How many new workboats are there in the U.S.? It’s a question asked often and rarely answered. That's because it’s a hard number to pinpoint.

First of all, the total is a very fluid number. It’s akin to the Census Bureau collecting population data. By the time the bureau collects the data, the numbers are wrong. It’s similar for counting workboats. By the time you collect the data and publish it, boats may have been delivered that you have no information on or contracts fall through for any number of reasons.

But we give it a try each year, nonetheless.

WorkBoat’s Annual Construction Survey 2017-2018 will come out later this week in the April 2018 issue of the magazine. This is the 20th time I’ve been involved in the gathering of information for this project. Once the survey is published, question about how we arrived at the total number of boats is inevitable.

Ferries took a big jump in this year's survey. Ken Hocke photo

Ferry construction increased in this year's survey. Ken Hocke photo

In this year’s survey, the total number of newbuild workboats is 583. We arrived at that number by counting contracts let, boats under construction and vessels delivered over the past 12-month period. (Last year the survey was published in March, so this year we are counting the past 13 months.) We get our information from a variety of sources including shipyard surveys, owners, press releases, and reports and from information already published in WorkBoat magazine over the past year.

There are a variety of reasons why it's extremely hard to get a precise count. First, some shipyards don't want to participate. They have non-disclosure clauses in their contracts or they have so few boats that they don’t want to make it appear that they have no business. But just because a shipyard has only one or two boats in the survey doesn’t mean that they aren’t working on other newbuild contracts. Yes, it gets complicated.

Second, some shipyards have indefinite-delivery/indefinite quantity military contracts and can’t provide a specific number. Safe Boats International, however, has an ID/IQ contract with the Coast Guard to build some “over the horizon” patrol boats. The Port Orchard, Wash.-based yard laid out how many it would deliver between 2017 and 2020 for our survey. Most yards with those contracts don’t do that, so we count them as “multiple” boats. Multiple could be anything from two to 100 or more, but for the survey multiple only counts as one boat.

Third, shipyards and owners don’t want their competitors to see what they are building. That is understandable in theory, but most competitors know what you are building. It’s their business to know.

Patrol boats led all categories with 221 boats, while ferries and water taxis mirrored growth in the passenger vessel industry by coming in at 63 versus 30 last year. OSVs took the biggest hit, dropping from 31 newbuilds to just six this year.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s survey. As always, we gave it our best effort and feel we have a representative snapshot of shipyard construction over the past 12 months. And, yes, we’ll be back at it again next year.

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.