BAYOU LA BATRE A Shipyard Success Story

By Vincent Bosarge and Harold R. Larimer

Broadened Boatbuilding Capability Spurs New Growth One of Bayou La Batre, Alabama's very old timers years ago said, "You can hear anything in Bayou La Batre except money rattling and meat frying." Fish was the staple and the area generated little outside commerce, a situation not at all true today. In fact, the history of this relatively small fishing village (more people work here than live here) has always been one of rolling with the punches, adaptability and vision.

Seafood production traditionally has so much flavored the local life-style that natives were referred to as being mullet chasers and its four seasons known as shrimp, crab, oyster and fish. As for rolling with the punches, local industries have proved resilient and pragmatic. Fierce storms and extremes in market changes have been faced as challenges and regardless of the output of its industries, their products have gained worldwide recognition.

The seafood industry of this 205- year-old town has mushroomed from a fresh local catch sold within limited surrounding areas, next moving to major exporter of canned product and today to that of being the source of vast shipments of frozen seafoods flown to Tokyo and other world markets. Additionally, present day processing of seafood here far exceeds the local catch.

Because of fishing, the townspeople have always been boatbuilders with the type boats built paralleling fishing needs and innovations. When wooden boats began giving way to steel hulls in the late 40s, Bayou La Batre began what has destined to be its most dramatic change. Fishing, particularly shrimping, was entering a period of production in amounts previously unheard of. This ultimately opened a flood gate of demand for steel shrimp trawlers. A point was reached wherein a person holding a firm contract for construction of a trawler could sell the contract at a profit of several thousand dollars. Builders were booking as much as three years ahead.

The American fishing industry eventually became saturated with boats and this, along with various other factors, caused domestic trawler demand to cease. Not sitt i n g still, Bayou La Batre boatbuilders next directed their attention to the overseas fish boat market. Considering the complexities of foreign sales, it can probably be said that it is in this endeavor that these builders have been most successful. At this time, Bayou La Batre became known as the "Detroit" of trawlers and fishermen worldwide came to recognize the superiority of its trawlers.

Local builders have, however, kept their hands on the pulse of market potential and taken advantage of changing market demands.

Today, the Bayou building pattern is literally a panorama of many dif- ferent boat types . . . tugs, oil supply vessels, cruise boats, yachts, crew boats, ferries, and at the same time, trawlers.

It took Bayou La Batre until 1977 to gain recognition as the "Detroit" of the shrimp trawler industry. In 1978, however, a still ongoing change took place when Steiner Shipyard was awarded a contract for self-elevating work platforms (jack-up boats) for the oil industry. Until then, the only shipyard engaged in building anything in quantity other than shrimp boats was Off Shore Trawlers, Inc., owned and operated by John E. Graham and sons, who were building oil supply boats.

The launch by Steiner of the first jack-up boat in 1979 heralded the diversification of the Bayou's shipyard industry. Since that time Bayou yards have turned out a wide variety of different type and purpose marine vessels and floating equipment. Among them, aluminum tour boats and oyster boats, special purpose fire control vessels, tug and workboats, to name just a few.

Until 1979, the average shipyard worker in the Bayou had worked almost exclusively on shrimp boats.

With diversification and the subsequent upgrading of shipyard equipment, he was suddenly faced with the challenge of learning new skills in order to remain competitive in the job market. Evidence that he was able to manage this transition can be seen in a $7.9 million, 143- foot luxury yacht, the Sea Falcon, built by Angus Yachts, Inc. She was the center of attention at the 1990 Miami Boat Show. Nothing quite like her had ever been attempted by a Bayou shipyard, yet the workers responsible for its construction were all shrimp boat builders, most of whom had never worked on anything else. The shipyard is now engaged in completely restoring the 110-foot steel yacht Fead built in Holland in 1963.

Construction of the Sea Falcon was quite a feat as this, Angus Yachts' first boat, is one designed to compete with all other world-class yachts and is a dramatic demonstration of all local boatbuilding skills: carpentry, design, metal work, interior finish and the myriad other abilities needed for the construction of such a vessel.

With diversification, the reputation of Bayou boatbuilders is penetrating every type of vessel construction, and proof that it is moving along smoothly can be found at Steiner Shipyard, where there is under construction a custom deluxe flagship, Chicago's First Lady. She is being built for Mercury Yacht Charters, Inc., who were pioneers of Chicago's sightseeing boat industry.

The vessel will operate from a dock located in the downtown area of Chicago.

She is a 96-foot, 150-ton vessel designed by Florida marine architect William Preston and styled after the 1920s cruising yachts such as the Presidential yacht Sequoia.

She will be able to accommodate groups ranging from 50 to 250 passengers.

