Posted on November 29, 2022
How did a family-owned shipyard in tiny Coden, Ala., become a go-to supplier for some of the biggest tugboat operators in the country, its yard the birthplace of cutting-edge hybrid tugs and a revolutionary all-electric vessel that will be the first of its class in the western hemisphere?
Garrett Rice, president of Master Boat Builders, will tell you it’s all about small steps. But it’s clear that some of them haven’t been so small.
Master Boat Builders was born out of a hurricane. When Frederick devastated the Alabama coast in 1979, it wrecked a seafood shop operated by the Rice family. James and Michael Rice – grandfather and father, respectively, to Garrett Rice – decided to go into a new line of work on their waterfront property.
“We started building little utility boats for oil market in the ‘80s,” said Garrett Rice. “Then the shrimp fishing market took off in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and we did that for quite a while. At one time in the mid’90s or early 2000′s, when I was still in school, they were building 20 to 25 shrimp boats a year. Ninety- to 100-foot shrimp boats.”
In the early 2000s the company moved back into the oil and gas market, building supply boats. Over the years the boats got bigger, gradually growing from the 145-foot range up to 220 feet by 2015. They also had increasingly sophisticated drivetrains and controls, including dynamic positioning systems that held them steady in rough seas.
“It was a gradual growth,” Rice said. “That’s kind of the way we like to do things. Dad always did baby steps. Do something, do well at it, take the next little step, the next little step. I really believe that’s been the recipe for our success over the years, is not jumping out there too far. … That gradual growth in the size of the boats and the complexity of the boats set us up for what we’re doing now.”
Garrett Rice, president of Master Boat Builders, stands in the company’s shipyard in Coden, Ala. At left is an upside-down hull in the early stages of construction. At right is one that’s further along, but still waiting to have its superstructure added.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Rice joined the family business full-time in 2011 as a project manager and accountant, moving up to CFO and becoming president in 2020; his father is CEO. In the meantime, the world had changed: a crash in Gulf oil operations around 2014-15 meant that the company had to make some not-so-small steps to stay viable.
Rice said that when the downturn hit, Master Boat was in the middle of a multi-boat contract with giant maritime company Seacor. Seacor didn’t have work for all the boats it had ordered, so it offered an alternative: Instead of churning out those work boats, maybe Master Boat could build a couple of advanced rotortugs for Seacor’s sister company Seabulk.
Calling this a small step is stretching things. Master Boat wasn’t just leaping into a whole new line of work, it was delivering the first tugs of their kind built in the U.S. The name “advanced rotortug” denotes something very specific: It’s a drive configuration using three “Z-Drive” units, two near the bow and one at the stern. Each unit has a propeller inside a protective shroud, and the whole assembly can rotate 360 degrees. The triple drive gives a tug the ability to apply thrust in any direction needed.
A worker welds metal plates during the installation of two “Z-Drive” propulsion units on a tugboat being built at Master Boat Builders in Coden, Ala.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Trident went into service in January 2017, followed the next year by Trinity and Triton. Seabulk got the tugs it needed, and Master Boat Builders had entered the tug market in style. “It worked out well for everybody,” said Rice.
In summer 2022, Seabulk took delivery of Hermes, its fifth advanced rotortug from Master Boat, and put it into service in the Port of Mobile. But as it’s been building such ships, Master Boat has been taking more “small” steps, building tugs that operate as far away as Alaska. Along with more contracts and more clients have come more steps into the unfamiliar.
In March, it delivered Spartan, the first of two hybrid tugs, to Seabulk. It turns out that “hybrid,” in this context, doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it does when you’re talking about a Prius.
Spartan can’t shut off its diesels and cruise along on electric power. What it can do, thanks to a system developed by Berg Propulsion, is shut off its main engines and fire up smaller generator sets. These power electric motors grafted onto the vessel’s two Z-drives. Top speed drops, and the ship doesn’t have the massive thrust needed to shove cargo ships around. But the so-called “eco mode” offers a way for the tug to burn less fuel as it transits to and from its jobs.
A model in the offices of Master Boat Builders in Coden, Ala., shows a hybrid powertrain in yellow. A mechanical driveshaft connects a main engine at right to a Z-Drive propulsion unit at left. In between sits a generator set, which provides power to an electric motor at far left, also connected to the Z-Drive.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Having each drive unit connected to two power sources – one mechanical, one electrical – represents a new level of complexity. But it also opens the way to new innovations. “That was the step change, at the end of the day,” said Rice. “It created a platform for the electrical integrator to test their systems.”
