MARYSVILLE — The Hansen Boat Co. shipyard is busy. Workers are cutting, welding, painting and bolting parts on boats made to endure the harsh storms that can blow off Alaska in winter.
A collection of workshops with corrugated metal siding, the shipyard lies at the end of a rutted, twisting dirt road on North Spencer Island, in the Snohomish River estuary. Projects include a fishing boat, in drydock, and the Gretchen Dunlap, an unfinished tugboat moored in Steamboat Slough.
White plastic sheets are strung over the deck of the F/V Odin in drydock to keep rain off the workers. It is cold in December at the shipyard.
Beneath the plastic tent, Rick Hansen is crouched on his knees, bolting in thick plastic plates along the stern rail — the low wall around the edge of the deck.
It’s the fourth or fifth modification to the rail since the Odin was built at the shipyard in 1991. Hansen rattles off every tweak without a second thought.
“We have a very small, very loyal clientele,” said Hansen, who owns the company with his cousin, Gary Hansen.
The 101-foot tugboat, the Gretchen Dunlap, is the first boat built at the shipyard in five years. Hansen Boat expects to hand over the roughly $12 million boat to Dunlap Towing in late February. The company also has ordered two oceangoing tugs.
Beside building ships, the Hansen Boat Co. is plenty busy repairing, overhauling and modifying existing vessels.
While Hansen Boat has enough work lined up to stay busy another five years, the shipyard’s future is uncertain.
The Hansen cousins are third-generation owners. Their grandfather, Harold Hansen, started the company in 1927 in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Many of the wooden fishing boats built by Hansen back then are still fishing in the Bering Sea and the Pacific. Rick Hansen, 62, helped build many of those boats.
“I was getting paid when I was probably 8 or 9, a buck an hour,” he said. “I once spent a whole day sweeping up wood shavings from the planer.”
The company moved to Everett in the early 1970s when it started making steel-hulled ships. When interest rates soared in the 1980s, work at the shipyard slowed.
“We were looking at the walls with nothing to do,” he said. “You remember that.”
Now, the shipyard has to turn down work.
Hansen said they’d rather do that than hire more people. The company has 30 workers now.
“In order for us to grow, we would have to be in the office all day,” he said.
“This type of stuff is my therapy,” he said, pointing at the Odin’s rail.
Growth is not necessarily a measure of success; look at Haggen, he said. “I’m 5-11, I don’t need to grow anymore.”
That attitude shows in their boats, said Mark Severson, the Odin’s owner.
Fishing the North Pacific, “I’d seen some of the wooden boats they’d built 60 years ago. They were beautiful,” he said.
At the time, he was using a fiberglass-hulled boat, and decided he wanted steel.
Hansen’s steel boats seemed to handle rough weather as well as any boat, he said.
So, he ordered the F/V Odin. The ship’s homeport is Petersburg, Alaska, but it is at sea fishing for about seven months a year.
“She rides like a seagull,” gracefully going up and down with the swells, but never rolling, he said.
While fishing for halibut about 20 years ago, the boat was hit by a 50-foot rogue wave. He heard it coming before he saw it. And when he did, it towered over the Odin, he said.
“Everything got really dark,” Severson said.
“It came right over the whole damn boat,” he said.
The Odin got nicked and knocked, but it “shed the water and came through,” he said. “After that, it was just tiny 30-footers back to Seward (Alaska).”
Hansen boats “are not cheap, but you get what you pay for,” he said.
Rick Hansen said he doesn’t know if the shipyard will be around in 10 or 20 years.
No one from the family’s next generation has the same passion for the work as he and his cousin have, he said.
“I don’t know what happens next,” he said on the Odin’s deck. “But we’re here now.”