Bob Agra, executive vice president of Mercury Yacht Charters, when asked what factors influenced his decision to have the vessel built in Bayou La Batre, said, "My deci- sion to choose Steiner Shipyard was greatly influenced by observing first hand the quality of workmanship given to the work vessels currently under construction there. I figured that if a yard paid that much attention to quality and detail on a commercial workboat, it was the builder we were looking for." Mr. Agra's wife, Holly, who has been of inestimable value to the business began her career in the tourism industry working for Marriott, at their northern Illinois amusement park, Great America.

She began working in the boat busi- ness in 1978 and was soon director of sales and marketing, where through her many innovative concepts she was able to increase sales significantly. She became an active member of the National Association of Passenger Vessel Owners in 1983 and served as president for the year of 1990.

Proof positive of the determination and abilities of the Bayou La Batre shipbuilding industry is that 16 shipyards exist there today . . .

quite a feat considering the devastating downturn in the industry in the 80s, and a gigantic feat considering the national average of survivorship.

Among these is Johnson Shipbuilding & Repair, Inc., which recently relocated to a larger facility in order to compete for construction of the larger type vessels that today's market demands. Since 1986 when their operation began, they have delivered a total of 20 fishing trawlers to buyers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Today there are ready to enter the workboat, pleasure boat, and custom-designed vessel markets of the world. With the dock space available at their new facility, they have the capability of performing dockside repairs to vessels in the 200-foot length category.

Frank Johnson, owner and operator of the yard says he feels the future for the Bayou's shipbuilding industry lies in the larger, deeper draft vessels and workboats.

Another yard adding newbuilding dimensions to its fish trawler image is Rodriquez Boats, Inc., which was founded in 1976 by Joseph Rodriquez Sr. In 1977, operation was taken over by his son, Joseph Jr., and to date they have delivered 75 vessels, of which 63 were for the shrimp and fishing industry. In 1990, with diversification in full swing, Rodriquez Boats built workboats and aluminum fishing vessels. Currently their workforce consists of 60 employees.

In recent years, their specialties have included aluminum vessels and tug boats of all types. As of this writing, all the construction platforms at their yard are full.

LaForce Shipyard, Inc., owned and operated by Frankie LaForce, is located near the mouth of the big bayou and is presently converting a 65-foot steel oil supply boat to a 95- foot fish tender. The project requires the addition of a 30-foot midsection.

At completion, the tender will serve Alaskan fish processing plants. This will be the yard's second such conversion and extension job to have been completed within 90 days. The first was delivered to its homeport in early February.

Of the 52 fishing vessels built by LaForce, 35 were delivered to East Coast buyers in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

One shipyard specializing in vessel repairs and renovations is Gazzier Shipyard, Inc., owned and operated by Richard (Pud) and Donna Jean Gazzier. Among the most successful, not to mention challenging jobs undertaken by Mr.

Gazzier was the complete renovation of eighteen 86-foot steel fishing vessels sold to Mexico. What made the feat so remarkable was the time it took to accomplish the job . . . just 18 days. At the request of Geophysical Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Texas Instruments, Gazzier built two 80-foot steel seismographic vessels for use in shallow water.

One is being readied for seismographic soundings in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. These vessels are owned by Gazzier and both were utilized in recent years in plotting and charting the extensive gas findings in and around the Mobile Bay area. The yard also reclassified and placed back into service a 180-foot oil supply vessel.

Not all yards have found it necessary to diversify, yet certainly having this capacity is Ocean Marine, Inc., owned and operated by J.L.

Howard. This yard has delivered 261 fishing vessels to customers in the U.S. and abroad since starting operations in 1972. One hundred and thirty of those vessels went to Nigeria, six to Honduras and one to India. Last year the yard delivered nine vessels.

Although Bayou La Batre is gradually moving away from wooden and small steel shrimp trawler construction, the needs of small boat owners are not being ignored. Yards like Randall's Boat Repair established within recent years specializes in small boat haul-out, painting and repair.

Multi-repair, conversion and restoration are the specialty of Bayou Marine Products & Services, Inc., managed by James E. Simmons Jr. Vessels from Peru, Chile, Mexico, Scotland and El Salvador have been converted and reconditioned since the yard opened in 1989. The yard also builds small wooden, steel and fiberglass boats to owners' specifications.

In addition to the repair and construction functions of the company, it also operates a labor pool where workers with various skills are made readily available to other yards in the area.

Master Marine, Inc. and Master Marine Repair, Inc., also engage in new construction, repair and conversions.

Master Marine Repair has two floating drydock facilities for vessels up to 350 and 600 tons.

