Masters of civilian boatbuilding

Master Boat Builders, a third-generation company, is constructing the most advanced tugboats in the country

Garrett and Michael Rice at Master Boat Builders in Coden. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

Garrett Rice stands at the window of his second-floor office at Master Boat Builders in Coden and looks out over the shipyard. He points past the cranes and half-built tugboats toward Coden Bayou, which empties just feet away into Portersville Bay at the southern heel of Alabama. He points out the spot near the water’s edge where his grandfather’s seafood shop once stood, before Hurricane Frederic flattened it in 1979 and pushed the Rice family into boatbuilding full-time. 

Then he points out the recently completed Titan electric-hybrid tug, propped up in the yard not far from the old shop. A sister ship to the Spartan hybrid tug, which Master Boat Builders (MBB) delivered in March to Seabulk Towing, the Titan can operate on electrical power, mechanical power or a combination of the two. Considered cutting-edge achievements in marine technology, the boats have helped cement MBB as one of the most advanced tugboat builders in the United States.

Garrett keeps a framed photograph in his office of the shipyard in 1983, when the bold experiment was just a few years old. The third-generation boatbuilder took over the role of president in 2020 from his father, Michael, who grew up working at Rice Seafood and founded MBB with his father, James.

“I’ve worked here my whole life,” Michael says, remembering the odd jobs he was assigned around the seafood shop as a 10-year-old. Rice Seafood, founded in the early 1960s, sold around 4,000 pounds of oysters a week in its heyday. In other words, if you shucked an oyster in Mobile around that time, chances are it was first handled by a Rice.

Following the Vietnam War, Coden and nearby Bayou La Batre experienced an influx of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian immigrants and refugees, attracted to the area because of its environmental similarity to Southeast Asia. The result was a booming demand for shrimp boats. Michael and his father decided to dip their toes into boatbuilding in 1978. Just a year later, Hurricane Frederic destroyed the seafood shop and pushed the Rice family into the deep end of the boatbuilding pool.

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“I had never been to a shipyard in my life when we started this company,” Michael says with a laugh. “We didn’t have any experience. We just hired people and learned from them.”

Two such early hires were operations and productions manager Mike Weatherly and engineer Andre Dubroc. The two men came with boat building experience that would prove vital to the success of the company. Within the past couple of years, around the time that Michael stepped down and passed his responsibilities to his son Garrett, Mike and Andre each handed off their roles to their respective sons.

“And so you have three families that have been working together on this shipyard since the early days,” Garrett says.

The transition from seafood to sea vessel, however, wasn’t easy: “It was definitely a struggle to say the least,” Michael says. “We had to convince people that we knew what we were doing. That was the biggest challenge. But once people saw our product coming out — if you hire the right people, they can build the right boat for you.”

Welding plates on the Bay Houston tugboat that will be operated by GNH Towing. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

The decision to name the operation Master Boat Builders turned out to be a prescient one; over the next 43 years, MBB would grow into an internationally recognized workboat business, constructing about 430 vessels for customers around the world — everything from shrimp boats and offshore supply vessels to dive support vessels. 

“In this business, you have to learn to build different boats at different times,” Michael explains. For many years, that meant building shrimp boats in response to local demand; in the late 1980s, MBB was cranking out 25 shrimp boats a year. Continuing to follow the market, the company shifted its focus in the 1990s to offshore supply vessels, the ships that deliver goods, fuel and cargo to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. 

“We were strictly building supply boats for almost 20 years, and then in 2014, the price of oil went in the tank,” Garrett says. “Gulf operations slowed down a lot, so the oil companies stopped exploring, which means they stopped needing new boats. About that time, we started looking at the tugboat market and building relationships. We built a couple harbor tugs for Seabulk around 2016, and since then, it’s just kind of taken off.”

These days, MBB and its 250 employees are solely focused on building some of the world’s most innovative tugs.

To grasp the enormous impact that these strong boats, and therefore builders like MBB, have on the world economy, it’s important to understand what a tugboat does. When a large ship is ready to enter port, it is greeted by a tugboat, which can maneuver the larger ship through a narrow harbor by direct contact or tow line. As Garrett likes to explain, when you shop at Walmart, those items in your cart were delivered by container ship — which was delivered by tugboat.

Shipfitters Sam Pierce (left) and Michael Thompson install guard plates on z-drive for the Seabulk hybrid tug Titan. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

But it’s the type of tugboats being built at MBB that really gets Garrett excited. “We’re kind of sitting right in the middle of the next-generation tugboat,” he says. “Tugs have always been a high-power workhorse — big diesel engines that just create tons of power. The question now is, how do you get that power out of greener energy?”

One way is to create hybrid tugs, like the Spartan and the Titan, but MBB’s current project is perhaps its most monumental: the first-ever fully electric tugboat in the United States. The 82-foot eWolf, currently under construction for Crowley Maritime, is expected to be completed by mid-2023 and ready for service at the Port of San Diego.

“We’ve worked to put ourselves in a position to set the trend for what tugboat operators are doing,” Garrett says. “We’ve kind of established ourselves, and I think our customers would say the same thing, as the go-to yard in the country. If there’s a tugboat project out there, we’re getting a look at it.”

That’s not to say the past few years haven’t posed challenges. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the labor market, and unprecedented supply chain issues continue to make MBB rethink how it operates. For example, an engine that once took 30 weeks to arrive from the manufacturer now takes 60 weeks. That delay forces companies like MBB to make a lot of supply purchases on the front end, rather than spacing them out as boats are built.

“The result is that we won’t receive payment from a customer for a year and a half on something we have to buy now,” Garrett explains. “So figuring out this new model of business is tricky.”

Rising steel prices also tend to hit boatbuilders especially hard: “When the price of steel goes up, the price of every piece of equipment made from steel goes up as well,” Garrett says. “So not only do we get hit when we purchase steel, we get hit by price increases from pump manufacturers, engine manufacturers and anybody else who uses steel. It’s this huge trickle-down effect that, unfortunately, the shipyard industry takes the brunt of.”

An unexpected gift came this year, however, in the form of Discovery Channel’s popular series “Dirty Jobs.” For the episode, which aired in January, host Mike Rowe spent a full working day with the laborers, welders, ship fitters, pipe fitters and pipe welders who live and breathe boatbuilding.

“That experience wasn’t about us,” Garrett says, motioning to himself and his father. “It was about the work that these guys out in the yard do every day.”

As for the future, MBB intends to keep doing what carried them into boat building in the first place — following the market. Whether it be tugboats, supply boats to support a burgeoning wind farm industry or fishing vessels for the Pacific Northwest, Master Boat Builders hopes to continue living up to its name.

“For the past several years, we’ve made a name for ourselves as tugboat builders, but at the end of the day, we’re boatbuilders,” Garrett adds. “We’ve got the workforce that can really build any type of workboat. Right now it’s tugs, and there’s a market for that for the near future. But beyond that, we’ll see.”

Breck Pappas and Mike Kittrell are Mobile-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Pappas is also a senior writer for Mobile Bay Magazine.

This article appeared in the June 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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