Empress of the North delivered in time

Matt Nichols officially handed over the Empress of the North sternwheeler to its owner, the American Steamship Co., on Thursday morning in Victoria, British Columbia.

The vessel was delivered just in time for its Aug. 10 inaugural cruise, when the Empress will sail from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. The on time delivery comes despite the fact that Nichols delivered the ship late.

Nichols said he is happy to finally make delivery of the $50 million vessel.

"It was a good feeling. We are proud of it and the work our crews have done," Nichols said.

Building the Empress was not all smooth sailing for the vessel or Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Along the way, the company hit some snags during the construction of the 3,500 ton, 600-foot cruise ship.

Underestimated work schedules, a failure to apply for state and federal tidelands permits and a failure of a hydraulic brake system on the ship's rail launch system delayed delivery of the vessel.

Even so, Bob Wengel, vice president of operations for American West and the boat's captain, was in high spirits as his company took delivery, even though it was late.

"But the important thing is we are ready to load our passengers in a couple of days," he said.

The boat was first scheduled for delivery in May and, according to Wengel, "we kept setting the date back, finally giving them until July 25."

A memo written on May 3, 2003 to Matt Nichols from John Hein, senior vice-president and general manager of American West, said a late delivery could have caused the cancellation of four Alaska trips and the loss of $4.34 million. He also said approximately $1.5 million in marketing costs would have been "wasted."

None of those losses occurred, since the Empress was delivered in time for the Aug. 10 sailing.

Bob Wengel said he was aware that penalities for late delivery were written into Nichols contract, but neither Nichols nor officials from American West would speak directly to that issue.

American West's marketing director, Joel Perry, said the contract is "not cut and dried."

"There are variables to consider," he said.

Perry said Nichols lost 12 days due to the launch accident. The mishap forced the company to take the Empress to a Lake Union dry dock replace and paint some of the dented steel hull.

Perry said he watched the June launch from NIchols.

"I was speechless -- not much you can do when seven million pounds are sliding away."

Further complicating delivery was Nichols' failure to obtain the proper state and federal permits for the launch.

In May Nichols was issued a stop work order by the Army Corps of Engineers for failure to obtain permits for the launch system. They were also fined by Washington Debarment of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Ecology.

Nonetheless, both Perry and Wengel said they would consider working with Nichols Brothers Boats on another vessel.

"If we had plans for another boat, we would definitely talk to them," Perry said.

Following two round trips from Seattle to Alaska this fall, the Empress will be repositioned for cruises on the Willamette, Snake and Columbia Rivers until May.

Wengel said the boat is almost completely booked for this first cruise. About 220 passengers are set to sail on the ship, which has a capacity of 235.

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