Building success, one weld at a time | Three new contracts will add 30 jobs to Nichols Brothers’ roster

Journeyman fitter Troy Hawkins works on a jig at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. The shipyard has landed three contracts. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Journeyman fitter Troy Hawkins works on a jig at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. The shipyard has landed three contracts.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Three new projects will keep Freeland’s Nichols Brothers Boat Builders busy through 2014, company officials have announced.

According to CEO Matt Nichols, the South Whidbey ship construction firm recently began work on another tractor tug, and has been awarded contracts for a large landing craft that will operate in Alaska and a 23-car ferry that will service Washington and Oregon.

He declined to say how much the projects are worth financially but volunteered that, collectively, they are on par with the company’s 2013 earnings. Next year’s budget is pretty much set, said Nichols, and that’s a big deal for an industry so dependent on the next job.

“It’s feast or famine,” Nichols said.

Yard workers are in full agreement. Troy Hawkins, a journeyman fitter, signed on with Nichols in 1986 but even after all that time the security that comes with knowing what’s ahead can’t be underestimated.

“It’s a nice thing to know what the future is, that you’re going to have a job,” Hawkins said.

“Still in business and rockin’ and rollin’,” echoed Casey Willamson, a fitting supervisor. “We got lots of work ahead of us.”

Nichols Brothers is currently wrapping up work on the superstructure of a 144-car state ferry, the second the shipbuilder has completed in recent years. It ships out for final assembly by Vigor Industrial, the Seattle firm building the vessel’s hull, on Dec. 19.

Comparatively, Nichols said the three new projects are ideal for the Freeland shipyard, both in terms of size and the type of vessel.

“We’re in the sweet spot right now with lots of work, and the right kind of work,” Nichols said.

The first vessel, a 100-foot tractor tug, is a familiar build for the shipyard — it’s the ninth Nichols Brothers has put together since 2006. It’s being built for Bay Delta Marine, based out of San Francisco, Calif.

The second project, a 150-foot landing craft, is being constructed for Bowhead Transport. Bound for Alaskan waters, the vessel will operate as a supply ship for coastal villages of the North Slope Borough, between the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

Finally, Wahkiakum County has awarded Nichols a contract to build a 23-car, 100-passenger ferry to operate between existing terminals at Puget Island in Cathlamet, Wash., and Westport, Ore.

The project has special meaning for Nichols because the ferry being replaced was built by his grandfather, company founder Mark Nichols, in the early 1960s when the yard was still located in Oregon.

“The first-generation Nichols built the first one and the third and fourth-generation Nichols are building the second,” said Nichols, his face stamped with family pride.

The yard is also working on two small projects: a 10-foot extension of a fishing boat and the re-powering of a large catamaran.

According to Nichols, the projects will allow the company to hire about 30 new employees, bringing the current workforce up from about 220 to about 250.

All the projects are scheduled to be completed in 2014.


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