When the governor first announced his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, boat builders in Port Townsend put down their sanders, chisels and saws and headed home.
But as the fishing season drew closer, and Alaskan towns began to institute two-week quarantines for incoming boats, crews scrambled to get their fishing vessels ready. On March 30, Gov. Jay Inslee said marine trades businesses could continue to work on commercial fishing vessels in addition to government and transportation vessels.
“I don’t think there’s any debate that the marine trades have been essential workers throughout the closure,” said Eron Berg, director of the Port of Port Townsend. “We’ve had marine trades working in the yard since the ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order came out, continuing to outfit Alaska fishing vessels.”
The port is currently only hauling out commercial, government or transportation vessels, as well as any vessels a marine tradesperson requests to be hauled. They have canceled hauls for private individuals to minimize interaction between port employees and other people.
While the port scaled down haulouts, marine trades businesses scaled down to just working on commercial fishing vessels. ACI Boats, a boat construction company at the port’s boat yard, launched a newly built commercial fishing vessel that will head to Bristol Bay amid the pandemic.
“Our operations will enable us to respond to marine vessel emergencies, service repairs for our essential sector service customers,” said Carrie Fiore, general manager of ACI Boats/Gold Star Marine.
But to continue working, companies like ACI and Gold Star have had to add policiesto protect their employees.
“We have closed all public access, implemented staggered shifts, health screening, created private offices for administration and only hold video conference meetings,” Fiore said.
At SEA Marine, a boatyard and repair company at Point Hudson, a skeleton crew has gone back to work, but no more than two technicians can work on a boat at the same time. The company’s infectious disease policy, which gets updated regularly, requires more sanitization of surfaces, more personal protective equipment (which is hard to come by these days) and less interaction between workers.
“It is very inconvenient,” said Chris Bakken, owner of SEA Marine. “But it’s working OK. We are very open with our customers because getting a job in and out has slowed down as a result. But customers have been supportive and understanding so far.”
SEA Marine can shut down its yard to any outside contractors. But at the port’s boatyard on Sim’s Way, where many different companies lease sections of the yard, workers and business owners have to take a more community-minded approach to keeping each other safe.
“There’s an ‘all for one, one for all’ feeling in the yard,” Berg said. “There’s a strong sense of social responsibility. We need the yard to be safe, otherwise it hurts all of us.”
Looking toward Phase 2
Not everyone has been able to get back to work, however. Businesses that do not work on commercial fishing boats are not considered “essential.”
“We didn’t have any fishing boat projects underway when we went home,” said Stephen Gale, owner of Haven Boatworks.
Gale said his employees received unemployment benefits and continue to receive health insurance while they’ve been at home.
If the county applies for a variance to move to Phase 2 of the governor’s order ahead of the rest of the state, marine trades will be one of the businesses to head back to work.
Gale has been developing a plan to ensure employee safety when that happens. He’s inventorying the company’s personal protective equipment so workers can wear masks, and planning to stagger break times and maintain distance between workers.
This means some jobs, such as work on smaller boats, might be impossible, he said.
“Fortunately we’ve got some very large boats to work on,” he said. “But we might try starting out with a smaller crew to give ourselves more space to work these things out.”
Vitality of the port
Flashbacks to the last financial recession have many marine trades business people worried about the future.
“Back in 2008, we were lucky and had large contracts we were working on, but the port basically closed overnight,” Gale said.
During a financial downturn, boat repairs often get put on the back burner.
“A lot of our customers are retired, and their income is impacted by the stock market,” said Bakken, who has been trying to lease more property from the port for years to prepare for another financial recession. “I hope I’m wrong, but our viability and the viability of the trades in Port Townsend are at risk right now.”
During the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, there has been a noticeable impact on the trades in the short-term, but it’s hard to predict how the economy will impact trades in the long run.
“As it sits today, we have seen a clear impact on marine trades right now as a result of the governor’s order,” Berg said. “But the port still has significant demand for haul services that we’re turning away. Right now, there is a strong demand for marine trades work.”
While work has been put on pause for many businesses, or at least slowed while they adjust to new safety protocols, there hasn’t been a noticeable decrease in customers looking for boat repairs.
“It has still been pretty steady,” Bakken said. ”We lost two or three jobs that were coming in. But most of them were postponed and have been rescheduled.”
Gale, too, has noticed a steady stream of phone calls from returning customers.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “My main goal is to return to work with a happy, healthy crew.”