols Brothers has built for various companies in recent years.

Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, heralded the ferry jobs as not just great news for the community but for the island’s entire economy. What’s good for the shipyard, he said, is good for all of Whidbey.

Steady work at Nichols Brothers creates a ripple effect as the workforce is out spending their paychecks at businesses up and down the island. It’s a huge boon to the economy, he said.

“This is something everybody was hoping would happen, and now that it has it’s great,” Ross said.

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