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Despite big slip, mud, the Empress hits the water

The Nichols latest boat, the Empress of the North, left the Freeland yard yesterday for Everett for completion of its interior and final adjustments. - Gayle Saran
The Nichols latest boat, the Empress of the North, left the Freeland yard yesterday for Everett for completion of its interior and final adjustments.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

An estimated 3,000 people gathered in Freeland Monday to watch the launch of the Empress of the North, the largest ship built by Nichols Brothers Boats.

Though at one point a slip on a braking mechanism that moved the 360-foot, 3,500-ton cruise ship into Holmes Harbor seemed to put the operation in jeopardy, the Empress was sailing free by sundown.

The operation began early in the morning and officially ended a few minutes after high tide at 9 p.m., when the ship was pulled into the harbor by several tug boats.

A festival-like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day as hundreds of people congregated in Freeland Park, along the beach near Nichols boatyard, and along Bercot Avenue to watch the event.

Even as the Empress crawled toward the water on steel tracks at the rate of one inch per minute, the day was not without drama. When the brakes on the hydraulic ram unit pushing the boat failed to hold at one point in the evening, the ship slid 300 feet down the rails. The force of the unexpected slide sent the stern of the boat into the mud.

"It did come loose and I am sure it was a little startling to the spectators," said Matt Nichols, Nichols Brothers president.

Two Nichols employees who jumped off the rails to get out of the way of the sliding ship were treated for minor injuries.

Divers were immediately sent into the water to check for damage to the stern.

"It appears that everything is OK, maybe a little paint scraped off is all," Nichols said Tuesday.

In spite of the unexpected brake loss, Nichols characterized the launch as "very successful."

Two tugs were standing by to take the Empress to Everett, but after the boat's stern dug into the mud, Nichols called for another tug from Crowley Marine in Seattle. It took about two and half hours to travel from its Seattle dock to Freeland.

"We called them because we knew it was dug into the sand and we might need more power to get it loose," Nichols said.

To pull the Empress free, two tugs pulled with lines and a smaller one pushed on the side of the boat.

As the boat broke broke free of its muddy hold at the peak of the 12 and a half foot tide, cheers could be heard all around Holmes Harbor.

Langley resident Shirlee Read said, "This was great. I wouldn't have missed it."

Also watching events unfold was Henry Hillman, the owner of American West Steamship Company, based in Seattle. American West is purchasing the $50 million Empress from Nichols.

Whidbey Island residents will get a chance to see more of the Empress during sea trials in Saratoga Passage.

The boat will be delivered to its owner on July 25 and begin its maiden voyage to Alaska on Aug. 10.

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