Cracks in aluminum boat's hull cause concern at Nichols

Although it performed well during sea trials last May, Jet Cat Express, built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, came up lame in December when Nichols discovered aluminum used to build the boat
Although it performed well during sea trials last May, Jet Cat Express, built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, came up lame in December when Nichols discovered aluminum used to build the boat's hull was cracking. The Jet Cat is the only boat Nichols built with aluminum that may be defective.
— image credit: Record File Photo

Defects found recently in hull plating on a Nichols Brothers Boat Builders catamaran have the company and the Coast Guard warning shipbuilders around the nation to avoid an aluminum product manufactured by an Ohio metal company.

Minute cracks found in July in hull plating of the Jet Cat Express, a catamaran passenger boat operated by a California company, has both Nichols Brothers and a Seattle boat manufacturer worried about the safety of their customers. It also has both companies at the front of an effort to warn other boat builders away from an aluminum product manufactured by Alcan Aluminum Corp.

"First of all, we want to warn the rest of the world not to use this material," said Nichols Brothers president Matt Nichols earlier this month. "This is almost as bad as Firestone."

Nichols discovered the cracks in the Jet Cat's hull after the boat's owner, Catalina Express, noticed the aluminum on the boat discoloring. Just a month after the 144-foot boat was launched by Nichols in April, the problem caught the attention of the company's engineers. Metallurgy tests showed that the aluminum was defoiling wherever it was in contact with salt water. Cracks near the Jet Cat's engine room were so large that water had begun to seep into the boat.

Matt Nichols said his company put about $1 million into sheathing the hull in a second layer of three-sixteenths-of-an-inch plating, and later replaced every bit of the Alcan aluminum on the boat.

He said this is an unusual case, because Alcan aluminum used in Nichols boats in the past does not show the same defects.

A second boatbuilder, Kvichack Marine Industries in Seattle, is having the same problem, but on a much larger scale than Nichols. While the Jet Cat was the only Nichols boat built with Alcan's 5083 H321 aluminum, Kvichack used it on 30 boats.

Kvichack owner Keith Witamore said it took two years for the same cracking to show up in a boat his company sold to an Hawaiian company. He said the rate of deterioration was slower because Kvichack builds smaller and less-powerful boats than Nichols.

While it will not cost Kvichack as much to fix its boats as the repairs Nichols made, Witamore said. Finding the cracks was a blow.

"It came as an absolute shock," he said.

Both Witamore and Nichols said if the problem is left unchecked, boat hulls made of the Alcan aluminum could suffer catastrophic failures.

"It's going to come apart sooner or later," Nichols said.

Both Alcan and Integris Metals, a distributor for Alcan, have acknowledged that the failed aluminum used is not guaranteed for marine use. However, Nichols said both companies promoted the product as a hull material. Neither has offered to pay for boat repairs or to recall the product.

"This material is recognized as a good marine alloy," Nichols said.

Coast Guard Lt. Scott Casad said last week his service will warn as many boat owners and builders as it can to be on the lookout for the hull cracking. He said the Coast Guard has found the aluminum will corrode in salt water and is further stressed by high speeds and vibration.

The Coast Guard is conducting a nationwide investigation of the problem.

Nichols and Witamore said they hope to recoup their repair costs from Integris and Alcan without taking legal action. So far, neither has seen any money from the two metal companies.

Nichols said his company could have had a bigger problem on its hands had it accepted a recent contract to build car ferries for an Alaska company last year. The boats were planned to be built of Alcan aluminum.

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