Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nichols Brothers Celebrates 50 Years

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

The first boat produced by the Nichols family was a tugboat.

George "Mark" Nichols was an orchardist in Yakima, Washington in the 1930s. His 10-acre apple farm failed during the great depression, and in 1939 he moved his family South to the city of Hood River, Oregon, on the Columbia River, to build a tugboat with his brother, Luke.

Welding was one of many skills one acquired as a farmer, and Mark put that talent to good use, as he and his son Frank built the first Nichols Boatworks tugboat, the M/V Whale. That first boat established the commercial viability of a boatbuilding venture, and the brothers opened their Nichols Boat Works for business. There isn't much information on the Whale, but it was steel.

"Only steel," Current Nichols Bros. president Matt Nichols says. "Steel and later aluminum, of course. We never built fiberglass or wood boats."

From 1939 to 1964, The Nichols Boat Works built a series of steel tugs and fishing boats for the busy Columbia River. The brothers built tugboats for companies such as Shaver Transportation, Joe Bernert Towing Co., Brix Maritime, Brusco Tug and Barge, Smith Towing and Hendren Towboat Co.

The yard also produced steel fishing boats, a couple of pleasure craft and some passenger vessels, as well as several ferries including the ferry Wahkiakum, for Wahkiakum County, which runs between Cathlamet, Washington and Westport, Oregon.

In 1962, Mark's son, Frank Wilson Nichols, who had grown up building boats with his father and uncle, brought his wife and eleven children to Seattle to start his own business. He built his first boat, a steel fishing boat named Jenel, in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. The 42-foot by 16.5-foot F/V Jenel, built for fisherman Jack Downing, was powered by a GM 6-71 diesel. Frank's son, Matt, was hired as a deckhand on the new boat, and fished in Alaska for four summers while he was in high school. On delivery of the Jenel in 1964, Frank Nichols bought a machine shop on a piece of land on Holmes Harbor, in Freeland Washington on Whidbey Island.

"We all lived in that little shack for a while," Matt says. The company has always placed a value on its history and modest beginnings. For years, even after the yard had established itself as one of the top shipyards in the country, the old machine shop was a part of the operation. When the building was finally demolished in 1992 to make way for expansion of the yard, the front wall was kept and incorporated into the fence that surrounds the 14-acre facility.

The yard is actually separated from the water by a two-lane country road, Shoreview drive, which the yard's boats have to cross to reach the gently sloping launch site on the other side. After ten years of launching boats by rolling them down the gently sloping beach on specially-built cradles, Frank developed a hydraulically driven heavy mover, with crawler tracks, allowing the vessels to be driven into the bay, where they would float out of the cradles as the tide came in. The system allowed for the construction and launch of larger vessels, and worked so well that in 1991 it was updated to carry 2,500 tons.

In 1972, Frank's sons, Matt and his brother, Archie, took over the family business, along with brothers Mike, Nate, Luke, and Willie, with all the brothers working in the yard. Matt and Archie ran the business together until 1996, when Archie left to pursue other interests, and Matt bought out Archie's share in the company. One of their brothers, Luke, still runs the yard's machine shop, and Archie still consults on the occasional project.

"People are very important at Nichols," Matt Nichols says. "Our reputation doesn't come just from the quality of the vessels we build, but the people who build them." Nichols currently employs 252 shipyard craftsmen, which is considered full employment for the yard, although Matt Nichols notes that some projects have required hiring extra workers. "We were at about 375 crew at one point when we were building the Empress of the North and the X-Craft," he says, noting that the crew is trained in the trades with private classroom instruction every Tuesday and Thursday night. The company pays all the training costs, and is so successful that many other companies try to hire the highly trained Nichols employees away.

The training is certified by the State of Washington to rigorous standards, and the skilled aluminum craftsmen participate in continuing education classes to perfect their trades. Long-time Nichols craftsmen earn overtime to train the new employees. Currently, all of his employees live on Whidbey Island.

