Sailing into the sunset: Matt Nichols retires from renowned boat builder

The last of the Nichols Brothers is leaving the shipyard.


The last of the Nichols Brothers is leaving the shipyard.

After 60 years of building 210 vessels of every size, shape and purpose — tugs, fast ferries, big ferries, cruise ships, yachts, paddle wheelers, Disney tourist boats, fishing rigs, fire rescue and research boats— Matt Nichols is casting off from the family business that connects four generations.

“It seemed the right time,” Nichols said. “Dad opened the shipyard in 1964, 60 years ago this month. Also, I turned 77 on May 7th.”

A retirement celebration with employees, company executives, friends and family is planned today at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Cameron Road in Freeland.

The name of the business and its mission will remain the same, said Scott Vollmer, CEO and Managing Partner of Drum Capital Management, LLC. The Connecticut investment firm acquired the non-union shipyard for $9.2 million in a bidding auction 14 years ago after Nichols Brothers declared bankruptcy.

“Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, and Everett Ship Repair, aren’t just names,’ Vollmer said. “They’re brands, recognized in the industry by operators and other builders alike.”

Everett Ship Repair, which has two huge dry docks in the Everett harbor, was added to the Nichols workload three years ago. Both entities are overseen by CEO Gavin Higgins. Since 2008, Matt Nichols has served as the company’s namesake, historical memory and vice president of sales.

Vollmer admitted Nichols hasn’t always agreed with some of Drum Capital’s business plans or decisions. But they do adhere to the same management style and business philosophy.

“We always agreed that our people and our quality came first,” Vollmer said. “Our success is a result of a team effort. We hire local, high caliber men and women, train and empower them.”

Champagne or imitation bubbly will undoubtedly flow this afternoon at the company’s tightly packed Holmes Harbor hub. Countless bottles have cracked over giant hulks of steel before drifting off on the high tides of the Salish Sea to destinies around the nation and world — Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, California, Baja, British Columbia, Costa Rico, Fiji.

Celebrating is high on the list of traditions in the trade of shipbuilding and shipbuilders, known as shipwrights.

“In the old days, you had a keel laying party, you had a mast-raising party, you had a launching party and then a christening,” Nichols said. “So you had four parties.”

Matt Nichols is the last of his family to work at Nichols Brothers that over the decades included his father, six brothers, two sisters and two sons. He is one of 11 children of Frank and Peggy Nichols, born smack in the middle of three older brothers, two older sisters and three younger brothers and two younger sisters.

The whole family lived where the shipyard started as Nichols and Downing Boat Works in 1964, in the back of a dilapidated machine shop. The light green facade of the shop remains as a quaint entrance to the shipyard that’s grown from an overgrown pasture to a 17 acre-complex of work tents, cranes, ladders and training workshops.

“We literally cut out that old shop out of the blackberry bushes,” Matt’s sister, Naida Thorsen, remembered. “Us seven younger kids helped clean it up, poured cement and created a boys room, girls room, one bathroom and a drafting room.”

Matt’s grandfather, George Mark Nichols, settled in Hood River, Oregon in 1939 and turned his blacksmithing skills into melding together tug boats and fishing boats.

His son Frank worked on boats for 20 years, tried other occupations, then decided to return to the maritime trade. He visited Whidbey Island and found Holmes Harbor, which at the time was the center of Freeland with a dock, post office and store. It seemed ideal for building and launching boats because of its reliable high tides. He started building fishing rigs with six of seven sons working for him — Archie, Matt, Luke, Willie, Mike and Nate.

“We were Dad’s crew,” Matt Nichols said. “We were crawling up the sides of boats before we could walk. Our dad used to say, ‘You don’t even know what you know.’”

Nichols Brothers is the largest private employer in unincorporated Island County. Staffing has fluctuated over the years from 600 to 175 employees today.

Many have worked at the company for 20 or more years, such as crane operator Ken Gillette. He started in 1975 “without a clue” and left 41 years later with a trade, career and many fond memories.

“I was 24 years old. I didn’t have any skills,” said Gillette, now 71. “I worked with Matt’s father, Frank. He was a very smart man and a very good teacher.”

Matt’s family moved to Whidbey when he was 17. He graduated from Langley High School in 1965, went off to college, served in the Air Force, and somehow found himself back in the boatyard.

“I didn’t think I’d be building boats at all. It was never my desire to,” he recalled.

“I was confronted by Dad in 1972 that he was going to retire and he wanted his sons to run the yard and asked me if I was interested.

“I said I’d think about it. I remember all the hard times he had. It was a struggle and I thought, ‘Why would I want to do that?’”

The company grew into one of Puget Sound’s major shipyards, landing contracts with many government entities, including Washington State Ferries, Kitsap County passenger ferries, San Francisco Bay fire rescue and a high-speed catamaran for the U.S. Navy.

Matt worked alongside Archie, his brother who stayed for 25 years, as the company and its ships grew in size. Most spectacular was Empress of the North, a 360-foot, 3,500-ton sparkling cruise ship, the company’s largest project. It also completed two 50-cabin overnight mini-cruise ships, M/V Quest and M/V Venture, bound for the exotic ports of Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic excursions. Nichols Brothers’ portfolio also includes 700-passenger capacity dinner boats, five Disney river boats, 45 tug boats and a cargo and passenger vessel ordered by the Government of American Samoa.

“Not in a million years did I think Dad’s company would grow into what it is today,” said Thorsen, Matt’s sister, who also worked in the family business for several years in the drafting department. (“I actually wanted to be a welder but after getting 15 burns on me, I said ‘no.’”)

Her big brother was always there for his workers, Thorson said. “He helped them emotionally, religiously, financially. And he never expected payback.”

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders also became known for its civic spirit and willingness to lend its heavy machinery toward community causes. Such as the 2002 rescue of Springer, a 12-foot orphaned orca that had been languishing near Vashon Island. It also lent equipment and space every Independence Day at Freeland Park’s fireworks display.

Looking out his office window at a heron on the hunt on the beach (surely the best corner office with a view on Whidbey Island), Matt Nichols reflected on all the days, all the workers, all the trials and tribulations of a family business of boatbuilders.

“Sometimes after completing a hard job, we’d go down to the harbor and say, ‘Good riddance.’ And yet when you see the boat later, you forget those little hardships, and you think, ‘Good to see the old girl again.’

“I remember every one of them,” he said. “The good, the bad and the ugly.

“Most of it, all good.”

Photo by David Welton
Nichols poses in front of an original building at the Freeland site.

Photo by David Welton Nichols poses in front of an original building at the Freeland site.

Photo by David Welton
Matt Nichols is the last of the South Whidbey brothers to leave the boat builder.

Photo by David Welton Matt Nichols is the last of the South Whidbey brothers to leave the boat builder.