The largest vessel to be built in Homer hit the waves this fall in Kachemak Bay for its maiden voyage.
The Goldbelt Seawolf, a 74 foot-long catamaran, launched from Homer this month headed for service in Southeast Alaska. Built by Bay Welding, the vessel is owned by Goldbelt Transportation Inc., a subsidiary of Juneau-based Native corporation Goldbelt Inc.
The vessel, which took 11 months to build, will be used to transport workers to and from the Kensington Mine, which Goldbelt Transportation provides service to, as well as for other potential lines of business.
Notably, though, the partners involved in the project were all Alaskan. Coast Wise Corp. of Anchorage designed the boat and Alaska Crane transported it from the shipyard in Homer to the water. Goldbelt Transportation made a point to choose Alaskan companies to complete the project, said Goldbelt interim president and CEO McHugh Pierre in a press release.
“We place a high value on any ability we have to contribute to the local economy through the commissioning of in-state projects wherever possible,” he said. “In the same vein, we value Alaskan employment — every employee of Goldbelt Transportation that works in Alaska, lives in Alaska, and we are very proud of their hard work and continued success.”
It’s a milestone for Homer too. The small community, situated at the end of the road system on the Kenai Peninsula, has been working to build its marine trades industry for decades.
Homer has had a robust commercial fishing fleet since the late 1930s and today is home to an extensive tourism and recreational fishing industry in addition to its commercial fishing fleet. All those businesses need boats, and community organizations and business leaders have been working to try to strengthen the industry there to provide them.
Bay Welding recently expanded its space, which the Seawolf didn’t quite fit into, said general manager Eric Engebretson.
“This boat was just a little bigger than our shop lengthwise,” he said. “We had a long debate when we built the shop how big of a boat we wanted to put in there, and we missed it by a few feet. We made it work down to the inches. Which is nothing new for us; we have a history of using every square foot we can, every inch of height.”
The business recently expanded its space with the anticipation of building larger boats, but not specifically the Seawolf, though they had heard of the project when they decided to expand.
There is a market for bigger boats, Engebretson said, and Bay Welding can provide for that with the space it has now. It’s more expensive to provide shop space in Alaska, in part because competitors in the Lower 48 don’t have to have enclosed, heated shop space to do the same work.
However, Bay Welding was able to offer a competitive bid to build the Seawolf and offered local knowledge. On top of that, workers are closer in Homer for future maintenance than Seattle workers would be, Engebretson said.
There’s an ethos to doing business locally as well, he said.
“Many of our companies are Alaska businesses or Alaska individuals … they appreciate the value of supporting each others’ businesses,” he said. “They identify with the fact that we’re here. There’s a repetitive motion of businesses doing business with each other that is self-perpetuating.”
Homer has been positioning itself to be a center for boat work for decades. The Homer Marine Trades Association, an industry group that promotes Homer as a destination for boat work, has been marketing the city’s services and collaborating with the city harbor since 1994, trying to bring projects like the Seawolf to the area. The launch of the Seawolf was an achievement for the region, said Kate Mitchell with the Homer Marine Trades Association.
“(Goldbelt is) a Native corporation that chose to keep their dollars in Alaska. … They wanted that boat to be a symbol of Alaska manufacturing,” she said.
The first cannery came to Homer in 1939, meaning there were boats fishing for salmon before that, Mitchell said. Lower Cook Inlet has had a strong commercial fishing industry for nearly a century, but the professional businesses providing boat services were not as developed. The industry began to grow as the town did, but fishermen long had to go to Seattle for professional services.
By the 1970s, there were a handful of individual businesses working in the marine industries in Homer, but there was little collaboration. When Mitchell founded Mitchell’s Marine Canvas in 1978 — which would later become NOMAR — the business owners were still fairly siloed, she said. When she asked whether there was side work she could do on the interior of boats others were working on, she said she was met with confusion.
“That’s just how oblique it was, that anybody would care what they were doing collectively,” she said.
Slowly, the number of businesses serving both commercial and sportfishing boats in Homer grew. Today, the region features businesses offering services ranging from welding to upholstery to brailer bags.
While there are still many seasonal jobs, the jobs in the marine trades tend to be year-round and pay fairly well, which helps to strengthen and diversify the area’s economy, she said.
The main bottleneck to the marine trades industry is workforce development, as there’s a lack of interest in trades education among young people, she said. Homer Marine Trades has been working with AVTEC in Seward and with the university system to provide funding and education opportunities for individuals interested in going into the trades in an effort to grow interest.
The long history of efforts to grow the business was part of why the industry group was so excited about the launch of the Seawolf. Bay Welding is a Homer-grown business that was able to compete for a large project, showing off the complete spectrum of work available in the area.
“We, being these hippies at the end of the road, had the moxie to establish a marine trades association that markets Homer to the world,” Mitchell said. “I’m like a parent — I’m just proud as punch of what we’ve done.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.