Gulf Coast working off backlog…then what?

Gulf Coast shipyard towns continue to show off their products, including new boats under construction at B&B Boat Bullders, above, and at Verret Ship Yard, below. (Larry Pearson)

Much of the maritime world may be experiencing the painful slowdown of business caused by a worldwide recession, but American shipyards that build inland river towboats, tugboats, barges and assorted workboats along the Gulf Coast are forging ahead like it was still the boom years.

The boom time is expected to last another year — maybe two — at least until those shipyards have worked off their backlog of contracts and whatever new orders come dribbling in. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. The effects of the recession may eventually catch up with some of them.

For 2009 at least, everything is pretty much known. Contracts are set and deliveries will follow. Few if any of these contracts have been cancelled, although many companies in the inland river world are experiencing difficulties.

According to the national shipyard construction record kept by Tim Colton of Maritime Business Strategies and Marine Log, roughly 130 new tugs and towboats are projected to be delivered in 2009. That would be down a bit from the estimated 150 boats delivered in 2008.

Donning salesman’s caps while tossing welding caps into the back of the pickup, many shipyard owners along the Gulf Coast say they are optimistic that business will continue to come in through the gate.

Ted Verret, owner of Verret Ship Yard in Plaquemine, La., is a third-generation tug/pushboat builder whose company has been in business since the 1940s. “I think we will stay at the same building rate for 2010 as the current year,” Verret said. “It doesn’t take a lot of business to keep us working,” he added, noting that he has been through plenty of cycles in the workboat business.

“We have built a lot of these vessels,” Verret said motioning out his office window to a pushboat under construction and another pair that have been gutted and are undergoing a complete rebuild.

“We have remained a small shipyard with a steady repeat customer base. We specialize in upscale interiors so we have our own cabinet making shop where we can build a boat out using plain or fancy woods and a lot of custom fixtures,” Verret said. In addition, Verret turns its own shafts in a modern machine shop that also does shaft and bearing work for other shipyards.

Delivered in May was the 117-foot, 3,200-hp towboat Pat Voss for Blessey Marine Services. “We have a contract for a pair of 65-foot pushboats for Blessey for December 2009 and first quarter 2010 delivery,” Verret noted.

The 124-foot, 4,000-hp towboat Danny L. Whitford is the latest addition to the fleet of Hunter Marine Transport, Nashville, Tenn. (Jeff Yates)

“We have built about 30 vessels for Blessey so we always keep the next building slot available for them if they want it,” Verret said.

Other shipyards have much larger backlogs of orders.

Prospects for pushboat construction looks especially bright at Gulf Island Fabrication of Houma, La. The Marine Division has only been in business about two years. The much larger part of Gulf Island is their platform construction business.

Bobby Barthel and other key executives from a nearby shipyard founded the division and began landing pushboat construction contracts. “We delivered the 124-foot Danny Whitford to Hunter Marine Transport earlier this year and we have five vessels for AEP River Operations and four more for another customer,” Barthel said.

“While it will be 2011 before all of these vessels are delivered, we are actively looking for contracts that will fill in our construction schedule short term and extend us out beyond 2011, ” Barthell added.

Another shipyard with seemingly nothing to worry about is Quality Shipyards, with separate new construction and repair shipyards in Houma. Quality is currently completing a contract for AEP River Operations. The contract is for five 6,000-hp towboats with two remaining,” said Joseph Badeaux, vice president and general manager of the shipyard, which is a subsidiary of Tidewater Inc., the offshore vessel giant.

The 140-foot towboat Janis R. Brewer is the first of five 4,000 hp new boats being built for Crounse Corp., Paducah, Ky. (Jeff Yates)

“We have seen a drop off in pushboat quote activity since the first of the year,” Badeaux said, “but we remain busy with new construction activity for Tidewater, with a pair of 266-foot supply boats underway and a lot of repair activity for Tidewater and others.”

Indeed, as of the end of 2008, Tidewater, based in New Orleans but with worldwide operations, reported it had commitments to build 56 vessels of various types and sizes at a cost of roughly $1 billion between now and 2012.

Unfortunately not all of these will be constructed at Gulf Coast shipyards, and given world economic conditions, the construction list might get stretched out for a few years. But the folks who do the work at Quality Shipyards can probably anticipate keeping their jobs for a while.

Bayou La Batre, Ala., remains a hub for pushboat activity. Formerly the center of shrimp trawler construction, most of the high volume yards have converted to offshore supply vessel or tug/pushboat construction in recent years.

Russell Steiner, owner of Steiner Shipyard with 35 to 40 employees in Bayou La Batre, said he has a continuing flow of repair projects and new construction work keeping his Travelift busy. “We want to concentrate on building one type of boat and tugs and pushboats are ideal for us,” Steiner added.

