Full steam ahead for Whidbey shipyard

FREELAND — The Nichols Brothers Boat Builders shipyard buzzes with work these days.

A new Washington state ferry superstructure — what will become the Samish — is being built in one part of the shipyard while a smaller ferry for Wahkiakum County and one tugboat and a landing craft are under construction in other areas.

Repair work is also under way on a couple of different fishing vessels.

“We’re at a full load right now,” said Matt Nichols, chief executive officer of Nichols Brothers. “Things are going well.”

A busy shipyard is a good sign for Nichols, 66, who since 1972 has helped to lead south Whidbey’s largest private employer and one of the only privately owned shipbuilders in the state.

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, located on 12 acres at 5400 S. Cameron Road, specializes in steel-and-aluminum vessel construction and repair. The company was founded in Hood River, Ore., in 1939 under the name Nichols Boat Works by Matt Nichols’ father and grandfather, Frank and Mark Nichols.

It was Frank Nichols who brought the business and his family to Freeland in February 1964 and ran it for the next eight years. Matt Nichols and his younger brother, Archie, bought the family business from their father in 1972 and renamed it Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Matt Nichols became the company’s president.

“From there, we just kept buying land and expanding,” he said. “We went from 10 employees to 250 right now. I don’t think there is anything we haven’t built, from tug boats to passenger ferries, fishing vessels, fire boats, research vessels and high-speed military vessels.”

The company throughout the past 49 years has formed a strong relationship with its surrounding community, Nichols said. That history includes a time in 1978 when a customer couldn’t pay for a fishing vessel and the shipyard was dangerously close to having to shut down. The community raised $600,000 to help finish construction of the ship and kept the shipyard open. Nichols Brothers Boat Builders paid back the money fully with interest, Nichols said.

“That was a tremendous showing of the community,” he said. “Everybody put up money. It was a tough time but a touching time and light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be very bright.”

The company’s story also includes other difficult times. In November 2007, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders filed for bankruptcy protection. The company survived when the investment group, Drum Capital Management based in Stamford, Conn., bought it in early 2008. Matt Nichols in January 2012 was appointed chief executive officer of the company.

“I knew how to run a boatyard,” Matt Nichols said. “I was a little bit nervous but it was like getting back on a bicycle. It was easy and has gone well ever since.”

Business is stable and as a result, the company has a backlog of projects that is almost booked up to the end of 2014, Nichols added.

The Washington State Ferry superstructure under construction is part of the new Olympic class ferry and is set to be delivered in early 2014 to Vigor Industrial in Seattle for final assembly.

The shipyard contract for construction of the ferry split between Nichols Brothers Boat Builders and Vigor Industrial is $112.1 million and the total cost of the vessel is $126.4 million, according to Washington State Ferries. The two Washington State ferries are the fourth and fifth ferries that Nichols Brothers Boat Builders has worked on with Vigor Industrial.

Work on the superstructure is on schedule, said Chris Richards, project manager. The ferry is designed to carry 144 cars and up to 1,500 passengers. It’s the fourth ferry Richards has worked on during his 33 years with Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. He was also project manager during construction of the superstructure for the state’s first new Olympic class ferry, the Tokitae, delivered in March to Vigor Industrial for final assembly. Richards, 54, also worked on two ferries that service the Port Townsend to Coupeville run.

“It’s nice to build something that actually services Whidbey Island,” he said. “It is kind of fun to brag a little and say we helped build this when riding with family and friends.”

The Nichols Brothers Boat Builders portfolio contains more than ferries and tugboats. It also includes 50 high-speed catamarans and the Empress of the North, a 360-foot sternwheeler designed to cruise both the Columbia River and the Inside Passage between Seattle and Juneau, Alaska. The most advanced vessel Nichols Brothers Boat Builders has constructed is the U.S. Navy’s X-Craft, launched in 2005.

While the company’s portfolio continues to grow, Matt Nichols said he’s most proud of his employees.

“I’m pretty protective of our employees and the quality of the workmanship that they put out,” he said. “In a business like this you have to have a good price, a good delivery schedule and quality. I never have to tell (customers) about quality.”

For more information about Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, g go to www.nicholsboats.com.

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