The next step? Rice wants to replace the generators sets with battery banks, so the next generation of hybrid tugs really does work like a Prius. One step paves the way for the next. “We couldn’t have done that without having the Spartan,” he said.
The next step after that is to go full electric. Thanks to mammoth maritime company Crowley, which has ordered a boat named the eWolf, Master Boat is already taking it. eWolf has been under construction for a while now and is due to enter service at the Port of San Diego next year. It’ll be the first of its class and kind in the western hemisphere. (Sparky, a battery tug built in Vietnam, entered service in New Zealand this summer.)
As Rice showed a visitor around the shipyard on Wednesday, the pieces were coming together. The superstructure sat at one place in the yard, the hull and deck that would carry it at another. The two Z-Drives that will propel it were ready and waiting to be installed. A nearby warehouse contained banks of switching equipment that will handle the electricity.
“It’s a lot of equipment in a very small boat,” Rice said. “It’s taking a lot of engineering on the front end. It’s taken a mindset shift to think through a different type of boat. At the end of the day it’s a tugboat. From the outside, you’d never know the difference – except you won’t see any stacks on it.”
Ironically, Rice said, the eWolf wouldn’t be a good fit for Mobile. In San Diego its round trips will be about five miles, and it will be able to make several such voyages on a charge. Tugs in Mobile may be required to transit 30 miles or so down Mobile Bay to meet a ship coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a lousy case for a battery tug, but a great one for a hybrid.
“The application of where it works matters the most,” Rice said.
The superstructure of eWolf, a revolutionary electric tug that will go into service in San Diego in 2023.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
While all this focus on technology seems like rocket science, a walk through the Master Boat yard serves as a reminder that shipbuilding is heavy work. It’s welding and pipefitting and cutting and grinding in an outdoor environment. It’s physical labor that produces big, tangible things.
TV host Mike Rowe visited the yard for a segment of “Dirty Jobs” that aired in early 2022. The Master Boat folks wore him out.
“It’s not easy work,” said Rice. “The guys that get up and do this every day, they’ve got something to them. You can’t be weak-minded, you can’t be weak of spirit to come and work in a shipyard. Not only our shipyard, any shipyard. It’s a tough, grueling job at times, but it’s rewarding at the same time.”
About 275 people work at the yard on a daily basis, Rice said, and the yard is always hiring. He said Master Boat has 11 ships under contract, eight of which are in the works. At the moment, much of the yard is taken up with a series of tugs destined for service in Texas. The first was delivered this month, Rice said, and the second was in the water. On this visit, the third was upright and looking like a near-complete ship, with its two Z-Drive units being installed. The fourth was right-side-up, but unpainted and lacking its superstructure. The fifth was upside-down, the way Master Boat likes to start its hulls, making gravity a friend as hull plates are welded onto frames. On the sixth, more of the skeleton was visible and the bow section hadn’t yet been grafted on.
Laid out like that, the work has an assembly-line aspect. It signifies stability for the workforce: Rice said that if someone were to order a ship today, the soonest Master Boat could deliver it would be November 2024.
He has some confidence the yard will continue to fill out its calendar. Much of the nation’s tugboat fleet is old. Companies need newer boats and they’re keen to invest in more efficient options such as the hybrids and the eWolf.
“The way we see this, this market is the most sustainable market in the marine industry in the U.S., long-term,” he said. “This market’s going to be good for a little while.”
Master Boat Builders has used the same building as its headquarters since 1979. It has gotten crowded. “There are at least three people in every office,” Rice said. Soon they’ll move into a brand-new home across the road, with 9,000 square feet of office space and another 9,000 of warehouse space underneath.
It’s just one more small step.
Rice hates the thought of referring to Master Boat as a mom-and-pop operation. But he likes the notion that a family-owned yard in Coden is building cutting-edge ships for billion-dollar companies.
“We want to build the perfect future-proofed zero-emissions tugboat,” Rice said. “That’s what we need for the environment, that’s what we need for our ports, what we need for our country, for our world.”
The journey will take a few more steps, he said, but building the milestones is a source of satisfaction: “We’ve had the opportunity to be right in the middle of these innovations to get to zero-emissions.”