Ocean Marine Group, Inc., even though comparatively new to the area, has a varied background in new construction. Boats built by Ocean Marine have been outside the area of fish boats, with an emphasis on vessels such as ferries, cruise boats and tugs. This company has both aluminum and steel capabilities, with in-house design abilities. At the time of this writing, a major oceangoing tug and barge project is being negotiated.

Say, "It's a Landry Boat" anywhere and Bayou La Batre comes to mind. This yard first brought Bayou La Batre into the forefront of trawler builders long before steel hulls came into use in the U.S. fishing industry.

In 1944, Roy Landry took over one of the oldest shipyards in the area. Joined by his two brothers upon their return from service during World War II, the three Landrys, Roy, Joe and "Shine," carried on wooden vessel repair and new construction. These woodenhulled vessels rapidly created such a demand that a point was reached wherein a waiting list of three years existed.

With over 200 vessels to its credit, new construction still continues at the yard, though at much reduced levels. Roy Landry passed away within the last few months and two surviving brothers are continuing this traditional form of vessel repair and construction. Two haul-out rails are maintained.

Reminiscing about yard history, Joe Landry recounted, "I remember the early days when we used an old gas truck engine to haul out boats." The history of Landry Boats has been long and varied with most boats built in the 75- to 85-foot category.

The yards standard hull design was once modified and adapted to motor-powered sailing yacht, the Wanderlure, used in an around-theworld cruise.

Owner and operator of Horton Boats, Inc., Elmo Horten has been on the Bayou scene for many years.

His yard has produced over 300 vessels since it began operation. Like others, he has seen the need for diversification and is now building work and oil industry-related vessels.

Interesting things are going on at Master Boat Builders, Inc., where president Michael Rice now has under construction a 92-foot fisheries development vessel (scalloper/ dragger), which will be homeported in Peru. A 110-foot Alaskan crabber is well along in construction and a 150-foot long-line factory processor also will be joining the Alaskan fleet when completed. This company, founded in 1978, has within the past year delivered a 105-foot Alaskan dragger, a 116-foot Alaskan crabber and a 90-foot longliner to Hawaii.

One of Master Boats most interesting past projects has been the construction of diving support vessels for the oil industry.

John E. Graham and Sons, Inc., is a multifaceted company involved in building, leasing, and repair of oilrelated vessels and equipment. After a slowdown resulting from the early 1980s economic downturn in the oil industry, Graham has gone into the production of oil supply vessels once again. This company, with over 150 major oil boats to its credit, appears once again to be heading toward the building heights previously achieved.

Their capabilities include building vessels of 230 feet, a marine haul-out way of 200 ton capacity, facilities for 30 boat simultaneous construction and repair along with related marine services.

This giant among local boatbuilders has far-flung facilities along the entire Gulf Coast.

Steiner Shipyard, Inc., is one of the oldest and most diversified shipyards in Bayou La Batre. Started as a family operation in 1954 and under the guiding hand of Russell R.

Steiner, it has become one of the major shipyards in the Gulf Coast region.

Among the 306 vessels delivered to buyers in the U.S. and other countries, 256 were shrimp trawlers, of which 137 were built exclusively for one company, Sahlman Seafoods, Inc. of Tampa, Fla. Twenty-nine, including 16 self-elevating work platforms, were built and delivered to oil industry facilities in the 70s and 80s, while more recently, three aluminum tour boats were built for Frederick L. Nolan III, president of Boston Harbor Cruises, Inc., in Boston, Mass. A research vessel was constructed for the State of California's Department of Fish and Game. Now under construction are two additional aluminum tour boats, two dredges and a 500-passenger, 190-foot steel pleasure boat.

When the oil crunch in the early 80s began taking its toll on the shipbuilding industry, Steiner Shipyard undertook a repair and renovation program for inactive used oil boats.

A total of 10, ranging from 180 to 200 feet in length, were either completely repaired or rebuilt before being placed back in service.

Giving Steiner its outstanding rank among shipyards of the Gulf Coast region is the highly sophisticated technological capability it possesses. Headed by Andrew Overstreet, who supervises the overall operation for design and fabrication, these capabilities add a dimension not usually found in shipyards.

Its auto/CAD program is a general purpose, computer-aided design/ drafting system used for vessel drawings and interior design planning.

Auto/SHIP, another state-of-theart concept, assists naval architects in developing architectural drawings of all types. The features available with this system are too numerous to mention here, but basically their purpose is to eliminate error probability in design planning and to accommodate whatever changes may occur at any stage of construction.

Replacing an old plasma shape cutter is a new ESAB GXB 1200 CNC oxyfuel machine, which is used in conjunction with the Auto/CAD system for precision cutting steel plates into the shapes and forms needed to construct a vessel. It ensures complete uniformity of components and results in stan- dardization of production procedures which, in turn, generate appreciable cost savings for buyer and builder. Richard Lowery oversees all functions involving the shape cutting machine.

