When JB Turner opened the Front Street Shipyard in Belfast six years ago, he had a handful of workers and a vision.
The company has grown to nearly a hundred workers and is poised to start building state-of-the-art passenger ferries. They’re made of a lighter material that the company believes offer a number of benefits over the traditional steel- and aluminum-hulled vessels.
A beautiful 121-foot yacht up on blocks at the Front Street Shipyard is among several pleasure craft and fishing vessels in the cavernous building that dominates the waterfront site in Belfast.
Turner says business has been good.
“We believed there was the market for it. We believed that if we found flat land on Penobscot Bay, with a town directly nearby — I should say city, I’ll get in trouble for that — that everybody will come if we built it, and they came,” he says.
The growing workforce is willing to take on a diverse spectrum of projects, from sprucing up classic yachts to building and repairing commercial vessels. A satellite yard in Bucksport is busy building lobster boats, and the yard is poised for a major expansion after reaching a deal with Norwegian builder Brødrene Aa to create a new company, Arcadia Alliance LLC, to build state-of-the-art carbon fiber passenger ferries.
“You can achieve the same strength, the same stiffness, from a carbon fiber laminate as that of steel, but weighs substantially less,” says Martin Grimnes, one of the founders of the Maine Composites Alliance and president — and currently the only employee — of the Arcadia Alliance.
Grimnes says steel and aluminum ferries, mostly used in the U.S., require more maintenance and higher operating costs than carbon fiber composites, which are lighter, don’t rust and use significantly less fuel.
Turner says the company’s plan is to leverage the advantages of carbon fiber to carve out a piece of the U.S. market for ferries. There are, he admits, some challenges.
“There is about a 10-15 percent increase in cost to build a carbon fiber over an aluminum high-speed ferry. But there is a 40 percent weight savings in the structure alone. So you can really save fuel and you save emissions,” he says.
Turner says the new company, based in Belfast, will make use of the federal Jones Act that prohibits ships from carrying cargo and passengers from port to port in this country unless the vessels are built in America.
Brødrene Aa has built over 50 ferries of the size that Arcadia is looking to produce, and will provide the plans and expertise to build them here in Maine. Turner says a new structure to facilitate the building of these ferries is planned for this year.
Meanwhile, like many other Maine companies, the Front Street Shipyard is trying to solve a critical problem.
“There really isn’t anyone now out on the street looking for work,” says Tammy Combs, the shipyard’s HR director.
Combs says it has been difficult to recruit skilled workers from other areas of the country, and to convince young Mainers to consider the shipbuilding business, even though the pay and benefits are competitive.
Combs says the company is still actively seeking young Mainers with skills needed at the yard, including reaching out to area high schools and nearby community colleges.
“They can work for us for the summer. And I will actually use a company vehicle and take them on a tour to either school. And also Southern Maine Community College that has a composites program,” she says.
JB Turner says the yard has about a dozen vacancies right now, and will need another 50-100 workers based on demand for the new carbon fiber ferries.