Bayou La Batre: the boatbuilding town that keeps reinventing itself

New towboats built for J. Russel Flowers, shown above, are slowly moved towards launching at B&B Boat Builders in Bayou La Batre.

If you have heard of Bayou La Batre, it may be because it was featured in the movie Forrest Gump when the lead character had the only shrimp trawler in this Alabama coastal town after a storm and he made huge amounts of money.

Located about 20 miles southwest of Mobile, at least a dozen shipyards and several fish processing plants dot the canal banks of this town of about 2,100 people.

Starting in the 1970s through the early part of the 1990s, Bayou La Batre was the shrimp-trawler-building capital of the world, often turning out more than a trawler a day from a dozen shipyards. During the latter part of the 1990s and the early part of this decade, the business of building trawlers almost stopped in its tracks because of several economic reasons including overbuilding, cost of fuel, scarcity of boat financing and plummeting shrimp prices.

Some of the local builders turned to building offshore workboats with great success, while others divided up what fishing boat business was left. For example, Master Boat Builders built scores of fishing vessels until 2002 but only four since that time. Since 2002, over 50 OSVs have come out of that same yard and almost no other vessel type has.

During the transformation away from shrimp trawlers, many types of commercial vessels emerged from the boatyards of Bayou La Batre including ships used in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It was a combination of the skills of the boatbuilders of Steiner Shipyard and of the Walt Disney Company’s magicians that made realistic-looking period warships from small self-contained utility vessels.

In 2005, however, building of all commercial vessels abruptly stopped as the town was literally wiped from existence by Hurricane Katrina.

B&B is a former shrimp boatbuilder now turning out 70-foot towboats like an automotive assembly line. Owner Buddy Johnson built his first fishing boat in 1999.

The town eventually recovered more than 100 boats of all types that had been blown into trees and into the marsh across the bayou, and also set about rebuilding smashed and flooded boatbuilding facilities.

Most of the yards were rebuilt, and today the boatbuilding yards of Bayou La Batre are going through yet another transformation: the building of tugs and towboats.

While firms like Master Boat Builders still rely on OSV construction, many others are building towboats in record numbers.

Approximately 40 such vessels are now under construction at six to eight boatyards. All but one of those yards used to build fishing boats almost exclusively.

“We build what the market wants and right now that is towboats,” said Joe Rodriguez owner of Rodriguez Boat Builders whose shipyard has built fishing vessels, lift boats, passenger boats and a wide variety of other vessels, but now concentrates on tugs and towboats.

“I’ve been in Bayou La Batre boatbuilding for 31 years. Matter of fact my first boat was a tug and over the past 10 years I have built them regularly, but there is certainly a surge in building them all over town now,” Rodriguez said.

No boat yard better exemplifies the several transformations that Bayou La Batre builders have gone through than Steiner Shipyard. Once the undisputed king of shrimp trawler construction — including more than 175 for a single customer, Sahlman Seafoods — Russell Steiner, president of the business, said he knew he had to diversify and to do so quickly when the trawler-building business suddenly died.

“We ramped up our 24-hour quick-repair facility for all kinds of ships … crew boats, utility boats and shrimp trawlers. Vessels come to our facility, are pulled from the water by our marine travel lift, have the necessary repairs done and can be back at work sometimes within hours,” said Steiner.

“No one was offering this service in the Alabama part of the Gulf, so we found that it could be very helpful for boat operators and it filled the void from trawler construction,” he added.
Steiner and his crew looked around for other business as well, including passenger vessels and oil field vessels. Their marketing efforts resulted in contracts for six large State of North Carolina auto/passenger ferries.

Today Steiner has contracts for five towboats, including four for one company. Their construction sits alongside of yet another ferry for North Carolina.

Four of the towboats being built at Steiner are for Southern Towing, a Tennessee-based inland tank barge operator specializing in the transportation of bulk liquid fertilizer products throughout the Mississippi River System and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The company presently operates 18 towboats.

These vessels are 120 feet long with azimuthing z-drive propulsion — a rarity for inland towboats. Power is from a pair of Cummins QSK50 engines rated at 1,600 hp each. The engines are connected to HRP model 6111WM z-drives. A pair of Cummins 170-kw gensets are also onboard for power. Tankage includes 69,500 gallons of diesel fuel.

