Anacortes shipbuilder to build Navy research vessel

Dec 2, 2011

Whidbey Crosswind

By Kathy Reed

December 2, 2011

Dakota Creek Industries, an Anacortes-based shipbuilder, has been awarded a $74.1 million contract to build the Navy’s new Auxiliary General Oceanographic Research Vessel.

The announcement was made in mid-October and was immediately hailed as good news by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen.

“The announcement … is good news for the community of Anacortes, and more importantly, it means jobs,” Larsen said in a statement. “The AGOR contract will ensure that there will be a shipyard of workers, providing living wage jobs for the boat builder, their suppliers and local businesses that depend on Dakota Creek Industries.”

“We’re pretty excited about it,” said Mike Nelson, vice president of Dakota Creek Industries. “We’ve built larger boats, but these are fairly complicated because they’re for scientific purposes and hold a lot of equipment.”

A winning design

While Dakota Creek has done sub-contract work for the Navy and repairs on existing vessels before, this is the first Department of Defense contract the company has won completely on its own. The company was awarded one of two phase one contracts more than a year ago, which allowed two shipyards the opportunity to design the AGOR.

“So it became a design competition between two yards,” Nelson said. “ At the end of that there was an evaluation process and our design and our yard was selected.”

The vessel, when completed, will be 238-feet in length and will provide the ability for academic institutions and national laboratories to do a wide variety of ocean-based research. AGOR will be equipped with on-board labs and will include seafloor mapping systems, current profilers for mapping water currents, networked sensors for monitoring atmospheric and ocean conditions plus precise navigational tools for instruments under the ship. Construction is expected to begin within about six months.

“I think construction time is going to be around two years, but it’s a three-year contract,” said Nelson. “Something we’re not used to with the Navy — and we think it will be a good thing — is you have a lot of time for pre-engineering. In the commercial world, you never have the luxury of time … as soon as you sign the contract, they want you building the boat because they want it yesterday. But the Navy, I think it’s a lot better way to do it, where you do all your engineering up front and get it all worked out before you start.”

Proper planning

Nelson said they’ll start working with a three-dimensional computer model of the whole vessel and its structure, figuring out materials and thickness of the steel plates that will be needed for construction.

“The steel is not something you go grab right off the shelf, either. It’s all built from scratch so you don’t just go pick it out,” Nelson said.

For the most part, all the steel used in building the vessel will be domestic, preferably from the Northwest region, Nelson said.

“They have to have a good product, good service and back up and all that, but yeah, we buy as much as we can regionally — even in town as much as we can.”

Family company

Dakota Creek Industries was started in 1975 by Nelson’s father, Dick, in Blaine, Wash. It moved to larger facilities in Anacortes in 1977.

Like many children of business owners, Nelson, who grew up in Bellingham spent his summers during college working for the family business.

“I went to school to be an industrial designer,” he said. “I didn’t expect to work here … but I found I liked doing this better than anything else I was looking at. Boat building is a lot of fun.”

There are currently about 250 employees, but according to Nelson, that has ranged from a low of 20 employees to a high of 390.

“We’ve been really lucky the last few years to have kept busy through the recession,” he said. “Traditionally we always used to be around 150 to 200 (employees) but we did a redevelopment in the last few years that allows us to have a little better workload because of our facility.”

The AGOR will be hull number 58 for Dakota Creek. Over the years, they have built a variety of vessels, from private yachts and fishing boats to ferries and commercial offshore support vessels for oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Nelson estimates about 20 percent of their business is repair work. (At the time of our interview in early November, two Washington state ferries were there for repair.)

“One of the things we’ve never really tried to do is specialize, because if you get too specialized that can always go away and then you’ve got nothing,” Nelson said. “So we’ve always tried to be very flexible and tried to be able to do just about anything. That keeps us afloat.”

Government work

Just a few years ago the shipbuilder got its first taste of working with the government. Dakota Creek was a subcontractor for another Navy research vessel, the Sea Jet, which is currently in use at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division, Acoustic Research Detachment in Bayview, Idaho. The 133-foot vessel, much of which was constructed by Dakota Creek, operates on Lake Pend Oreille.

Whether or not Navy contracts will play a part in the shipbuilder’s future has yet to be determined, but it’s a course Nelson said Dakota Creek will chart with care and optimism.

“We’re excited about (the AGOR). It’s a new avenue of opportunity,” Nelson said.

In the end, building a boat is building a boat — a lot of it depends on the customer.

“For boat building, it’s like who’s the engineer? How’s the design to begin with? Some things can start off with a horrible design and it’s a nightmare from beginning to end,” said Nelson. “And some can just be a really cool boat.”