A wheelbrator (blasting machine) provides protection from corrosion for all steel used in vessel construc- tion. Each plate, after being blasted to a clean, smooth surface condition is immediately coated with a zincrich primer and paint mixture. The completed process provides maximum protection against corrosion not only from outside, but inside the vessel as well. Corrosion from within has always been a major problem for the shipbuilding industry, so the wheelbrator procedure greatly enhances the quality of the shipyard's finished product. Sergian Truxillo brings 22 years of experience to Steiner's wheelbrator capability.

The spin-off effect resulting from the bayou shipbuilding industry is extensive, reaching all points of the globe. In the U.S., there are countless suppliers who benefit from the building program.

Marine Gears, Inc., with headquarters in Greenville, Miss., furnishes gears and related components for the Bayou shipyards, while Houser Marine of Foley, Ala., has long been supplying Lario water pressure systems to all Bayou builders.

Cummins Alabama, Inc. and Larry Neff, its Mobile representative are no strangers to the Bayou shipbuilding industry. A recent and very significant first for them was the placement of all NT855 power for generator sets, liquid mud pumps and bowthrusters aboard three oil supply vessels delivered to Seacor, Inc., Morgan City, La. These vessels were built at Steiner Shipyard, Inc.

Operators reported that the first of these vessels, the Sun Island, has been in operation for almost a year without a single hour of downtime charged to the Cummins' power package.

McElroy Machine & Manufacturing Company, Inc., in Biloxi, Miss., has been furnishing wincbes for Bayou built vessels for over 24 years.

Also they have provided a large share of the precision machine work required for certain vessel components.

Recently they were called upon by Ljusbisa Nalovic, president and owner of Compagnie Francaise De Peche, a seafood processing plant in French Guyana, to develop a winch capable of retrieving nets from deep waters (800 fathoms).

Fishing deeper waters is a pioneer project embarked on by Mr. Nalovic and his company, and so far the results are gratifying. Previously, lack of a winch strong enough to pull and reel in the nets from such depths prevented exploration of these waters.

However, McElroy engineers designed a winch specifically for that purpose. It has a drum capacity of 9,400 feet of 9/16-inch diameter wire rope, a line pull of 37,000 pounds and a maximum line speed of 330 fathoms per minute. The winch is installed on a Steiner vessel built exactly to the specifications required for Mr. Nalovic's project. Mr.

Nalovic is very optimistic about the possibilities of deep water shrimping, feeling that it could produce a mother-lode for the industry.

Few vessels have ever left Bayou shipyards with anything other than Furuno electronics equipment furnished and installed by Buddy Johnson, president and owner of Southeastern Electronics, Inc., located in Bayou La Batre. Southeastern has been outfitting vessels form the Bayou, as well as all parts of the world, since 1969.

Carolyn Overstreet of American International Marine, Inc., also located in the Bayou, has been distributing Fundiciones Rice propellers and kort nozzles, which are fabricated in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, for over 14 years. The fuel saving features of the nozzles is known worldwide, and today almost all fishing vessels departing from the Bayou are equipped with them. Rice is currently promoting a new propeller design, the Nova Free Style open wheel, designed to eliminate vibration when moving in reverse. Rice wheels are available in 25- to 136- inch sizes.

Devoe Paints distributed by Marine Industrial Supply, Inc., of Mobile, Ala., is the oldest paint company in the U.S. Founded in 1754, it is also the sixth oldest United States corporation. The Devoe paint system has been used extensively by Bayou shipyards, and there is hardly a port anywhere in the world where you will not find vessels protected by the Devoe coating system.

A limiting factor in achieving full potential for the ongoing diversification program is the relatively shallow (12-foot) access channel.

Some local shipyards have been able to overcome this adversity by making use of a "split operation" concept, where larger vessels are con- structed, repaired and outfitted to the fullest extent possible, then, due to the depth limitations, moved to facilities that can accommodate the deeper draft vessels.

The good news is that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' feasibility analysis for channel improvements, recommending an 18-foot depth was completed in September 1988 and has now been approved by Congress.

It is possible that the first construction contracts will be in place by April 1992.

With the channel deepening, Bayou shipyards, with their favorable labor supply, skilled craftsmen and reasonable wage scale, will provide a highly beneficial alternative for fleet and vessel owners looking for reasonable repair and construction costs.

A trip down the bayou today is a lesson in geography. Hailing ports on boats being constructed reflect all sea bordering countries. Gumbo, a traditional dish relished locally, is a mixture of many things and this is true of vessels being built in Bayou La Batre . . . you name the type and Bayou shipyards have built it, are building it, or you can bet your deck boots, will build it for you.

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 16,  May 1991

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