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Nichols to build ‘green’ ferries

New catamarans to be constructed at Nichols Brothers will change the course of passenger vessels by including environmentally-friendly features to reduce wakes and dramatically reduce diesel emissions. The new vessels will also have sonar to avoid hitting marine mammals, company officials said.

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority has signed a letter of intent with the Freeland boat builder for the construction of two 149-passenger catamarans. Boat builders at Nichols are expected to begin construction on the new “green” vessels this summer with delivery in 2007.

Nichols is the prime contractor on the project, and the new ferries will be the flagship for the San Francisco Marine Transit Authority.

“These boats have the potential to change the way ferries are built in the future, even here in Washington state,” said Bryan Nichols, president of Nichols.

“They will set a new standard for the industry,” he said.

Rather than “green,” though, Nichols says they will be “blue,” as in marine friendly to waterways and harbors.

The boats will have the potential to alter the course of the ferry industry by burning cleaner and reducing impacts on marine life. A new catalytic converter system will reduce the amount of emissions into the air.

“The propulsion system will be 10 times cleaner than what is currently on the market,” Nichols said.

In additional to reducing emissions, the vessels are lighter so they create a lower wake that will reduce impacts on shorelines. A shallow draft with the propellers inside tunnels under the hull will reduce disturbance to plant and marine life. And to avoid hitting marine mammals, the boats will also be outfitted with forward-seeking sonar to detect the presence of whales, seals or sea lions.

“The sonar would be practical in bays and harbors that have a large whale populations,” Nichols said.

The latest innovations are pricey. The two catamarans will cost about $14.7 million — double the price of a standard catamaran of the same size.

Nichols says he expects the price to come down after prototypes are built and the construction process becomes more streamlined.

Still, he said he doesn’t expect every catamaran his company builds in the future to be outfitted with all of these new innovations.

Instead, Nichols said it will depend on the environmental concerns that exist in the areas the catamarans will ply the waters. The technology can be transferred to other vessels, however, and be scaled up or down depending on the size of the boat.

Nichols added that the new catamarans will have the highest level of passenger comfort and safety in the ferry industry.

The transit authority is building a total of 10 of these passenger ferries.

“We hope we will be building the other eight,” said Matt Nichols, the company’s CEO.

Unlike the Washington ferry system, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority is funded both with public and private money. Public money is used for construction and private companies operate the service, Nichols said.

In addition to the new cats, the boat builder is busy with several other projects ranging from a barge to a luxury exposition yacht. And that’s OK with the Freeland shipyard.

“We are continually looking to find new products and new lines. The crew likes the variety and the challenges of building a variety of boats,” Matt Nichols said.

New contracts include a 54-car, 216-foot ferry for Pierce County, and the Grand Luxe, a 230-foot exposition dinner yacht to be used for fine art and jewelry sales. The interior of the luxurious yacht, which will sail between Boston, Mass. and Florida, will be built in Florida.

Other projects include a 100-foot Z-drive tractor tug for jockeying big ships in and out of harbors, and a 250-foot dump barge.

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