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Business and Economy

Belfast Shipyard Partnering with Norwegian Ferry Company

Jay Field
Front Street Shipyard in Belfast.

BELFAST, Maine — A midcoast shipyard has struck a deal with a Norwegian ferry company to build energy-efficient, carbon fiber ferries for sale in the U.S.

The partnership, called Arcadia Alliance, will market the ferries to state and federal agencies who want to replace aging aluminum vessels.

Front Street Shipyard has contributed to a renaissance along Belfast's waterfont since it opened in 2011. The yard now employs just over 100 people and could add as many as 50-100 more jobs once the ferry partnership gets up and running.

A fishing trawler out of Stonington and a whale watch vessel from Portsmouth, New Hampshire await repairs in the yard outside building No. 5 at Front Street Shipyard. JB Turner, the yard's president and GM, says the building is scaled to work on large vessels.

"Right now, we're in one of the bays of building 5," he says. "The doors lift up 40 feet and we can walk boats in and out."

Overhead cranes tower above a 20-inch-thick slab of concrete that fills the building with radiant heat and supports four private yachts in various stages of retrofitting and repair.

"They're all made out of different materials," Turner says. "The two in the forward end of the bay are fiberglass. And the aft end of the bay are made out of all aluminum."

Aluminum and steel are popular boat building materials. The hulls made from these metals are stiff. They do well in choppy, rough seas and are considered extremely safe — qualities that have made them the go-to material for ferry construction. But Turner says there are also drawbacks to aluminum ferries.

"Aluminum is very difficult to hold paint," he says. "It corrodes. The welds often crack over time, as the boat's working, especially on the catamarans, where you have two hulls working independently."

Credit Jay Field / MPBN
JB Turner

A few years ago, as Front Street looked for ways to continue expanding the boat building side of its business, Turner began having conversations with friend and colleague Martin Grimnes about building a different kind of ferry.

Grimnes, who was born in Norway, helped found the Maine Composites Alliance. And for years, he has raced sailboats made from lightweight composites like carbon fiber and fiberglass.

"You can achieve the same strength, the same stiffness, from a carbon fiber laminate, as that of steel, yet weigh substantially less," he says.

A more lightweight, carbon fiber ferry, for example, would use much less fuel than steel or aluminum-hulled boats. It would also be less likely to corrode.

Grimnes had long thought that Maine could lead the way in building these more energy efficient vessels.

"We just need to bring the technology here," he says. "And the technology is here for the private market. But not for the commercial market."

That's about to change, though. After doing some research and consulting with the U.S. Coast Guard, Turner and Grimnes decided to look for a partner to begin building so-called T class ferries that carry up to 150 passengers.

Grimnes introduced Front Street to Brødrene Aa, a Norwegian shipbuilder that's been making carbon-fiber ferries since 2002. Front Street has singed a memorandum of understanding with Brødrene Aa to begin building ferries for the U.S. market under the name Arcadia Alliance.

"Assuming that all of our refit and service work keeps going, I can see easily adding 50-100 jobs to build the ferries, separate from the rest of the yard," Turner says.

Turner says the ferries will likely cost between $5 million and $8 million a piece. The next challenge will be marketing the vessels to state and municipal agencies and private ferry operators throughout the U.S.

In January, the sales job will begin with a trip to the Passenger Vessel Association's annual trade show in Washington D.C.