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Nichols Brothers says goodbye to tugs, but yard remains busy

Matt Nichols with the company
Matt Nichols with the company's last in a series of tractor tugs: 'We still have quite a bit of work going on.'
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

The last of five large tugboats built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland is about to leave the yard, but the workload remains steady and no employee reductions are planned, company officials said Monday.

Although the firm lost out on a $25 million project to build five large steel barges for the Panama Canal Authority dredging project, work on portions of two more state ferries and catamaran refurbishing contracts are expected to keep the company busy through the end of the year, said Matt Nichols, managing director for business development.

“We still have quite a bit of work going on,” Nichols said. “There are always soft spots from time to time, but we hope to fill those with rehabs and other jobs.”

He said the workforce remains steady at about 225, and no layoffs are expected anytime soon.

“That’s a nice number, and everything is going well,” Nichols said.

For nearly a year, Nichols Brothers pursued the Panama barge contract, planning to finance it through the U.S. Import-Export Bank. But in the end, the company was outbid by Peru.

“They have their own government boatyard,” Nichols said. “We lost that one. We just got beat in price.”

The $5 million hopper-style barges, pushed by tugboats, are about 215 feet long, 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep, and weigh more than 700 tons. Nichols Brothers has built similar barges in the past.

Meanwhile, the five tugboats have provided steady work for the company for three years. The $10-million tractor vessels are 100 feet long, weigh 585 tons, have up to 92 tons of pull and can reach a speed of 14 knots.

The latest vessel is the last of four ordered by Baydelta Maritime of San Francisco. Another of the tugs also was delivered in 2008 to the Minette Bay Co., of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Nichols said Baydelta has indicated it would like to order additional tugs, but has yet to commit.

“They always say they want more, but you never know,” he said.

The last of the tugs will be launched Thursday, Nichols said. He said the vessel will be stopped midway on its crawler trip from the boatyard across Shoreline Drive to Holmes Harbor for a christening ceremony about 2 p.m. He urged members of the public to come and watch.

Once launched, the tug will undergo sea trials at Langley Marina before being delivered to California.

As for its workload, Nichols Brothers also has wrapped up a contract for four twin-hulled passenger ferries built for the San Francisco Bay Area’s Water Emergency Transit Authority.

The $8.8 million, 116-foot catamarans were built in partnership with Kivchak Marine Industries of Seattle.

The WETA also has hinted at additional contracts for more of the catamarans, but nothing has been firmed up, Nichols said.

In the meantime, some of the company’s previously built catamaran ferries are coming around again for refitting, Nichols said.

The company currently is working on the second of three major rehabs for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District in San Francisco. The work on the vessels built by Nichols Brothers in the 1980s involves new engines, propulsion systems and generators, and interior and exterior painting and other refurbishing, Nichols said.

Another 1988 catamaran ferry built for a Newport Beach area customer, also is expected in the Nichols Brothers yard for rehabilitation, he said.

Nichols Brothers has built 49 large catamarans since 1982, and the vessels are in service throughout the world, Nichols said.

The company also is nearing completion of a $3.5 million eight-car ferry for a state agency in Sacramento, Calif. Delivery is expected in October, Nichols said.

But the biggest projects under way at the Freeland boatyard are the superstructures for two more 64-car ferries for the state of Washington. Nichols Brothers is the subcontractor for Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle.

Nichols Brothers is building everything above the car decks, including the pilot houses, while Todd is building the car decks and everything else below.

Components for the next ferry will be delivered to Todd for assembly in October; the one after that is scheduled for delivery in March, Nichols said.

The two companies also collaborated on the state’s newest 64-car ferry, the M/V Chetzemoka, which is undergoing sea trials and is expected to go into service on the Keystone-Port Townsend run later this year.

The Chetzemoka was to have gone online this month, but vibration problems delayed its deployment.

Meanwhile, the company is continuing to pursue other projects, Nichols said.

“There’s quite a bit of stuff we’re really seriously working on,” he said, although he declined to be specific, pointing to the lost barge contract, which drew a lot of public speculation for naught.

“We really got burned on that one,” he said.

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