Matt Nichols' sons make up the latest generation of Nichols boatbuilders. Bryan Nichols, who managed sales for Nichols Bros for many years, now serves as Director of Sales at Vigor Fab. Justin Nichols, who earned a degree in industrial engineering, built boats on his own before hiring on at Nichols Bros. as production manager. Younger brother, George Nichols, works at the yard as a draftsman with 10 years of experience.

"It was awesome growing up with the yard," Bryan Nichols says. "As kids we spent a lot of time painting cranes, sweeping the yard – we had a lot of work." He says along the way they learned a lot about boats. "You end up learning so much about equipment, about machinery, and you don't even realize what you're learning at the time."

Bryan enjoyed meeting the customers and watching his father, Matt, sell boatbuilding and repair projects. "I learned negotiation and sales tactics from the master," he jokes.

He and his older brother, Justin, worked under multiple people at the yard each summer. "In the winter I would work a few hours after school, cleaning up the machine shop or something, and in the summer I was always working in the yard as an apprentice to someone," he says.

"In college I started working nights with my dad helping with estimates and proposals, and I would go to school during the day. Pretty soon it developed that I was working for him during the day and going to school at night."

Bryan says he's fortunate to love what he does. "Being able to stay in the industry has been a real treat," he says. "People get into this industry accidentally and kind of fall in love with it."

The fishing boats built by Nichols Bros. have included gillnetters, seiners, trawlers and crabbers, while the tugboats produced by the yard have run from standard line-haul boats to shallow-draft vessels for service in shallow Alaskan rivers, articulated tug and barge units, and modern tractor tugs for ship assist and escort work.

"Nichols is a great bunch of guys that work hard," says Gunnar Ildhuso, Jr., President of Ildhuso Fisheries and owner of the combination crab, pollock and whiting boat F/V Gun-Mar. "It seems like everybody on the Island works for them."

Ildhuso had the Gun-Mar built at Nichols Bros. in 1981. The 137-foot boat had 3,400 square feet of deck space and a hold capacity of 11,500 cubic feet. The 1,700-HP boat was capable of 12 knots, fully loaded.

In 1993, Ildhuso brought the boat back to Nichols for a two six-foot sponsons and a 40-foot mid-body extension. "Nichols had the mid-body built and ready for us when we finished the season," Ildhuso says. The modifications increased the deck size to 6,000 square feet and the hold capacity to 23,200 cubic feet, while maintaining a fully laden speed of 12 knots from the same 1,700 HP.

"We got the boat into the yard, and they did the work and it was ready in time for the next season," Ildhuso says. "I think it's a real well-run yard."

Matt Nichols says the yard performs quite a bit of maintenance and modification work. "A lot of our customers come back to the yard where the boat was built. We'd actually like to do more repair," he says. "With our yard at Freeland and our dock at Langley, we can do topside repairs and dockside work as well as haul-out projects."

One of the hallmarks of the company is diversity. Along with fishing boats and tugboats, Nichols Bros. has built a series of high-speed aluminum passenger vessels.

"We're operating three Nichols boats," says Greg Bombard, President of Long beach, California-based Catalina Express.

"We've got one newbuild – a great boat, the Jet Cat Express, and we've bought two other vessels through them," he says. "One that they had out on charter, and another one that came in as a trade-in."

Bombard worked closely with Nichols to develop vessels that would transport passengers in comfort across the channel to Catalina Island. The Nichols-built boats feature amenities like full ride control systems for stability, modern navigational systems, airline-style cabin seating, panoramic viewing windows, and on-deck seating.

"We've always worked well with Nichols Bros." Bombard says, "and those vessels have been great additions to our fleet."

Nichols Bros. has built paddlewheel riverboats, some military craft, a fireboat, research vessels, a pilot boat and patrol craft.

Nichols also builds great tour boats, according to Don Wicklund, the Port Captain for Seattle's Argosy Cruises. Argosy operates a fleet of nine tour boats around Seattle and Puget Sound, including several Nichols Bros.-built boats.

