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Ship launch will be for spectators

This rail system will be used to launch the Empress of the North cruise ship from the Nichols Brothers boatyard in Freeland. The $50 million boat rests in a cradle and is rolled into the water on rails.   - Gayle Saran
This rail system will be used to launch the Empress of the North cruise ship from the Nichols Brothers boatyard in Freeland. The $50 million boat rests in a cradle and is rolled into the water on rails.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Pull up a lawn chair and bring a picnic basket with three meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- for the launch of a new cruise ship from Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on June 16.

Spectators will need the whole day to watch the launch from start to finish because it will take about 12 hours. Starting at 7 a.m. and, if all goes well, ending at 8:45 p.m., the Empress of the North is rolling into Holmes Harbor.

Bryan Nichols, co-owner of Nichols, said the company expects the vessel to be across Shore Avenue in front of the boatyard by noon.

This will be the first time Nichols has used its new Hillman rail launch system. Nichols explained how it will work next Monday when the 3,500 ton Empress is set afloat.

"The vessel rests on a cradle with rollers. The rollers move the ship on the rails that vary in height from about two feet to eight feet off the ground. A hydraulic ram system will be pushing the vessel forward inch-by inch," Nichols said.

From the boatyard across the road is slightly uphill, but once the ship is on the beach it will be heading downhill to the water.

"We'll have lots of eyes watching the ship's progress to ensure it all goes well," Nichols said.

In spite of its lengthy process, it will be exciting for Nichols employees.

"This is the first time we've used this type of system here," Nichols said.

Standing by to render assistance if needed will be a couple of tug boats and several divers.

Nichols said the company may be getting a two-day road closure permit to allow them plenty of time to set up and take down the temporary rails.

Once the Empress hits the water, she will have a tugboat escort to a dock in Everett, where she will begin sea trials.

A christening ceremony is expected to take place before delivery of the Empress on July 25 to its owner, American West Steamship Company.

The Empress' first cruise will be from Seattle to Alaska this summer.

The public was invited to tour the Empress of the North last Saturday. About 1,600 people went through the ship.

The event was supposed to take place between 1 and 3 p.m., but the size of the crowd pushed the event later.

"But I was still letting people out of the yard at 5 p.m.," Nichols said.

The Hillman rail system is often used to move buildings on land. On the system, the Empress will move at a rate of about one inch per minute.

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