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Nichols Brothers vies for Keystone ferry contract

The Island Home, a 76-car high-speed ferry operating in Massachusetts, is the prototype for two new ferries slated for the Keystone-Port Townsend run in 2010. - Photo courtesy of the Steamship Authority of Nantucket
The Island Home, a 76-car high-speed ferry operating in Massachusetts, is the prototype for two new ferries slated for the Keystone-Port Townsend run in 2010.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the Steamship Authority of Nantucket

FREELAND — Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is preparing a bid to construct a portion of two new 64-car high-speed ferries for the Keystone-Port Townsend run, said Matt Nichols, managing director for business development, Thursday.

The ferry contract is just one indication of vibrancy in the boatbuilding industry generally and at Nichols Brothers in particular, despite the souring economy, he said.

“Our industry is very strong,” he said.

Nichols Brothers, Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle and Everett Shipyards of Everett will bid jointly on the contracts to build the new ferries, slated for service in 2010.

Nichols said bids on the $84.5 million project will be opened by state officials on Nov. 6, and the contracts are to be awarded within 10 days. The first vessel would go into service in April 2010, and the second later that fall, state officials say.

The contract contains an option for a third ferry, Nichols said.

“There will be other companies bidding, but we definitely have a shot,” Nichols said. “We feel we have a great team, and we’ve worked together before.”

He said if it gets the contract, Nichols Brothers will hire more employees.

Even so, the firm is hiring now, he added, because of a new contract for two more large catamarans.

“The marine industry is very strong — military, government, private and commercial,” he said. “The weak dollar is a strength for us, and we’re trying to market worldwide.”

In fact, he said, he was leaving Friday for a ferry trade show in Hong Kong.

The state Department of Transportation ordered the two new ferries for the Keystone-Port Townsend run after four 80-year-old Steel Electrics were pulled from service a year ago by Washington State Ferries because of safety concerns.

A vessel leased from Pierce County is serving the route until the new ferries come on-line.

The new vessels will be modified versions of the Island Home, a 255-foot ferry operated by the Nantucket Steamship Co. that has run the seven-mile, 40-minute route between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts since March 2007.

The Island Home was designed by the Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle and built by VT Halter Marine Inc., of Moss Point, Mass. It can carry 76 vehicles and 1,200 passengers.

Ferry officials who checked out the Island Home reported that it is highly maneuverable for its size, it can operate smoothly in rough weather and it is well-suited for operations on the Keystone-Port Townsend route, with modifications to allow for shallow conditions.

Nichols said that if his firm gets the contract, it would build the top sections of the boats, including the entire passenger deck and galley, and the pilot houses and machinery compartments for the heating and air-conditioning systems.

He said that while the base of the boats will be steel, the Nichols Brothers’ section would be aluminum.

“We’re considered aluminum experts,” he said. “We have a lot of experience with aluminum.”

Nichols said most of that experience comes from construction of 41 large aluminum catamarans of an Australian design that the company has produced since 1982.

Nichols Brothers has two of the vessels under construction, and two more have just been ordered by the Bay Area Water Transit Authority in San Francisco, Calif., Nichols said.

The catamarans are about $8.8 million each, and the first is due for launch in about 10 days, he said.

Meanwhile, the company is midway through contracts to build five large tugboats. The $10-million tractor vessels are 100 feet long and weigh 85 tons.

The third and latest tug is undergoing sea trials at Langley Marina, and is expected to be delivered to its owner, the Minette Bay Co., of Prince Rupert, B.C., in about two weeks, Nichols said.

The other four tugs were ordered by a San Francisco towing company, he said.

A year ago, financial woes forced layoffs and the eventual sale of Nichols Brothers to Ice Floe, based in Dallas, Texas.

Nichols said recently that the acquisition left Nichols Brothers better financed and better structured.

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