Nichols Brothers ready to go on new state ferry contract

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is ready to begin work on a new ferry for the Keystone-Port Townsend run, but it’s too soon to say when laid-off workers will be called back, said Matt Nichols, managing director for business development.

“The ferry contract is in place,” Nichols said. “But we may need to get another job or two before we start thinking about rehiring.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he continued. “Things quiet down around the holidays, and they don’t start popping until after New Year’s. We have lots of work, but we’re always looking for more.”

In November, Nichols Brothers laid off 30 workers. The layoff was expected to last three months, company officials said at the time, and the remaining

150 employees were assured there would be no further layoffs at this time.

Then the state Department of Transportation announced it would go ahead with one new high-speed ferry. It had originally put out a bid for two, at a projected cost of $84.5 million.

Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle, in conjunction with Nichols Brothers, submitted the only bid; $65.5 million for one ferry and $124.4 million for two.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said last month the state will likely build two additional ferries of the modified Island Home design and push back construction of new 144-vehicle-capacity ferries.

Nichols Brothers’ share of the contract for the first ferry will be about $6 million, but Nichols said the company will negotiate for a bigger piece of the job.

Nichols Brothers is scheduled to build the top section of the vessel, including the entire passenger deck and galley, and the pilot houses and machinery compartments for the heating and air-conditioning systems.

Nichols said the company is trying to determine whether the pilot houses are similar enough to those of previous vessels the company has built, so that work on that portion of the job can begin sooner.

“My fear is that the designers have changed it too much,” he said. “If so, we’ll have to wait four or five months for new design work.”

The original Island Home ferry was designed by the Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle and built by VT Halter Marine Inc., of Moss Point, Mass. The original 255-foot-long ferry can carry 76 vehicles and 1,200 passengers.

The first state vessel is expected to go into service in April 2010, state officials said.

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

The original Island Home, operated by the Nantucket Steamship Co., has run the seven-mile, 40-minute route between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts since March 2007.

Washington State Ferries officials traveled back East and determined the ferry would be a suitable design, with modifications, to navigate the shallow conditions on the Keystone-Port Townsend run.

Nichols Brothers said the recent layoffs were due to a California buyer’s plan to acquire and rebuild existing vessels rather than purchase a new vessel from the Freeland firm.

Nichols Brothers had maintained its employment level to allow for training in anticipation of winning that ferry contract.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District had been looking to buy new high-speed passenger ferries since June 2006. In July, Nichols Brothers submitted a bid of $18.6 million to build one of the ferries. However, the district decided to buy two used ferries, the M/V Snohomish and M/V Chinook, from Washington state for $4 million.

The Golden Gate district also plans to spend about $19.1 million to refurbish the Washington ferries.

Nichols said the company would bid on a portion of the refurbishment contract when it is announced.

Meanwhile, Nichols Brothers is continuing work on its other contracts.

The first of four twin-hulled passenger ferries was delivered earlier this month to the San Francisco Bay area after undergoing sea trials at the Langley Marina.

The $8.8 million catamaran, built in partnership with Kivchak Marine Industries of Everett, went to the Bay Area’s Water Emergency Transit Authority.

Construction of a second WETA catamaran is under way at the Freeland boat yard, and two more have been ordered, Nichols said.

The next catamaran is scheduled for delivery in March, and the other two for late next year. Two additional vessels are being discussed.

Meanwhile, the company also 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 was delivered recently to the Minette Bay Co., of Prince Rupert, B.C. The remaining two tugs will be built for BayDelta Marine in the Bay Area.

Nichols said the Bay Area firm may order two additional tugs. He said that despite the pinched credit market, all the financing for the current contracts is in place.

Meanwhile, the company will continue to pursue other contracts, Nichols said, and is getting ready to bid “on five or six jobs.”

“We have several good-looking projects on the horizon,” he said. “The marine industry still looks very strong.”

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