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Freeland shipyard to start work on second state ferry

Matt Nichols of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders and the superstructure for the state’s newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. The components are scheduled to be shipped to Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle this week. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Matt Nichols of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders and the superstructure for the state’s newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. The components are scheduled to be shipped to Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle this week.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders won’t have any trouble staying afloat this year, company officials say.

Beset by financial troubles, layoffs, bankruptcy, a sale and restructuring in the past two years, the Freeland boatyard is now humming close to capacity, and is rapidly adding to its workforce.

“Our 2010 looks very strong,” John Collins, Nichols chief executive, said Monday. “Things are going wonderfully. We’ve got some great people here, an amazing amount of talent.”

On approach, the boatyard across the street from the head of Holmes Harbor appears crammed with vessels and sheltering structures. Inside, it’s alive with welding sparks, clanging tools, shouts and other construction activity as workers energetically go about their business.

Tucked under new portable canopies bought with federal stimulus money, crews are building all or part of four new vessels, and refurbishing two others under contracts running into the millions of dollars.

Nichols has hired 36 additional skilled workers in the past two months, bringing its workforce to 167. The company plans to increase that number to 235 employees by midyear, said Matt Nichols, managing director for business development. Nichols said that while only a few small gaps remain in the company’s 2010 construction schedule, officials are still alert for new business.

He said there are at least 20 projects, large and small, that the company is chasing.

“We’re always pursuing all the time,” Nichols said.

Meanwhile, Nichols Brothers is nearly finished with its part of a new 64-car ferry for the Keystone-Port Townsend route and expects to barge two of three segments of the component to Seattle at the end of this week, as promised.

The ferry is being built by Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle, with Nichols Brothers as subcontractor.

Nichols Brothers is building the vessel’s superstructure, which includes the pilot houses and all the passenger areas above the car decks.

Once the superstructure is shipped out to Todd, work will begin immediately on another Washington state ferry. When that project is completed, another will be started.

Late last year, Todd and Nichols Brothers were awarded a $114 million state contract to build two more of the 64-car ferries, with an option for another.

The next two ferries are expected to take 20 months each to build under a similar arrangement between Todd and Nichols Brothers. The decision whether to build a fourth ferry is expected by May 2011.

Nichols Brothers again will be responsible for the superstructures on the new ferries, but Nichols said the company hopes to negotiate an even larger portion of the work on the next ferry project.

Besides the ferry work, the company is building another $10 million heavy tugboat for a San Francisco buyer, who may also order another one, Nichols said.

The 500-ton tug, the fifth in a series, is slated for delivery in August.

The company, along with Kivchak Marine Industries in Seattle, also is building a fourth $8.8 million, 116-foot catamaran ferry for San Francisco’s Water Emergency Marine Authority. Delivery is expected in April.

Additionally, Nichols Brothers is building an eight-car ferry for another California buyer.

Meanwhile, the company is refurbishing two catamaran ferries it built years ago.

One of those jobs involves major renovations that are expected to take six months, Nichols said.

At the same time, the company is continuing to pursue a $25 million contract for five barges to be used in a Panama Canal dredging project.

Collins said earlier that Nichols Brothers is rebidding the barge project, and that financing “is not a factor.”

The company had been seeking funding for the barges from the federal Import-Export Bank.

Collins said the company is trying to navigate through an incredibly intricate bidding process to win the Panama job, but officials remain optimistic.

“We’re scheming on that one like crazy,” he said.

Things weren’t always so rosy for the company.

In November 2007, the company laid off its entire workforce after 43 years on Whidbey Island and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Nichols Brothers was later sold to a limited liability company, Ice Floe, based in Dallas, Texas, and was restructured.

Last fall, 30 Nichols employees were laid off when the company lost a contract to build a new ferry for a California buyer.

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