Tokitae on track in Freeland

The superstructure of the Tokitae is lined up on the I-beam tracks to prepare for its trip to the barge waiting in Holmes Harbor. It was scheduled to leave Saturday and be towed to Vigor Shipyard in Seattle to be mated to the hull and deck. The new ferry will carry 144 vehicles.

The tug pilots expected the Tokitae would be loaded late Friday afternoon and, if all went well, they would hold the barge overnight in Holmes Harbor, probably leaving with Saturday afternoon’s high tide.

The Tokitae, named after a killer whale captured in Penn Cove in the 1970s and still alive in a Miami aquarium, is the first of four planned 144-car ferries. Two are funded and Nichols Brothers will start work on the second, named the Samish, as the Tokitae makes its journey to Seattle.

“A soon as the superstructure is out we’ll start on the second 144-car ferry immediately,” said Matt Nichols. “It takes up most of the boatyard,” he said of the project.

Washington State Ferries has budget $274.4 million for the first two Olympic Class vessels, the Tokitae and Samish. The design is based on the 130-vehicle Issaquah Class ferries that have served the Clinton to Mukilteo route for some 30 years. It’s possible the Tokitae could serve that route.

The ferries are not all Nichols Brothers is working on. Several 100-foot tractor tugs are on the docket, one being build for Baydelta and two for a competitor named Harley Marine.

“I think we’re doing very well, Nichols said of boat building prospects in a tough economy. “For 2013 it’s falling in place.” He said buyers “slacked off” for a while, but Nichols is so diversified with its ferry work, fishing boats, passenger-carrying catamarans, research and patrol vessels  that jobs can still be found.

He expects employment to remain steady this year. “We’ve got 290 right now, it’s the perfect number, no bursting at the seams, it’s a nice, comfortable number,” he said.

Maintaining a skilled crew is always a challenge, but Nichols likes the present mix. “We’ve got a veteran crew with a lot of young people,” he said. “We’ve got 100 in an apprentice program.”