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Court fight over hulls averted

A Nichols Brothers Boat Builders employee moves under the Mendicino, a boat that has come back to the Freeland shipyard for repairs stemming from defective aluminum hull plates. - Matt Johnson
A Nichols Brothers Boat Builders employee moves under the Mendicino, a boat that has come back to the Freeland shipyard for repairs stemming from defective aluminum hull plates.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Defective hull plating that likely should have triggered a cascade of lawsuits has become a bit of an economic boon for Nichols Bros. Boat builders.

Cracks in the plating, which was sold to Nichols Brothers and several other boat builders, were discovered in a Nichols catamaran in the fall of 2000, cracks that could have — under high-speed conditions conditions — sunk that boat and many others.

But this month, Nichols Brothers is doing some of the last warrantee work to fix the problem, work that has brought about $1 million to the company since the aluminum plating distributor, Integris Metals, agreed to pay to replace every bit of the defective metal it sold.

“They stepped up to the plate and started writing checks,” said former Nichols Brothers president Matt Nichols in a recent interview.

One of those checks is paying for the hull of the catamaran Mendicino to be replaced at the Nichols yard this month. Matt Nichols said the top of the boat will be removed from the hull, then new hull will be built around the engines and other mechanical components in the boat. After the work is finished, the boat will go through sea trials then will be returned to its owner, the Golden Gate Bridge District in San Francisco, Calif.

Nichols Brothers first learned of the cracking when the owner of one of the high-speed catamarans the company builds noticed hull plating cracking, particularly at weld points. The cracking was found when the boat owner started looking for the source of mysterious leaks in the hull.

Metallurgy tests showed the aluminum was defoiling wherever it was in contact with salt water.

According to Nichols and a spokesman for Integris Metals, what has amounted to a recall campaign over the past 18 months avoided the necessity of going to court to sue over cost of repairing vessels with the bad hull plating. Though Nichols did file suit in Island County Superior Court over the matter to, in Nichols’ words “get their attention,” Integris has thus far paid the Freeland shipyard for the labor and materials necessary to re-plate the hulls of less than a dozen boats.

Ron Arp, a spokesperson for Integris, said his company — which owns the Alcoa aluminum distributor that sold the defective metal during the late 1990s — said his company has been paying for repairs to vessels on “a case-by-case basis.” He also said the publicity about the defective metal has not, surprisingly, made any “material difference” in its sales of its marine aluminum alloys.

Though the hull cracking was serious when it was found, notice put out through boat builders like Nichols Brothers and through the Coast Guard seems to have staved off any catastrophic hull failures. To date, the problem has not caused any boat to sink or break apart while underway. Matt Nichols said this could have happened had the problem gone unnoticed long enough in some vessels.

The cracking first showed up in a Nichols boat, rather than one from another company, due in part to the size, speed and power of the craft the Freeland company builds. Vibrations and water and wave impacts at speed seem to exacerbate the problem.

One of the largest users of marine-grade aluminum, Nichols purchases about 600 tons per year of metal similar to that sold by Integris. Matt Nichols said he does not to expect any future problems with the marine metals his company uses. His company no longer purchases the defective metal, Alcan’s 5083 H321 aluminum.

Nichols said he is pleased with how the situation has worked out. A court fight over the issue, he said, could have put a number of boat builders out of business.

To date, only Integris has paid for the repairs to the boats, reimbursing costs incurred by boat builders. The maker of the aluminum, Alcan, has not paid for any repairs.

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