Nichols lands record contract, secures jobs

In a time of economic downswings, layoffs and bleak financial forecasts, two new boat contracts signed with Freeland's Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is a powerful shot in the company's arm.

With construction beginning on both vessels this month, Nichols employees are reconfiguring the boat construction yard to begin building a 366-foot-long paddle wheeler -- the largest boat ever built by the company. Nichols Brothers is also expanding its workforce to 180 employees to do work expected to last through May 2003.

"It's amazing to hear about the economy in trouble and people looking for work," said Hap Richards, a project manager for Nichols Brothers. "We're going to be really busy for a while. It's nice to be able to call our crews back in."

American West Steamboat awarded Nichols the contract for the 366-foot-long Empress of the North late last month. The company also won a contract with the Port of Los Angeles to build a 105-foot fire fighting boat.

Similar to the Queen of the West, a boat built by Nichols in 1997, the Empress is a paddle wheel boat that will carry 235 passengers and 90 crew members on the Columbia River in the winter and along Alaska's coast in the summer.

Boasting about 112 passenger staterooms, a 2,800-square-foot dining room, a 2,500-square-foot main lounge and an additional paddle wheel lounge, the boat will stand more than 50 feet above the water.

"This is the nicest thing we've ever built," Richards said. "It's in the grand style of riverboat cruising."

To maneuver the giant boat while under construction, the company decided to move one of its Quonset huts to a location nearer the water. Richards said that once the boat is launched, the company hopes to never have to drag it back out.

Driving the Empress will be two 2,000-horsepower Z-drives, with a stern wheel capable of 1,000 horsepower.

"This boat isn't made for performance, just cruising," Richards said. "No high speeds here."

The Port of Los Angeles requested the second ship -- a fire boat similar to several 103-foot tractor tugs Nichols built three years ago.

At 105 feet in length, the boat will be driven by a drive system best known for its use on United States Navy ships. Considered to be one of the finest propulsion systems in the world, its props will be assembled at the Nichols Borthers plant.

"They are incredible," Richards said. "We are proud to say we've built six of systems already, more than any other builder on the West Coast."

What distinguishes the drives from other propulsion systems is its vertical assembly.

"People look at the prop that sits up and down compared to the norm, and they can't figure it out," Richards said. "These tugs are incredibly maneuverable. They'll turn on a dime."

For firefighting capacity, the boat will pump 32,000 gallons of water per minute, which is equivalent to filling a normal swimming pool in less than 30 seconds, according Richards. Equipped with the latest technology, the fire boat will also house a multi-purpose room for onboard emergency medical care.

In addition to the new contracts, Nichols crews are finishing work on the fishing boat Marcy J, owned by Harold Jones. Workers have replaced the bow and widened the boat by 10 feet to increase the fish hauling capacity and the stability of the boat.

Nichols currently employs between 90 and 100 workers. That number will nearly double by the end of the year. Most of the employees live on Whidbey Island. About 20 commute to the island, Richards said.

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