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Bath shipyard: $1 billion backlog -- and growing

Its rivals call it the ''postage stamp shipyard.''

But little Bath Iron Works (BIW) in Bath, Maine, is making all of its 54 acres count as it continues to make waves as a successful shipbuilder.

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With more than 7,300 employees, up from just 3,300 in 1975, BIW has become the largest single private employer in Maine. The yard continues to hire new skilled workers as fast as their applications can be processed - about 65 a week. (But if you're one of the growing number of unemployed Americans, don't head for Maine yet. BIW is drawing first from some 14,000 applications for work already on file at the yard.)

And this growth, says BIW spokesman Frank Kerr, does not include a new US Navy contract worth $305 million awarded last month to build one of the new Aegis guided-missile cruisers. That work will begin in November 1983 and means that for the first time in its history, the yard has a $1 billion backlog of work. ''This puts the company in a solid financial position through the 1980s,'' says Mr. Kerr. More important, he adds, it means the yard will stay abreast of the latest techniques in warship design and construction.

BIW success runs against the economic tide both in Maine and in the US shipbuilding industry. It has helped buoy employment in a state in which many industries -- such as poultry farming - have been sinking. At the same time, hard times in commerical shipbuilding have quieted some shipyards and led to keen competition for prized US Navy contracts.

On the surface, BIW has little to offer but the 375 years of shipbuilding tradition in Bath - known as ''the City of Ships.'' Wooden ships had been built here since 1607. Nearly a century ago Bath Iron Works became part of that tradition, but abandoned wooden hulls for the newfangled use of metal.

Early on, BIW was a builder of commerical ships and yachts. The yard delivered the $3.5 million luxury cruise ship ''Corsair'' to tycoon J. P. Morgan in 1930, the most expensive ship of its type at that time. He wrote back a letter of thanks, calling his new vessel ''as perfect a piece of work as could have been done.'' Later, during World War II, the yard turned out a destroyer every seven months.

The success at BIW has been attributed to its shipbuilding tradition, the Yankee ethic of hard work, and the family-style atmosphere at the yard. With the arrival of John F. Sullivan Jr. as board chairman in 1975, BIW also began to revise its building methods. Modular construction techniques -- borrowed from the Japanese and Dutch, and then refined -- improved productivity and cut costs. Each ship is built section by section on land (an FFG-7 frigate requires 16 sections) where workers have easy access to all systems. The modules are then fitted together.

BIW's efforts to expand its operations were given a boost June 4 when it restarted work on a new drydock in Portland, Maine. The small size of the Bath yard has limited the shipyard's ability to bid on contracts to overhaul and repair existing vessels. The new facility, scheduled for completion in the fall of 1983, should create at least 1,000 additional jobs at BIW and more than 3,000 ''ripple effect'' jobs in the Portland area, says BIW spokesman Jim McGregor.

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The lobby group Common Cause, which opposes the use of a state bond in funding the project, is appealing a court ruling that permits BIW access to the funds.

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