By John Gille, December 20, 2012, The News Tribune
For the first time since World War II, a boatbuilding company is constructing Navy warships in a 96-year-old shipyard at the mouth of the Hylebos Waterway.
Bremerton’s SAFE Boats International is creating a new class of Navy patrol boats in what was once a huge World War II shipyard that at its peak employed about 33,000 workers. Among its products were dozens of small escort aircraft carriers for the Navy.
SAFE Boats’ presence will be decidedly more modest. The company, which moved into the vacant shipyard buildings in August, now employs 60 workers in Tacoma, 20 in its offices and 40 building boats in buildings on the shipyard site.
By spring, said Mark Talbert, the company’s senior vice president of large boat operations, that employment total will reach 75.
SAFE Boats is building its largest aluminum boats ever in Tacoma, five 78-foot Mark 6 patrol boats. Those boats will be used to interdict shipping and check on suspicious activity in the shallow waters near the coast of war zones. The boats are small enough to be carried to the vicinity of the combat aboard Navy or civilian ships.
SAFE Boats’ claim to fame was its construction of hundreds of 25-foot aluminum patrol craft for the Coast Guard. Those boats, deployed in most major ports in the nation, are recognizable by their foam-filled collars surrounding the boats.
The company’s initial $30 million contract calls for its to deliver five of the patrol boats to the Navy over the next three years. The Navy has an option for a sixth boat.
SAFE Boats spokesman Bryan McConaughy said the long-term outlook is for the construction of as many as 40 of the boats if the Navy gets funding.
SAFE Boats is building the larger boats at the Tacoma shipyard because its Bremerton manufacturing site is about two miles from the Sound. Moving large vessels over land to the water created traffic issues and cost the company $10,000 to $15,000 a move, said McConaughy.
At the company’s new Tacoma site, a large boat lift can easily transport the vessels a few hundred feet to a sloping ramp that ends in the water. That ramp and others adjacent to it were once construction and launching ways for large ships.
In addition to the Mark 6 patrol boats, SAFE Boats has already brought two somewhat smaller craft to the Tacoma shipyard. One is a 49-foot Riverine Command Boat, one of six the company built for the Navy. The first of those boats is in the Tacoma shipyard for updating and modifications after five years of testing and training with the Navy. The other members of that class of boats could also be returned to SAFE Boats for a similar update, if the company wins the contract to do so.
Also looming above workers in the shipyard is the 65-foot Coastal Command Boat, a one-off boat the company is building for the Navy. The company built the basic hull and superstructure in Bremerton and towed it to Tacoma for completion.
Talbert said the company looked at a handful of other sites before settling on Tacoma.
The sturdy old shipyard buildings, and the proximity of other boat building and ship repair businesses were a plus for the company.
Citadel Yachts is next door. Citadel builds large steel yachts for wealthy clients, and Trident Seafoods has its ship repair yard nearby on the Hylebos Waterway.
Talbert said the Tacoma site is near many of its suppliers in Tacoma and Seattle, and it sometimes hires other maritime contractors nearby to do work on its projects.
SAFE Boats has refaced the decades-old shipyard buildings, installed new doors, and equipped the buildings with heating and enhanced lighting.
The shipyard said it is planning a job fair next month to recruit an additional 15 skilled workers. Details will be announced on the company’s website, www.safeboats.com.