Washburn & Doughty to rebuild following catastrophic fire

The fire that destroyed the shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine, apparently began with sparks from a cutting torch.  (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The flames were spectacular, sending a dark plume skyward that was visible for miles and reducing the heart of a venerable Maine shipyard to a pile of charred metal. But before the smoke had cleared, a resurrection was under way.

Started accidentally by sparks from a cutting torch, the July 11 fire at the Washburn & Doughty shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine, destroyed the company’s 50,000-square-foot fabrication building and caused an estimated $30 million in damage. Although no one was injured in the fire, it left more than 80 employees out of work in a community heavily dependent on its maritime economy.

It didn’t take long for company owners Bruce Washburn and Bruce Doughty to start moving toward reconstruction. Money that had been borrowed to expand the shipyard before the fire suddenly had a new purpose.

“We had received a bank loan and were well on our way with plans for an expansion,” said Katie Doughty, marketing manager for Washburn & Doughty and daughter of the company’s co-founder. “That afternoon my dad called the builders and told them to scrap plans for the expansion and to start designing a new facility.”

Two vessels – a 121-foot articulated tug barge (ATB) and a 92-foot z-drive tugboat – were under construction in the yard at the time of the fire, along with a keel. According to Doughty, the tugs were being surveyed to see what parts could be saved, but the keel was not salvageable.

“The engine room on the 121-footer seems to have escaped unscathed – there were still paper tags on valves and other parts,” she said. “But the engines are still going to be sent back to the manufacturer to be thoroughly inspected.”

Another ATB – the 121-foot Linda Moran, due for delivery to Moran Towing Corp. of New Canaan, Conn., at the end of July – was tied to Washburn & Doughty’s pier on the Damariscotta River when the fire started. Doughty said it was towed away from the flames and was not damaged.

A 47-foot Coast Guard motor lifeboat helps Boothbay Harbor firefighters by getting them to sections of the blaze they could not effectively reach from shore. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

As debris was hauled from the site and plans were being made for the new facility, the company set up shop on an adjacent property formerly occupied by Boothbay Marine Services. Twenty-five employees were brought back to complete work on Linda Moran and 10 welders were rehired and sent to Northeast Doran Inc., a metal fabrication shop in Skowhegan, Maine, to work on two new keels.

“The idea is that while we’re having a new facility constructed, we’re building outside at the Boothbay Marine site,” Doughty said.

It’s a development that has brought the company full circle.

“We built outside year-round before moving to East Boothbay,” Doughty said. “From 1977 to 1984, we built in Woolwich in an empty lot on the Kennebec River – all outside work, primarily fishing vessels. We’re kind of getting back to our roots. We’ve done it before, and we’re confident that we can do it again.”

Washburn & Doughty plans on having the new facility up and running by the summer of 2009 at the latest, with the concrete work completed before November 2008.

“What we’re really looking forward to is a more modern facility that’s laid out to handle our new boats,” Doughty said. “The (previous) main building was from the 1960s, and some of the facility dated back to the 1920s. The new building will be safer, more modern and more efficient.”

Company officials were quick to credit the support of the community for keeping the shipyard’s future bright. A fund was set up by the Boothbay Region Land Trust just days after the fire to assist idled workers, and a raffle and auction in late July raised more than $8,000 for the cause. Officials also cited the efforts of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Gov. John Baldacci in helping Washburn & Doughty get back to business as usual.

“It’s been absolutely tremendous,” Doughty said. “There was never any question that we were going to stay in East Boothbay.”

By Professional Mariner Staff