J & H Boatworks Recalls a Busy Seven Years at Tongue Point
February 1, 2018
The sale of J & H Boatworks of Astoria in June to WCT Marine Construction Inc, and the subsequent sale of the entire South Tongue Point property to Hyak Maritime in December, marks a major change in the history of this former WW II Naval air station on the east side of Astoria. In 1946, it became the last stop for hundreds of mothballed landing ships before they were dismantled by Zidell in Portland. When the scrapping program ended in 1963, the base closed and the 30-acre property was transferred to the General Services Administration, and then to the state of Oregon in 1980. Over the next 30 years, there was no shortage of wild ideas from developers, from a wood pellet plant to a luxury yacht builder, but they all sank without a trace.
In the mid-1990's, the Department of State Lands decided to sell the property, and accepted the bid of $5.5 million from the Washington Development Co. of Missoula, Montana, also the owner of Seaspan tug and shipping companies based in Canada. The new owners succeeded in finding one long-term tenant, Del Mar Seafoods of Watsonville, California, who used one of the two large aircraft hangars for seasonal processing. The second hangar was used briefly as a movie sound stage in 1993, but it wasn't until 2009, when the Port of Astoria stepped up to the plate and signed a ten-year lease for the entire site, that the pace of marine activity really picked up.
J & H Boatworks, an established local builder, had constructed the 66-foot by 22-foot F/V Defiant in 1980 at their small shop on the Young's River. Thirty years later, the same owner wanted the yard to sponson and re-build the boat, but their small shop and launch ramp were not equipped for haul outs. The availability of the Tongue Point seaplane ramp and hangar gave them the opportunity to open a second location and expand their capacity. All they needed was a trailer strong enough to haul the 90-ton boat. To keep the cost down, they found six rear-axle units salvaged from old logging trailers.
Tim Hill, J & H's owner and manager, knew there was some risk involved, but reckoned that 48 wheels should be enough to carry the load. His crew set up their tools in the hangar, rounded up some surplus plate and a couple of long girders, and quickly produced a serviceable haul-out vehicle. It wasn't pretty, but it successfully handled the Defiant after the tanks were emptied and the deck gear removed, using two logging "skidders" pulling on a long tow wire.
The hangar doors have 31 feet of vertical clearance (to accommodate the WW II Catalina seaplanes) so there was no need to remove any of the superstructure other than the mast to allow the vessel and trailer to enter the hangar. The topsides were cut away and Hill's team began establishing the new chine line. This is a crucial stage in sponsoning, and J & H ensured the line was fair with wooden and aluminum battens and "good eyes from years of experience," Hill explained. In the late fall of 2010, the Defiant emerged looking like a completely new boat with a length overall of 71 feet 6 inches including the new bulbous bow, and a beam of 28 feet. "We've taken a boat that's borderline small and turned it into a real mean fishing machine," Hill said.
This initial success led to a steady stream of inquiries about conversions, repairs and overhauls, and enough customers to make this new venture the main focus of his business for the next six years. Hill was well aware that it all depended on the trailer, which was continually upgraded with features like an elevated driver's platform, better hydraulics, and reinforcement at the stress points.
He soon had a second project underway, sponsoning and renovating the local crabber F/V Katrina from June to December 2011. The hull was lengthened from 45 feet to 51 feet and beam increased substantially from 14 feet to 22 feet with technical help from naval architect Tullio Celano. The original 3/16-inch steel plate and frames were all replaced by 1/4-inch, and a new 425-hp John Deere main and an IMS 20-ton chiller were installed. Next up in 2012 was the sponsoning of the 58-foot squid Seiner F/V Karen Marie, from Ventura, California. This good-looking Ed Monk design was sponsoned from 17 feet to 23 feet.
Karen Marie was followed in 2013 by the King Cove, Alaska-based seiner/trawler F/V Cape St. Elias. The renovation included sponsoning from 18 feet to 26 feet, and an eye-catching whaleback design with full width deckhouse and a new breakwater in front of the existing wheelhouse. When it was re-launched, this vessel was totally unrecognizable. All the deck gear was trucked to Snow & Co.'s yard on the Seattle Ship Canal in Ballard for overhaul, and Snow refitted the gear, finished the cabins, and added a new aluminum mast, while J & H moved on to next job. The boat was in the news in Feb 2017, when a crewman was badly bitten on the leg by a rogue sea lion at the Peter Pan Seafoods dock in Sand Point (see Fishermen's News, April 2017).
2013 also saw another Seiner, the F/V Gorbuscha, in for upgrades that included fabricating and installing a new aluminum wheelhouse, and rebuilding the fish hold. The F/V Provider from Long Beach, California arrived in the fall of 2013 for sponsoning from 18 feet to 24 feet, a new bulbous bow and other upgrades.
