Matt Nichols, vice president of sales at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, stands above the National Geographic Venture docked at the company’s private outfitting pier in Langley. The 240-foot cruise ship is the newest custom vessel built at the main Freeland shipyard. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Matt Nichols, vice president of sales at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, stands above the National Geographic Venture docked at the company’s private outfitting pier in Langley. The 240-foot cruise ship is the newest custom vessel built at the main Freeland shipyard. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

This small-town shipyard can build and float your big boat

Nichols Brothers on Whidbey Island can turn a “pile of steel” into a tug, a ferry or a cruise ship.

FREELAND — For nearly two months, the docked cruise ship was the curiosity of Langley.

Locals and Whidbey Island tourists stopped to gaze at the 240-foot floating fantasy with panoramic windows, step-out balconies and inflatable excursion boats on top.

They squinted for a better look at the vessel emblazoned with “National Geographic Venture” in bright yellow letters as dozens of workers scurried around the private outfitting pier.

The Venture was joined at the dock for a time by the Finest, a 125-foot catamaran, which was painted with a bold, orange Kitsap Transit Fast Ferries logo and swirly blue waves.

Both are new creations from the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders shipyard in nearby Freeland, which employs 350 workers on an inlet of Holmes Harbor. They came the 10 miles by tug to the Langley harbor for testing on open water. Sort of like having a kid swim across the pool after six weeks of lessons. It’s the last — and critical — phase before ships set off for a life at sea.

Now, both vessels are gone.

The Venture, made for Lindblad Expeditions adventure cruises, is off to Baja California and Alaska, far from its humble beginnings in a Whidbey Island town.

The Finest recently started ferrying hundreds of commuters between Kingston and downtown Seattle.

Without the ships, the 300-foot Langley pier blends into the horizon of cold gray water.

But not for long.

Workers at Nichols Brothers are busy making showy new boats at the 17-acre shipbuilding compound in Freeland.

Obscured in a residential area off the main drag, a mound of steel is melded into a multimillion-dollar ship.

“We’re a miniature Boeing of marine world construction,” said Matt Nichols, vice president of sales at Nichols Brothers.

His dad, Frank, started the shipyard in Freeland in 1964, striking out on his own from the boat company in Hood River, Oregon, that was founded by his grandfather in the 1930s.

Surrounded by photos, vice president of sales Matt Nichols describes some of the many ships built at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, which was started by his father in 1964. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Surrounded by photos, vice president of sales Matt Nichols describes some of the many ships built at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, which was started by his father in 1964. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Matt Nichols, now 71, was 17 when the family moved from Oregon to build small work boats on Whidbey Island.

“We had no money. My mother’s brother had this old machine shop there that was shut down. There was deep water,” he said.

“I’m one of 11 children, so Dad taught us all how to build boats. Seven boys and four girls.” He took over the company in 1972 and is the only sibling still involved.

The Freeland company has built 189 new ships from the keel to the top of the mast.

That doesn’t include several thousand vessels undergoing major repairs and conversions, such as the six-month, $5.5 million makeover of the 1996-built Finest, or the many component projects, including work for the fleet of Washington State Ferries.

The Venture — Nichols Brothers boat number 189 — took about 14 months and the skills of dozens.

Number 190, a tug for a Canadian company, is expected to be at the Langley pier in early 2019, with more ships to follow.

In the space between the ceiling and floor, Liliana Beltran crawls through tight spots while wiring a pilothouse at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

In the space between the ceiling and floor, Liliana Beltran crawls through tight spots while wiring a pilothouse at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Each ship has challenges and rewards.

“It’s like raising a teenager,” he said.

In the end: “It’s like getting rid of one of your kids.”

Nichols and his wife, Cassie, have five children of their own, plus four more they fostered. One son works at the company which, despite the name, is no longer family-owned.

It is managed by CEO Gavin Higgins. An out-of-state investment group bought the non-union shipyard for $9.2 million in a bidding auction in 2008 after Nichols Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to a lawsuit and other factors.

The new company, Ice Floe LLC, kept the Nichols name for business purposes and its then-CEO namesake.

“I said, ‘You want me?’ They said, ‘Hell, yes. What are we going to do? We don’t know anything about boats,’” Nichols said.

Turning a spool that looks like an old ship’s wheel, electrician Levi Egerton measures out cable for lighting in a tug pilothouse at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Turning a spool that looks like an old ship’s wheel, electrician Levi Egerton measures out cable for lighting in a tug pilothouse at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The shipyard

“It all starts with a pile of steel,” Nichols said.

The Venture has 50 luxury cabins, viewing decks and a dining hall. No casino, pool or other cruise ship trappings were needed in a hull made for exploring shallow coves and fast channels.

It is the sister ship to the Quest, completed by Nichols Brothers in 2017. Two previous vessels for Lindblad, the 30-cabin Sea Bird in 1981 and the matching Sea Lion in 1982, are still sailing strong.

The shipyard recently won a contract to make at least two ferries for Kitsap Transit in 2019. These will be new, unlike the Finest, which was a rust bucket when Nichols Brothers got it. The ferry was part of the fleet that helped rescue people after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, hence the name — in honor of New York’s finest.

Nichols Brothers also scored a contract to build four new 90-ton tractor tugs for Foss Maritime of Seattle.

Sparks fly as shipfitter Duane Hunt grinds and cuts to widen an opening for a ship’s stack at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Behind him is a ship bound for the San Francisco ferry system. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Sparks fly as shipfitter Duane Hunt grinds and cuts to widen an opening for a ship’s stack at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Behind him is a ship bound for the San Francisco ferry system. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Sparks fly in the welding shop among the work stations at the sprawling complex in Freeland. The yard encompasses a scattering of motley buildings and tool shops, under tent tops and out in the elements. Work is done by human hands, not robots.

