I’ve had two new experiences while on the road in the panhandle of Florida the past few days. First, I reached the 19-year threshold of being a WorkBoat employee, and yesterday I visited Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Panama City, Fla., for the first time. Others from our company have been there, of course, but I hadn't. It was long overdue. Eastern is one of the Gulf Coast yards that learned long ago the value of diversification when it comes to its orderbook.

I was met by the company’s vice president, sales and marketing, Steve Berthold, and marketing assistant, Jennifer Nielsen. We started with a tour of Eastern's Panama City yard, known as the Nelson yard because that’s the street where it is located. It's also where 300-350 workers are hustling to meet deadlines. There were several impressive vessels under construction there, including the 327'x73'x29'3", DP-2, Z-drive multipurpose service vessel Harvey Blue-Sea for Harvey Gulf International Marine, the 158'x52'x33' ATB tug Douglas B. Mackie for Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., and the 80'x38'3"x15'9" Z-drive docking/ship assist tug, Poseidon, for Suderman & Young Towing Co.

Berthold said they have been very aggressive going after contracts. “We have a depressed market in oil and gas right now, so there aren’t as many of those boats to build. But even when that market is up, we’re looking at other contracts for boats we know we can build.”

And one of those contracts Eastern went after was for the Coast Guard’s offshore patrol cutter (OPC). Today, the Coast Guard announced it had awarded the contract for the production of the lead OPC and up to eight follow-on cutters to Eastern. The total award was valued at $110.29 million and the contract has a potential value of $2.38 billion with options to produce nine cutters. Eastern beat out Bollinger Shipyards and Bath Iron Works.

Across the waterway that branches off from the Intracoastal Waterway is Eastern’s outfitting yard. There were 40 employees there yesterday getting the Harvey Sub-Sea, sistership to the Harvey Blue-Sea, ready for delivery. We toured the massive MPSV while the workers were at lunch. “With Shane (Guidry, Harvey Gulf’s chairman and CEO) everything is first class,” said Berthold. “From the diesel-electric propulsion system to the galvanized chain to the washing machines onboard. That’s the way he does it.”

At the end of the dock sat the 80'x38'3"x15'9" docking/ship assist tug Laura B for Bay-Houston Towing, due for delivery by the end of the week. Eastern is building sets of four of the tugs for both Suderman & Young and Bay-Houston. The companies’ fleets are both operated by G&H Towing Co.

“You’ve got 5,200-hp on an 80-foot tug. That’s a lot of power,” Berthold said. “The pilots in Houston and Corpus Christi [Texas] love them.”

After lunch, we headed about 35 miles down the road to Eastern’s Allanton yard. At this facility, which boasts 1,000 employees, I saw the 90'x32'x10' Capt. Ricky Torres and Cullen Pasentine, the 64th and 65th out of 65 towboats Eastern contracted for with Florida Marine Transporters; the 433'x92'x36' ATB dredge barge Ellis Island, which will be coupled with the tug at the Nelson yard, Douglas B. Mackie; the 356'x79'6"x27'3" self-propelled trailing suction hopper dredge Magdalen; the 96'x34'x14'9" ASD Z-drive tug Jeffery McAllister for McAllister Towing & Transportation; and four 134'x42'x9', triple-screw inland river retractable towboats that will work in Latin America for IWL River Inc.

With so much going on in the yards, I asked Berthold how they keep its inventory organized. “Everything that comes into the yards is photographed,” he said. “All the boxes for inventory are opened and photographed.”

My sincere thanks to Steve and Jennifer and everyone at Eastern for their hospitality. It was an impressive, and long overdue, visit.


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.