This was followed by a major renovation of the 58-foot Seiner Paige Marie, a 42-year old boat that was showing its age, despite regular maintenance since skipper David Sorensen bought it in 1998. It had been sponsoned and the stern extended several years before by Fashion Blacksmith in Crescent City, California. The scope of work in Astoria included the construction of a wider two-story pilothouse and an aluminum mast but expanded when they found the deck needed replacing and the holds needed more work (see Fishermens News, August 2015.)
The last major project and biggest conversion for J & H was the 77-foot by 22-foot tender F/V Lady Rosemary, built 1977. It had sat on the apron next to the hangar for more than a year while it was partially re-built by the owner. But the work had ground to a halt, and the new owners asked Hill to take a look. After a careful survey, J & H took on the project and completed all the metalwork and outfitting in the hangar. The "new" boat was re-launched in the spring with eight feet added to the length for a total of 85 feet, with the extra deck space filled with a complete sorting system for Alaskan salmon. It was also sporting the distinctive "whale-back" foredeck designed by Celano, which dramatically increases the covered space forward.
One of the last big boats Hill worked on was the F/V Taasinge, with the same ownership as the Defiant, which lost its rudder in northern California in the summer of 2016. It was towed from Crescent City to Astoria where it was hauled out for repairs. Hill was now 70 and was talking seriously about retiring after 40 years running the business. He credits his wife, Debi, with being as essential to the success of the company; her responsibilities were heavy, including managing the office, business systems and personnel.
Fortunately, they found a buyer in Willie Toristoja, who had moved from Vancouver, Washington to Astoria in 2015 with his young family specifically to lease the other half of the huge hangar and establish his own business. While he was arranging the purchase, the owner of the Defiant was also looking for a site for the complete rebuild of his oldest boat, the 60-foot F/V Charlie. He was able to sub-lease the hangar space vacated by J & H to complete what was likely the biggest civilian project ever undertaken in Tongue Point's history.
This project was managed and engineered by local marine engineer Phil Rohr whose business, North Coast Marine, had previously re-designed the systems on the local trawler F/V Ocean Invictus after a mid-body extension from 76 feet to 83 feet at Fred Wahl's yard in Reedsport. Rohr had designer Jason Huff draw the updated full-volume hull using the latest lofting and nesting software. The length of the Charlie was dictated by one of the several permits the boat holds; but the increased beam of 26 feet and high freeboard resulted in a capacity of 225,000 lbs. The small team of three men pulled all the gear off the hull in the new year.
By March 2017, they had the original keel boxed with new steel and increased in size to 6-inches by 12. The build made full use of the CNC cutting service at Farwest Steel in Vancouver Washington. The first module for the forepeak was fabricated upside down on WCT's 1/2-inch steel fabrication table. It was flipped over and hung in place with the yard's 65-ton crane. The bulbous bow was hoisted into place in April, followed by the bow plating in May. By July, the forward half of the hull was structurally complete and the framing for the after deck progressed quickly. By the end of August, the entire hull was watertight, with keel coolers and decks all in place. A new Cummins 600 HP engine replaced the old powerplant, and a new chiller by IMS was added.
All work up to the wheelhouse was done under cover before the hull was rolled outside with a coat of primer to complete the installation of the house, mast and crane. WCT launched the boat on the trailer at the end November and the crew moved it downriver to the Warrenton commercial moorage, which has truck access to a loading dock with a small crane, to complete the fit-out. To mark its renewal, the boat's name was also "upgraded" to F/V Charley. Luckily, the Dungeness season was delayed until mid-January 2018, giving them time to get the boat properly set up.
There was also more activity going on behind the scene last year, as the Port of Astoria considered purchasing Tongue Point. But there was little local support for this proposal, since the site needed major investments to update the utilities and replace pilings that dated from the 1940's. When the Washington group announced they had received an offer from Hyak Maritime to buy South Tongue Point, the Port agreed to end its lease. In mid-December, Hyak officially became the new owner of the property.
Within days, WCT began re-building the old haul-out trailer by attaching an additional 16 wheels on the back end with lowered axles to accommodate deep rudders and skegs, and added a third hydraulically-powered stand amidships. It was ready to go by Christmas; the first move was the 66-foot, 1965-built river tug Christie with a displacement estimated at 180 tons.
Hill has enthusiastically supported these efforts to continue Tongue Point's reputation for service and quality that he had established. "What is exciting for me is seeing this real chance of Tongue Point's elusive potential coming true with the sale to Hyak Marine and the presence of WCT Marine Construction, Inc.," he told me.
I expect 2018 will see WCT upgrading more of its equipment, while Hyak will be looking to attract customers, including operators who need long-term moorage and storage space onshore. They both believe that the 30,000-square foot hangar provides the largest indoor workspace in the region, and will help make this a regional center for marine repair and construction.