With its face toward the sea, it makes sense marine trades would be firmly anchored in Homer.
“There’s really nothing you can’t get done in Homer,” said Eric Engebretsen of Bay Weld Boats. “You can build a world-class vessel in Homer.”
Bay Weld does everything from simple half-hour repair jobs to building 42-foot vessels with a crew that numbers 24 part- and full-time employees during the peak winter working months and about a dozen during the summer.
Illustrating Homer’s boat-building expertise, Engebretsen, who has a commercial fishing background, pointed to the 58-foot F/V Frisian Lady, built for commercial fisherman Bob Linville.
“That project had nearly every marine trade in town involved and turned out a product the whole state of Alaska can be proud of, but specifically Homer,” said Engebretsen. “There’s no difference between what’s built here and anywhere in the world. It’s important for people to understand that. That’s not the case in many other places in Alaska. Homer’s unique that way.”
Freddy’s Marine has turned out three 58-foot seiners, according to Fred Martushev, who, as a teenager, worked on boat lettering and repair and patch jobs.
Along the way, Martushev discovered he had a talent for building boats.
“By the time I was about 25, I pretty much had the full concept in me,” said Martushev.
He opened Freddy’s Marine 10 years ago. With a number of employees that varies with the season, Martushev has built 60 fiberglass boats in a variety of lengths and designs. Most are for Alaska clients; some are orders from out of state.
Linville’s 58-foot boat took about a year to build, from start to finish, according to Martushev. A project that size pumps about $1.5 million into the local economy.
The F/V Sea Prince is another 58-foot seiner built by Martushev. It was for Rob Nelson, a second-generation commercial fisherman whose father had a boat with a hull designed by Ed Monk, a well-known shipwright and naval architect from the Pacific Northwest.
“I told myself if I ended up building something some day, I wanted to have it from that design,” said Nelson.
When the time finally came, Nelson chose Martushev to do the work.
“The way it turned out for me, it (the cost) was comparable with Outside,” said Nelson.
Work on the Sea Prince took more than two years to complete. Martushev did the fiberglass; Bay Weld did the metal work and wiring. Among others involved in the project were Kachemak Gear Shed-Redden Marine, In Demand Marine, Desperate Marine, South Central Radar and NOMAR.
“There is an amazing amount of skilled labor and services you can get here,” said Nelson. “I would not be a bit surprised if Homer is in the top few, if not the top, boat-building ports on the entire West Coast. The number of boats that come out of this place is phenomenal.”
Eric Sloth got his boat-building start in Homer in the 1980s. Today, Sloth owns and operates Sloth Boats, working on and building a variety of styles that include catamarans, as well as 58-foot seiners.
“Most of our business is just major modifications to existing boats,” said Sloth of work done by his crew of 10-12 during the peak winter working season.
In spite of similarities — a hull and within that hull a fish hold, cargo capacity, an engine, bunks, a galley — boat work involves different designs for different fisheries, different gear to be accommodated, different peculiarities of each skipper. That is what Sloth likes best about the work.
“The thing I like … is that there’s no repeatable project. Everything’s new every day,” said Sloth.
What first attracted Sloth to the world of boat building was the local knowledge of people like Engebretsen’s dad, Allen, the late Renn Tolman, George Hamm and others. Allen Engebretsen even worked for Hamm before opening his own business in 1974.
Hamm came to the Homer area in 1964. He arrived with 10 years of experience in the marine trades.
“I started a boat shop and at first called it ‘Kachemak Marine,’ but nobody ever said they got a boat from Kachemak Marine. They just said, ‘I got a Hamm hull,’” said Hamm.
Wanting to give his 20-foot wooden vessels a name other than the “Hamm hull,” he said he coined the phrase “K-Bay,” referring to Homer’s location on the shores of Kachemak Bay.
“Now they’ve got K-Bay everything, but I started it,” said Hamm of the name that has since become associated with everything from radio stations to coffee.
Hamm has built somewhere between 300 and 500 wooden and fiberglass boats. The largest measured 45 feet in length and was a sailboat for a Seward client. He has faced the challenge of creating boats suited to Alaska’s demanding, although short fisheries. As a designer and builder of boats, he also knows the importance of building a boat that fits the person who will operate it.
“It has to fit the personality,” said Hamm.
For Sloth, Homer’s biggest boat-building challenge is lack of infrastructure, specifically lifts that can accommodate large vessels.
“In the Puget Sound area, every yard has major boat lifts, large buildings, big capital expenses. Even in places like Kodiak or Cordova, the state has put in big marine lifts, the kind of capital investments that take awhile,” said Sloth. “That’s our limitation. We can only do so much with the infrastructure we have.”
Homer’s greatest strengths are its abundance of resources and talent, the “little shops that make it work,” the good networking “because we’re all friends,” said Sloth. On its website guide for boat owners, Homer Marine Trades lists more than 35 types of supporting businesses.
“In 1978, there wasn’t much. This town knew work boats, but nothing about sport boats. But it has evolved in 36 years,” said Kate Mitchell, spokesperson for Homer Marine Trades and owner of NOMAR, winner of Made in Alaska’s “2013 Manufacturer of the Year” award.
NOMAR is known for its fleece clothing, outdoor gear, upholstery, fishery products and full-service boat shop.
“Marine trades definitely are coming of age as fine craftsmen with jobs, expertise and crew are able to tackle those bigger jobs,” said Mitchell.
Coming-of-age means increased job opportunities, “family-sustaining jobs,” according to Mitchell.
As examples of family-sustaining employment, Engebretsen pointed to his father, Allen, and Dennis Calhoun. The two men developed Bay Weld’s first design and remain actively involved in the company.
Of a new employee base, Engebretsen said, “I find that the young crowd here in town has grown up around the water, around boats and come in with a pretty good head-start on what it takes to be on the water. We just train them to the specifics.”
Training programs also offer a foot in the door.
“We have two in our shop right now that are from Homer, did the welding program through Homer High School, went to AVTEC (Alaska’s Institute of Technology in Seward) and came back and we hired them on,” said Engebretsen.
The ups and downs of Alaska’s fishing industry offer a word of warning to the marine trades on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
“About 15 years ago Pete Fefelov was running quite a large boat-building operation in Nikolaevsk. They built something like 200 boats,” said Engebretsen, of a once-thriving business east of Anchor Point. “But that all shut down when the fisheries were struggling and no one was building boats for a long time.”
What that also means for local boat-builders is being able to offer a quality service and product at a competitive price.
“I think Homer’s pretty unique,” said Sloth of a marine-trades reputation that extends beyond Kachemak Bay. “We’ve got a boat here from Dutch Harbor. We had a guy from Kodiak fly us to Kodiak this winter because his boat was too big for the marine lift here. Homer’s the hot spot.”
A couple of years ago, Bay Weld Boats was awarded a project to build a 42-foot patrol boat for the state of Alaska. The competitive bid process drew the attention of “all the Northwest companies, all the big names from Washington, Oregon and California,” said Engebretsen. “So, I feel like that is a statement that you can do business in Alaska and get a competitive price as well.”
For more information:
• Bay Weld Boats, bayweldboats.com
• Freddy’s Marine, freddysmarine.com
• Homer Marine Trades, homermarinetrades.com
• Sloth Boats LLC, slothboats.com