Everett boatbuilder’s African ferry enters service

EVERETT — Thain Boatworks’ effort to bring reliable ferry service back to east Africa’s Lake Victoria is about to bear fruit, albeit two years late.

Rob Smith, chief executive and president of EarthWise Ventures Inc. and Thain Boatworks, realizes now that improving traditional ferry ser

vice on the world’s second-largest lake is taking much longer than he thought it would. The first 200-passenger ferry was shipped in several 40-foot containers to Uganda in summer 2009. Only now has it completed sea trials and it was scheduled to enter service after the Ugandan government commission

ed it May 28, he said.

The easiest explanation for the delay is simple logistics. Assembling the boat on the shore of a rural Ugandan fishing village exposed Smith’s team to random electricity disruptions and the lack of quick access to simple tools.

“You could spend a half-day finding a 1/8-inch drill bit, then it’ll break because it’s cheap Chinese junk,” Smith said.

Thain public relations and marketing director Robert Zweibel laughed about all the things they’ve had to ship as luggage to Uganda to assemble the first ferry, including a generator so the assembly crew can work when the power goes out.

Smith, a native South African who grew up in southern Rhodesia and moved to the U.S. when he was 19, said his desire to improve the lives of Africans stems from his many years helping care for the continent’s orphans.

“Besides loving the child, you have to love the community, too,” he said.

That got Smith to thinking about “a holistic approach” about how he could make things better there.

Africa has long had problems with AIDS, famine, civil war and corruption, but Smith concluded that what would help best is economic development.

“We tried things as a not-for-profit, but we need to create jobs with investment and business,” he said.

Africa’s infrastructure is in pretty poor shape. Where several ferries used to ply Lake Victoria between Uganda and Kenya, now there are only two dilapidated boats with regular service, Smith said. Because those boats are considered unsafe and unreliable, many people now take long overland routes around the lake by road or train, making them more crowded and speeding their decay.

That’s when the light went on over Smith’s head.

“We thought the boat business offered us a choice,” he said. “We got more excited at the prospect of restoring a (historic) transportation element.”

EarthWise Ventures convinced 14 investors to put up $2 million to fund construction of up to 10 passenger ferries. The twin hulls of the second catamaran ferry now fill Thain’s small shop and are nearly finished.

Smith and Zweibel want to move to a larger shop in Arlington once occupied by Meridian Yachts where their crew of 15 can build three or four boats at a time, but they haven’t been able to secure the space yet. For now, they can only build one boat at a time.

Each hull consists of 284 sheets of layered 18-inch plywood laminated with fiberglass and epoxy for high strength and light weight. Two immediate benefits result, Smith said. Any damage to the hull can be easily repaired compared to an aluminum hull, which requires skilled welders. The weight savings means Thain’s ferries are quick and efficient, which should result in better profits for the EarthWise ferry fleet because of lower operating costs with more frequent service.

“The hulls are tremendously strong,” Zweibel said.

The boats are built to U.S. Coast Guard standards and are designed to be “unsinkable” due to the use of foam cores in the floors, walls and roof. Ferry crew members are being trained in safety procedures. Onboard software will prevent the ferry’s engines from running if it detects the boat is overloaded.

The second ferry should be ready to ship to Uganda in July, Zweibel said. As many components as possible are installed in the ferry before shipment, including each hull’s Caterpillar engine that runs on full biofuel — no diesel — refined from plants grown by farmers around Lake Victoria.

EarthWise already has 30 people working in Uganda as boat builders and crew members, with more crew members being hired now, Smith said.

“Here’s something that’ll do good,” he said of the hirings.

In Smith’s vision, he sees a fleet of tugboats and barges joining the ferries to move people and freight across the lake between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania as they did historically. That’s if EarthWise Ventures can raise another $30 million from investors, he said. And if that pans out, Smith wants to “scale up” EarthWise’s African venture to improve other aspects of Africa’s crumbling infrastructure.

The Ugandan workers are getting better at putting the boat together and Zweibel said many are jumping at the chance for employment.

“Seeing the (local) people watch the assembly, they love the fact that we’d hire them,” he said.

Kurt Batdorf: 425-339-3102, kbatdorf@scbj.com.

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