"We love Nichols," he says. Wicklund was a captain for Argosy in 1976 when the company was approached by Archie and Matt Nichols. "Nichols Bros. had an opening, and they wanted to keep the crew working," Wicklund says. "They offered us a great price, so we asked them to build us a boat like the Goodtime," he says. "They built the Goodtime II in two and a half months." The 250-passenger vessel has since seen continuous service along the Seattle waterfront. It was followed by several other Nichols boats, including the Goodtime III and Spirit of Alderbrook, and most recently the Royal Argosy, built in 1999 as a luxury dinner cruise boat. The 180-foot Royal Argosy was designed to evoke the era of the Seattle "mosquito fleet" of steamships that dotted Puget Sound at the end of the 19th century. The dinner cruise boat can accommodate up to 800 passengers, or seat 336 for a unique dining experience provided by professional chefs working in three full-service galley/kitchens.

"They're a great boatbuilder," Wicklund says, noting that the yard's attention to detail reduces maintenance costs and makes for a well-built boat.

"One of the things they do has to do with the skip welds," he says. A skip weld is an intermittent weld, used to reduce distortion in welded plate. "Where they skipped the weld, they caulk all the seams," he says. "That keeps water out and reduces or eliminates rusting in those seams."

Wicklund appreciates that the yard is close to Seattle, and the crew is easy to work with, but mostly, he says, "They take it to the next step – they do that 'one more thing' to make a boat that lasts many more years."

A recently completed Nichols boat is the 100-foot ship-assist tug M/V Delta Audrey, currently undergoing sea trials at the company's Langley facility before being delivered to San Francisco's Bay Delta Navigation. The boat is actually the sixth such vessel the company has had built by Nichols Bros., and Bay Delta's Operations Manager Peter Zwart, who has overseen construction of the whole series, is very happy with this latest boat.

"The boat looks great," he says. "I must say, this might be the best boat of the six."

Zwart says he's very happy to work with Nichols Bros. "This island has a bunch of excellent crafts people," he says. "For example, the welding is excellent – they do a really nice job, and they take pride in their work."

Zwart says he has built relationships and friendships with the crew at the yard, and that much of the quality comes from the management. "The price is fair – you get what you pay for. Matt Nichols is very approachable and easy to deal with," he says.

In 2007, Nichols Bros. was acquired by an investment firm and re-incorporated as Ice Floe, LLC. dba Nichols Bros. Boatbuilders. Matt Nichols remains the company's CEO, and in 2011 Gavin Higgins was appointed COO of Nichols Brothers, tasked with the oversight of the engineering, production, project management, purchasing and facilities departments.

Over the course of the yard's history, Nichols Bros. has reached many significant milestones. The construction of a high-speed aluminum catamaran for the US Navy's Office of Naval Research demonstrated the yard's technical expertise. Known as the X-Craft (Littoral Surface Craft-Experimental), the 262-foot by 72-foot Sea Fighter (FSF 1) is powered by a combined diesel or gas turbine (CODOG) engine configuration consisting of two MTU 595 diesel engines and two General Electric LM2500 gas turbines. The diesels can power the ship for long-range cruising, while the gas turbines allow the X-Craft to reach 55 knots in calm seas and more than 40 knots in sea state four. Ramps allow for roll-on/roll-off loading of equipment, and the flight deck can accommodate two helicopters.

Another unique vessel shows the other side of Nichols Bros. The 360-foot paddlewheel cruise boat Empress of the North showcases the high level of finish the yard puts into its vessels. The 235-passenger Empress was built in 2003, and is currently taking passengers on 3- to 7-day trips on the Columbia River. CEO Matt Nichols recently returned from a cruise on the elegant vessel.

"I'd forgotten what a nice boat she is," he says. "I was invited to speak about her at the beginning of the trip, and for the rest of the cruise people were complimenting me on the boat.

That sentiment is echoed by commercial customer Peter Zwart, of Bay Delta Navigation, who says he really likes the way the yard builds his boats. "We'll go with Nichols on the next boat, too," he says. That's a nice recommendation to kick off the next 50 years.