Steiner most recently delivered a 76-foot, triple-screw tug, and he is now working on a series of four 120-foot z-drive pushboats for Southern Towing of Memphis, Tenn. The first three have been delivered with the fourth scheduled for August of this year.

“We would like to continue to build pushboats for Stegbauer since they fit so well with our operations, but we shall see,” Steiner said.

Also in Bayou La Batre, Horizon Shipbuilding has specialized in building supply boats and crew/supply boats, for Fymak Marine, the national offshore boat operating company in Nigeria.

But with the continuing pushboat building boom going on, the Horizon yard is now in the middle of a 10-boat contract for Florida Marine Transporters of Mandeville, La. This includes five 140 footers and six at 120 feet.

“The first vessel was to be delivered at the end of June. Then we have over two years of work on this order and there are options for additional vessels, so we may be building towboats for a long time,” said John Carnley, project manager for Horizon.

Another high volume pushboat builder in Bayou La Batre is B&B Boat Builders. The B&B yard now looks a lot like it did in the late 1990s when shrimp trawlers were lined end to end in a seemingly endless parade towards their launching site. But now the boats are pushboats for AEP River Operations. The AEP contract is for 18 pushboats, 12 of which have been delivered, with the rest due out in 2011.

No one has built more towboats in recent years than Raymond & Associates in Bayou La Batre. Eleven towboats were delivered by this yard in 2008 and six have been delivered so far in 2009. Eckstein, Cenac and Kirby are among the shipyard’s repeat customer base. And everyone at this shipyard is optimistic that the orders will just keep on coming, despite what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Towboat business is not faring all that well in another shipbuilding center, Greenville, Miss. In April, Superior Boat Works announced they were closing their doors. The yard built many towboats in the 1980s and ’90s, but a casino boat contract that went bad in the mid-1990s took them out of the new construction business and they became a repair yard.

They hung on as long as they could, but with the recession this year, they closed the yard.

Nichols Boat Company, a five-year-old company, also of Greenville, has built four towboats for Magnolia Marine and has a fifth under construction. “We have some leads for additional vessels, but no firm contracts yet,” said Mark Nichols, owner of the company.

The third Greenville shipyard is New South Marine Construction. This yard has recently built a pair of 121-foot pushboats for J. Russell Flowers that were leased to AEP River Operations. Earlier this year, the yard delivered a 92-foot towboat to Terral River Services and the current schedule calls for delivery of a second to Terral in July. That will be the eighth new vessel in the yard’s relatively brief history.

Beyond that, “We have several leads and one verbal order, but no signed contracts,” said Tim Hovas, owner of the company.

Fortunately, these companies are small, so a two-boat contract can keep them busy for a year or more.

Few people know the sales and marketing game in the workboat industry better than Gary Lipely, director of marketing and sales for Conrad Industries of Morgan City, La.

“We just completed a two-year project of building six 98-foot tugs with the last one delivered in February,” Lipely said. “While we have no tugs or pushboats under construction at this moment, quoting activity is good, so we expect new contracts this year,” Lipely added.

D.E.S. Boatworks of Bayou La Batre, Ala., is a startup operation having thus far built a handful of vessels. The company is run by Daryl Steiner, nephew of the well-known Russell Steiner, whose shipyard in Bayou La Batre has built hundreds of vessels including almost 200 fishing trawlers.

Last year, D.E.S. delivered a towboat to Eckstein Marine of New Orleans. Today the yard is building a pair of 86-foot, 2,000-hp pushboats for Golding Barge Line of Vicksburg, Miss. The first of the vessels delivered in April and the second will join the Golding fleet in September.

But don’t look to Golding for additional contracts going forward. Owner Steve Golding, who operates nine pushboats and 42 tank barges, says his company is taking a break from building new boats for a while.

“Right now, after these two deliveries, we are taking a pause in new towboat contracts,” Golding said. “Last year we had Raymond & Associates build two vessels for us, so we have nearly doubled our fleet in two years,” Golding added. “We are going to wait and see what happens.”

Nevertheless, with the rich shipbuilding history that runs in the Steiner family, Daryl Steiner is hopeful about the future. “We are in negotiations for another pushboat and that will keep us going for a while. There is a lot going on in Bayou La Batre, so we will keep busy,” Steiner added.

It just may be that the recession will eventually allow those shipyards that have had huge backlogs in recent years to have time to take a breath while modernizing and expanding their facilities. Perhaps there will be federal stimulus money available to pay for renovations. But that may be putting an overly positive spin on things.

By Professional Mariner Staff