It’s mid-morning at Tacoma’s Vigor Marine shipyard on the Middle Waterway. At the top of the shipyard’s marine railway, the fishing trawler Pacific Ram sits high on blocks with its hull stripped to its steel skeleton and its bow removed.
The Trident Seafoods-owned boat is at Vigor to have its fish storage hold enlarged.
In the dry dock adjacent to the pier, an Army Reserve boat is in for a major overhaul and a barge is undergoing repairs.
It’s nearly a full house at Vigor with some 60 skilled crafts workers busy on the three projects.
The pace of business at Vigor is not unlike activity at a small handful of other Tacoma Tideflats shipyards these days. Those shipyards are seeing a revival of business after shipbuilding and repair, once a huge business in Tacoma, almost died out.
The scale of the business is much smaller than it was during shipbuilding was in its heyday, but the industry is remaking itself to fit with 21st century business conditions.
The peak of shipbuilding came on the Tideflats during World War II, when a big shipyard between the Blair and Hylebos waterways built dozens of escort aircraft carriers and freighters. About 33,000 men and women worked at the Todd-Pacific Shipyards Tacoma yard.
That yard had first been opened during World War I, but it sat vacant from 1925 until 1940 when wartime necessity hastened its rebirth.
The yard closed down in 1946. Since then, the shipyard with its ways slanting toward Commencement Bay has seen periodic revivals.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Tacoma Boatbuilding Co. built a series of large Navy surveillance ships, Coast Guard cutters and two toxic-waste incinerator ships at what had become the Port Industrial Yard. Tacoma Boat employed some 3,000 workers at its apogee.
The yard’s business collapsed after Tacoma Boat failed to win follow-on contracts for further large ships.
After Tacoma Boat left the former World War II shipyard, AKWA Shipyards began an extensive ship-repair business there. That business included for a brief time a refitting effort on the classic Matson ocean liner SS Monterey.
AKWA succumbed eventually to financial issues and environmental problems.
The former shipyard property with its proximity to the deep waters of Commencement Bay, its collection of large fabrication buildings, many of them dating from the Todd days, continues to attract ship-repair and shipbuilding activity. Two businesses have recently announced new plans to lease the port-owned shipyard facilities for shipbuilding and repair.
Already the nation’s largest fishing company, Trident Seafoods, uses the shipyard’s pier and some of its shops to maintain the complex machinery aboard its fleet of fishing and processing vessels.
The Seattle-based seafood company employs as many as 100 workers to repair and reprovision its fleet here, said John van Amerongen, a Trident spokesman.
The company maintains some 16 boats at its Tacoma base.
In another part of the large shipyard property, Citadel Yachts is beginning a new business. Citadel has built large steel and aluminum yachts at the shipyard for several years. Now it is expanding its business to include yacht repair and dry-land storage for large personal vessels.
Citadel has already improved one of the shipyard’s slanting ways to allow a large new boat lift to launch and retrieve yachts from the bay. Citadel Vice President Richard Liepelt said the yacht builder is offering boat owners one-stop service for both their vessels’ machinery and their equipment and furnishings.
Citadel employs more than a dozen workers at the yard now. When it is building large yachts, which range in size from 82 to 122 feet, that workforce increases to about 100, along with numerous subcontractors, said Liepelt.
The market for large yachts diminished during the recession, he said, but the business is showing signs of revival. The yard is working with several potential customers now on possible orders for custom yachts.
The former Todd shipyard’s newest tenant is Bremerton’s Safe Boats International, a firm that has developed a burgeoning business in building aluminum boats for police and fire departments, the Coast Guard and the Navy to provide waterfront security and terrorism detection and prevention.
The company’s newest contract is for five 78-foot Navy patrol boats. The boats are the largest the company has built, thus the necessity of a new location close to the water.
The company’s Bremerton assembly facility is several miles from the water. That’s not an issue when smaller vessels are involved, but the larger patrol boats can’t be easily transported far on land.
The company’s planned Tacoma facility, adjacent to Citadel’s, will allow the patrol boats to be launched without much difficulty, said a company spokesman.
Safe Boats is already advertising on its website for workers for that yard.
The Navy has an option to order a sixth patrol boat, and some defense analysts believe the Navy ultimately might order as many as four dozen of the swift patrol craft.
The boats could be used to interdict pirates off East Africa or to do battle with swarms of small boats in the confined waters of the Straits of Hormuz in the Middle East.
The company plans to hire about 50 workers to begin work. More could be employed if the Navy issues follow-on contracts.
Meanwhile at J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding on the Thea Foss Waterway, the shipyard is in the midst of building the first large fishing vessel built in years on Puget Sound.
The 184-foot Northern Leader is just beginning to take shape on Martinac’s ways. When construction activity accelerates, Martinac will employ about 100 workers building the $25 million ship.
When the fishing boat is completed next spring, the boat will be a showcase of technology powered by swiveling z-drives that will give the boat uncommon maneuverability and control.
The Northern Leader could be the first in a new class of fishing vessels for the Alaska fishing business.
Martinac is the sole survivor among a group of Tacoma shipyards that once specialized in fishing boat construction.
Those shipyards first built wooden vessels and then converted to steel. Martinac for years built big tuna seiners for the Southern California industry, but that business evaporated when tuna fishing shifted to Asia and the South Pacific. From 2001 through 2006, Martinac’s boatsheds stood silent.
The business came alive again six years ago when Martinac began building a series of tractor-style tugboats for private operators and the Navy. Martinac built a dozen tugs before it landed the fishing boat contract.
Martinac President Joe Martinac Jr. said he hopes the new fishing boat will prove impressive in sea trials and on the job creating more business for the yard. Meanwhile, he said, the company is pursuing more potential tugboat contracts.
At Vigor Marine, project engineer Mark Idzengza said business has been good at the former Marine Industries Northwest yard.
Vigor, now the Northwest’s largest shipbuilding and repair company, bought the yard two years ago.
Being part of a shipyard network that stretches from Portland to Ketchikan in Alaska allows Vigor to move work and workers around its network to meet the demands of the maritime industry, said Vigor Chief Executive Officer Frank Foti.
Idzenga said the local yard has called on workers from the company’s yards in Port Angeles and Seattle to meet the high demands of peak workloads.
The yard, for instance, brought in workers from those yards when it tackled a project lengthening a pair of supply boats for the Alaska trade.
Even so, Vigor imported shipyard workers from the South when it couldn’t find enough union workers here to handle all the work on those projects.
“There’s plenty of work,” he said. “The average age of our skilled workers is in their late 40s and 50s. It’s a good job. We need more younger people to learn the trade. There’s still a future in this business.”John Gillie: 253-597-8663