Two of the Southern Towing towboats are scheduled for delivery later this year, with two others to follow in 2009. Mixed in with this construction is a 76-foot towboat for IMMC, a Louisiana boat operating company owned by the Cheramie family, with a 2008 delivery date.

B&B Boat Builders used to be one of the most prolific builders of shrimp trawlers in Bayou La Batre. The yard in those days resembled an automobile-assembly plant with both single- and double-screw trawlers 70 to 95 feet long moving progressively toward the water for launching. Owner Buddy Johnson began building fishing boats in 1999 and built a dozen that year. Starting in 2000 up through 2001, 45 trawlers were built, but only about half that number were coming out in 2002.

Then the real slowdown started with only four delivered in 2003. The yard built no boats until the end of 2006 when the first of a series of towboats was built for J. Russell Flowers Inc. of Greenville, Miss. These vessels are leased to MEMCO Barge Line, a division of American Electric Power.

Now the B&B yard once again represents an assembly line of sorts with the hulls the first to be constructed, then the house and pilothouse added, and finishing continues as the boats move steadily towards the water stern first. Seven of these towboats have been built and the contract calls for an option for six more. The vessels are 70 feet long with twin Caterpillar 3308s rated at 775 hp each.

When it comes to building towboats today in Bayou La Batre, no one does more of it than Raymond & Associates. The yard used to be called LaForce Shipyard. It is still owned by Raymond LaForce.

Like several other yards, it was established in the 1970s to build fishing boats and did so until 2003 when the boom went bust.

Since that time they have built offshore vessels and other workboats, but in the last three years the towboat has taken over the order book.

The land on Shell Belt Road opposite the shipyard used to be an open field. Now it is full of towboat superstructures waiting to be attached to towboat hulls.

There have already been towboats built this year at the Raymond yard for Eckstein Marine, Cenac Towing and Golding Barge Line. In the last four months of 2007, Raymond & Associates delivered three vessels to Eckstein Marine, one to LeBeouf Bros. Towing and one to Kirby Marine. The order book is full for at least the next year or so, with 13 additional vessels for Kirby.

Of all the shipyards in Bayou La Batre, the most atypical might be Horizon Shipbuilding. It does not have a long history of building shrimp boats. Its first boat was launched in 2001 and that was a crew boat intended for work on the Nigerian coast. A series of small U.S. Navy boats and other vessels followed. But 2008 is the yard’s big year. Right now it is scheduled to deliver a pair of 175-foot crew boats to Fymak Marine (Nigeria) and five 140-foot towboats to Florida Marine Transporters of Mandeville, La.

As noted earlier Joe Rodriguez has seen it all happen in Bayou La Batre over the years. And true to form, the beat continues for his shipyards. “We have a bit going on,” said Rodriguez in classic understatement. Rodriguez Boat Builders have just recently delivered the 2,400-hp 80-foot push boat Frank Banta to Chem Carriers of Sunshine, La. Also just delivered was a 75-foot push boat, Miss Caroline to DRD Towing of Louisiana.

Under construction is a 70-footer for Chem Carriers and two 66-foot lugger tugs for Tim Cenac of Louisiana. “We have built this design for Tim before,” said Rodriguez, noting the lugger design where the superstructure is located at the aft end of the hull.

There is every expectation that the building boom will continue for all the yards in Bayou La Batre, he added. “We see a lot of future work although this business is known for its up and down cycles,” he said.

Rodriguez recently opened a second yard in Bayou La Batre where they have under construction a pair of lift boats for Montco Offshore with 230-foot legs. Again Rodriguez sees more offshore work for this busy yard.

That’s quite a bit of work for a builder who faced the shrimp boat downturn and Hurricane Katrina, all within a few years of each other.

Rodriguez’s mention of the ups and downs of boatbuilding certainly does apply to the building of tugs and towboats. At this building pace, overbuilding is certainly a possibility. There are already rumbles to this effect in the industry. Economic problems, natural disasters and changes within the towboat industry could also be part of the future. Such transitions are hard to predict. But all the shipbuilders in this old-school Alabama town are confident that there is no more resilient boatbuilding community than Bayou La Batre.    •

By Professional Mariner Staff