Nichols Brothers launch stalled by new system

Nichols Brothers officials look out at the Nancy Peterkin

The floating of a new tugboat by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders was delayed Monday due to a problem with a new launching system.

As of Tuesday morning, the Nancy Peterkin, a 136-foot tugboat built for Kirby Offshore Marine, was still sitting on its launch track a few hundred yards offshore in Holmes Harbor.

According to Matt Nichols, company executive vice president, the problem was with the track. An unknown hiccup prevented it from bringing the new tug all the way to the end of the track and a dugout hole where the boat could be floated. Another large tug attempted to pull the vessel along, but the ship remained fast and efforts were abandoned for the night.

“It was actually kind of a dry run,” Nichols said. “We weren’t even sure it was going to go.”

The shipyard was set to attempt to launch the Nancy Peterkin again Tuesday evening after press time. Nichols said he was confident the operation would be a success.

The vessel’s 19-foot draft (the amount of boat below the waterline) required it be floated on an unusually high tide, which is why the vessel was put on its track Friday and spent the weekend partially in the water. The company also hired a subcontractor to develop a new launching system that employed floats, dollies and a track. One benefit of the new system is that it brings ships a couple feet closer to the ground than previous systems, such as the shipyard’s old crawler, making it easier to launch vessels with exceptionally deep drafts.

Monday’s launching closed a portion of East Shoreview Drive and drew a number of spectators. Doug and Sherry Joel were two of a steady crowd of people who watched the operation from the hill near Freeland Hall.

“Whenever Nichols Brothers lets something go it’s always a Whidbey Island happening,” Doug Joel said. “… it’s really cool the things they do.”

The Nancy Peterkin is a new build for the Freeland shipyard. An articulated tugboat, or ATB, it operates by pushing from behind rather than towing its loads from ahead. Also, like a LEGO, they fit into slots in the back of specially-designed barges with mechanical mechanisms, as opposed to cables used on conventional push-from-behind tugs.

“When the pin system connects to the barge it becomes one vessel,” Nichols said.

This tug, powered by twin 5,000 horsepower engines, will mate with a 581-foot barge capable of transporting 185,000 barrels of oil. The system’s design and the barge’s length necessitate the tug’s unusually tall pilothouse. Nichols said it was about five stories tall.

“I think it’s the tallest building on South Whidbey,” he joked, during a pre-launch interview with The Record.

The Nancy Peterkin is expected to operate along the West Coasts between refineries in Puget Sound, such as the one in Anacortes, and the San Francisco Bay area in California.

The vessel took 14 months to construct, and is the first of four commissioned by Kirby. The shipyard is also working on another 144-car ferry superstructure, a 140-foot cargo/passenger boat for the American Samoa government, two high-speed passenger catamarans and two 120-foot tugboats. The work is expected to keep the company busy until 2017, Nichols said.