Boat built in Everett destined for ferry service in Africa

EVERETT — When Rob Smith tells people that the three-story, 65-foot catamaran he’s building on Everett’s waterfront will be heading for Africa soon, two questions immediately come to mind: Why and how.

As in “Why would you send such a big boat to such a dry continent and how do you intend to get it there?”

The how is pretty simply. It will be sent in easily reassembled pieces in 40-foot shipping containers. The why is a longer story, but basically Smith wants to help Africa’s widows and orphans by rebuilding the region’s economy — like his big boat — one piece at a time.

“We feel the greatest help is in rebuilding the infrastructure,” Smith said of Africa, which has been torn apart by AIDS, poverty, corruption and violence.

And that’s where the boat comes in. Smith plans to operate it as a ferry on Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world. It would carry 150 to 200 people between Port Bell in Uganda, Kisumu in Kenya and Mwanza in Tanzania.

Smith, who created the Agathos foundation in 2002 to feed and house orphans and widows, says the ferry operation is “unabashedly for profit” as is his Thain Boat Works, which is building the vessel.

A for-profit operation, he said, is a better mindset than at a nonprofit where “the workers know that if production doesn’t occur, the check gets written anyway.”

Smith believes his new ferry operation will succeed because people in the region need dependable transportation. Now, the area has only poor roads and rafts.

“We are restoring something that was once vibrant,” Smith said. “But corruption and the breakdown of infrastructure is so typical of African regimes. We will restore a corridor of the economy that has died.”

The ferry will offer a seven-hour trip on the water to replace what are now one- to three-day drives. Smith said the operation should provide about 40 jobs.

It should also support local farmers, who will grow crops that will be the basic source of the biofuel needed to run the ferry, said Julia Youngs, an attorney who is involved in the ferry project. The plan is to have villagers raise a crop called jatropha, a poisonous hedge that makes good biofuel, is easy to grow, can be sown between other crops, and does well in marginal soil without destroying the land, she said.

The ferry, which is nearly done, will be shipped to Africa either later this month or in August. Workers from Thain will travel to the area to reassemble the parts and to install the plumbing and electrical systems, said Bob Zwiebel, shop foreman. He said work on the vessel began in October.

Smith noted that the boat was designed to use simple materials.

“The whole thing is made from material that they can get in Africa so that it can be repaired in Africa,” he said.

Zwiebel also noted the boat was designed so that the engines won’t work if it is overloaded.

“Safety is a big issue,” Smith said, noting that a number of years ago 1,400 people died on an overloaded ferry on the lake because there wasn’t enough ballast and the top-heavy boat capsized.

Smith said he hopes the ferry, which will be operated in a partnership by Earthwise Ventures of Seattle, will be the first of many.

His Thain Boat Works employs 12 to 15 people, and he hopes to keep them busy making a number of the ferries for Victoria and for other lakes. Smith said the designer, Kurt Hughes of Sailing Designs in Seattle, set things up so the company could ship a boat anywhere in the world.

“We call it a ferry in a box,” Smith said.

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