It feels like the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. But this is no old-fashioned shipyard.

“We hardly have anyone who can run a torch anymore. That was an art,” Nichols said.

Over the years, Nichols Brothers expanded from fishing boats to research vessels, tourist boats, fire boats, barges, dinner boats and schooners.

In the portfolio: Seattle’s Royal Argosy, a 180-foot dinner boat that seats 800. The overnight paddlewheel boats Empress of the North and Queen of the West. River boats for Disney World. The assault ship Sea Fighter, known as the “X-Craft,” built for the U.S. Navy in 2005.

“You have to know what’s going on in the fishing industry, the tugboat industry, pleasure industry, the military,” Nichols said.

Framed photos covering the walls of his office show the diversity of vessels made by the company. Most of his time is not spent behind a desk. He’s out in the yard, where he knows most of the workers by name. Or he’s away scouting for the next deal.

“We don’t mind stepping out of the box and building something new, take a chance, take a challenge,” he said. “Like the catamarans. They laughed at us. They said, ‘What kind of goofy idea do you have now, Nichols?’”

He’s had plenty.

The White Stallion

A ceremonial christening for good luck is typically done for a boat.

In this case, it was a crane being christened.

The lattice boom Link-Belt crawler crane, with a reach of 190 feet and 250-ton capacity, was dubbed “White Stallion” by its operator.

Nichols Brothers received $1.3 million from the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Small Shipyard Grant Program that paid 75 percent of the crane’s cost. The grants are for small yards to boost efficiency and competitiveness.

This bad boy takes the place of a 40-year-old crane that lifts a mere 150 tons.

On a rainy November afternoon, the crane got whacked by a bottle of imitation bubbly, prompting cheers from workers in hardhats and Carhartts huddled on the wet pavement after a free lunch and a rousing talk by Nichols.

The special bottle was rigged to ensure that first swing at the “White Stallion” was a smashing hit.

Geri Downey, a 55-year-old ground cleanup worker with “Mama” on her yellow hardhat, did the honors.

She not only broke the glass, she cleaned up the shards.

Geri Downey christens a new crane, a 250-ton lattice boom crawler nicknamed the “White Stallion,” in the shipyard at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Geri Downey christens a new crane, a 250-ton lattice boom crawler nicknamed the “White Stallion,” in the shipyard at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

She began working at Nichols Brothers five years ago, leaving a job as a veterinarian tech. Her husband, Mike, has worked at the company for 40 years and is a manager.

“They are the mom and pop of the crew,” Nichols said. “These are the kind of people, when I go out in the yard, I get hugs from and I give them hugs … It looks a little bit weird for old tough construction guys with beards and chewing tobacco to give a little guy like me a hug.”

Nichols said there are three generations of families working at the shipyard.

The goal is to get the male-dominated workforce to at least 15 percent women, Nichols said. “That means across the board: crane operators, welders, fitters, electricians, plumbers. The whole gamut.”

Kelsey Taylor, 28, started as an apprentice painter three years ago.

“It’s pretty empowering,” she said. “Fun, too, which a lot of people wouldn’t expect. I like sandblasting, which is pretty intense. We paint and prep all the bare steel. We make sure nothing rusts out and gets insulated.”

It is hard work. Wet and cold, yet satisfying.

“I feel like I am actually doing something,” she said. “I like being a part of something that’s bigger than us.”

Shipfitter Wes Helseth installs windows into the pilothouse for a 100-foot tug at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. Another pilothouse sits in the shipyard at right. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Shipfitter Wes Helseth installs windows into the pilothouse for a 100-foot tug at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. Another pilothouse sits in the shipyard at right. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The Nichols name

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is no relation to Nichols Bros. Stoneworks, the Snohomish manufacturer of garden ornaments and pots. Nor is it kin to Nickel Brothers Industrial, a Marysville company that moves houses and other large structures on land and sea.

The weathered green facade of the homestead where Matt Nichols and his family moved in 1964 stands as a reminder of how far the company has come.

Cranes and ships jut high above the wooden fences surrounding the plant in a residential area down the street from Freeland Park.

From two-lane East Shoreview Drive, you can see the “big tops” of the shipyard, the tent-like shelters where unpainted ships are transformed into gleaming vessels.

“It’s a good neighbor,” said Lowell Discher, a retired truck driver who lives across the street.

He might be a tad biased. His wife and Matt Nichols are first cousins.

“It’s kinda cool living here, watching millions of dollars of stuff go into the water,” Discher said. “It gets a little noisy. It’s cool to see the keel being laid. A year or so later there’s a boat sitting on top of it. The last one was gorgeous.”

Two employees are dwarfed by a barge as they attempt to haul a cable out to it in the bay at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Two employees are dwarfed by a barge as they attempt to haul a cable out to it in the bay at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The trip from land to sea is as simple — and as complex — as crossing East Shoreview Drive, which closes to traffic at the junction for each launch. The tide has to be just right when a finished ship inches down rails from the yard to the beach of Holmes Harbor, where it is then tugged to the Langley harbor to prove itself seaworthy.

“Just think how they move the Space Shuttle to the launching pad. That’s what we do,” Nichols said.

The four Foss tractor tugs under contract will be Nichols ship numbers 191, 192, 193 and 194. The new Kitsap Transit ferries will be 195 and 196. “And 197, if we get the third one,” he said.

If not, another pile of steel will surely take that number.

“I love the challenge to sell the next project,” Nichols said. “It’s like me winning the World Series on a grand slam home run.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown

Correction: An earlier version misstated Matt Nichols’ title. He is the vice president of sales at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. The company is managed by CEO Gavin Higgins.

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