100 boats later, Bay Weld celebrates

From a 20-foot skiff to its newest and biggest boat, the 42-foot P/V Churchill, Bay Welding has been building an average of about six Bay Weld boats a year since 1994. Based on activity at the shop on East End Road this week, the pace seems to have picked up a bit. In three main boat sheds, workers are building five boats, from a bare keel laid down for a skiff to the towering Churchill, almost ready for its late April delivery. 

Bay Weld is calling P/V Churchill its 100th boat, but looking at the shiny aluminum hulls under construction and nearing completion, it won’t take long to pass that milestone. From noon to 3 p.m. April 6, Bay Welding holds an open house celebrating 19 years building boats and 39 years in business. Visitors can see the Churchill and the boat building operation.

“We just want to open it up and let people see what we’re doing and celebrate a successful business,” said Eric Engebretsen, general manager and son of company founders Allen and Linda Engebretsen.

Allen Engebretsen started Bay Welding out of a truck in 1974 at age 24 and then moved into a shop.

“We’ve been busy ever since,” he said. “My motto is ‘You make a good product, you’ll have a job.’ Treat people right, build a product and they will come.”

Named after Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sgt. David Churchill, who died at age 51 of a heart attack while on duty in 1998, the P/V Churchill is the fifth Bay Weld patrol boat built for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Eric Engebretsen said. The first trooper patrol vessel built by Bay Welding was the P/V Augustine, launched at the Homer Harbor in 2003. The boats are built for general purpose Alaska Wildlife Trooper patrol and available for search and rescue.

Bay Welding won competitive bids each time for the patrol vessels, Eric Engebretsen said. Using an Alaska contractor works out to the state of Alaska’s benefit, he noted.

“By doing it in state they can keep tabs on the project,” he said.

At 42 feet and with a 14-foot beam, and 1/4-inch thick plating on the bottom and 3/16-inch plating on the sides, the Churchill is the largest and longest Bay Weld boat in terms of length and physical size.

It’s so tall the top of its radar mast brushes the ceiling of the biggest boat bay at Bay Welding’s shop.

Built to sleep four troopers, it has a heated cabin, a full galley, a head with shower, a winch, a cradle for a smaller skiff and can carry 800 gallons of fuel. Three 300hp Suzuki four-stroke outboard engines can push the Churchill up to 30 knots.

Bay Welding does the entire construction, from laying the keel to installing electronics, but buys from local suppliers such as NOMAR for cushions, Southcentral Radar for electronics and Redden Marine-Kachemak Gear Shed for boat parts.

“One of the reasons I pursue some of those projects, I really would rather see that money stay in Alaska instead of going Outside,” Eric Engebretsen said. “The majority of that money stays here in town. It gets spread between the business and the families.”

At $500,000, the Churchill might be out of the budget range of most Homer boat lovers. The other extreme, the $25,000 Bay Weld Basic 20-foot skiff, gets back to Bay Welding’s roots, Eric Engebretsen said. 

When Allen Engebretsen started Bay Welding, he did boat repairs in the winter while he fished commercially in the summers. In 1994, Bay Welding built its first 21-foot open skiff, selling it under the Bay Weld brand name. At that length, the Bay Weld skiff is similar in size to other locally built boats like the George Hamm K-Bay 20 and the Renn Tolman wooden-fiberglass skiff.

“It’s just kind of what you want in Kachemak Bay,” Eric Engebretsen said. “Anything smaller than that is risky.”

Designed by Allen Engebretsen and Dennis Calhoun, the Bay Weld Basic has sealed self-bailing decks, meaning the deck is welded air tight to the hull, with the deckline higher than the waterline. Water runs out of scuppers, or holes, in the sides above the deck.

Big or small, Bay Weld enjoys building all boats, Eric Engebretsen said.

“We’ve always tried to push for bigger, more complex boats, but we’ve tried to keep the simple element,” he said.

About 65 to 70 percent of Bay Welding’s business is new boat construction, but it also does boat repairs. It also builds landing craft boats and larger boats with full cabins. Other government projects have included boats for the U.S. Forest Service.

In winter, Bay Welding employs from 10 to 15 workers, with seven to eight in the summer. Bay Welding pays well compared to most industries, Allen Engebretsen said, with a matching retirement plan and reimbursement for health insurance premiums. Most employees were born and raised in Homer and grew up on the water fishing.

“They know boats and have grown up with us,” Eric Engebretsen said.

One longtime employee, Ian Weatherly, started sweeping floors when he was 15 and in high school. Three workers are graduates of the Kachemak Bay Campus welding program.

“It’s fantastic,” Eric Engebretsen said of the college. “It gives them a great starting point.”

A new line for Bay Welding is its Alaska Xtreme all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile trailers, sold through dealers in Homer and elsewhere in Alaska. Friends who ride four-wheelers and snowmobiles complained about having a hard time getting trailers to Alaska. Bay Welding designed a trailer that would appeal to Alaskans and has three models.

“That’s a newly developing thing that’s basically creating jobs for a couple of guys,” Eric Engebretsen said.

Allen Engebretsen credits his son with taking the business to a new level.

“He’s got a whole lot more energy than I used to have,” he said. “It’s exciting to see what the kids are doing.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.