It's been bad but it may get much, much better

San Francisco Bay Area has a long and well-established tradition of shipbuilding and ship repair. The City was founded as the major Pacific Coast port, and the Bay Area remains in the forefront of world trade. Shipbuilding and ship repair went hand-in-hand with the regionís function as a port.

By Wes Starratt, P.E. 
Published: September, 2000

San Francisco Bay Area has a long and well-established tradition of shipbuilding and ship repair. The City was founded as the major Pacific Coast port, and the Bay Area remains in the forefront of world trade. Shipbuilding and ship repair went hand-in-hand with the region’s function as a port.

The Gold Rush of 1849 quickened the need for Bay Area and coastal transportation, and shipyards were established to turn out wooden sloops and schooners to carry cargo and passengers. Naval ship repair facilities in the Bay Area were given a high priority, and the Mare Island Navy Yard was established for that purpose in 1854.

The need for mining machinery and heavy equipment prompted the establishment of metalworking firms such as San Francisco’s famed Union Iron Works. But, as the needs of the mining industry began to diminish, these firms turned to other markets, such as steamboat engines and shipbuilding. Wooden shipbuilding was to continue for a few more decades, largely in the Oakland Estuary. But steel had entered the picture. The first steel ship was launched in San Francisco in 1885 by Union Iron Works, which became the first large modern shipyard on the Pacific Coast. The shipyard continues building and repairing ships to this day under the name of San Francisco Drydock. .

World War I stimulated shipbuilding activity around the Bay, with shipyards in San Francisco and along the Oakland Estuary turning out military and cargo ships. From that time onward, Mare Island began building large warships and heavy cruisers as well as destroyers and, in more recent years, nuclear-powered submarines.

But, it took World War II, for the Bay Area to be transformed into the largest shipbuilding center that the world had ever seen. In 1940, the Navy purchased Hunter’s Point dry docks from Bethlehem Steel Co., made it an annex of Mare Island, and doubled its capacity with the addition of drydocks, machine shops, and fabrication facilities. At the same time, facilities were added and shipbuilding activities at Mare Island were dramatically increased.

In the once sleepy little town of Richmond, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser transformed the bay shore into four shipyards employing 90,000 workers that built a total of 747 Liberty, Victory, and Naval ships on a production-line basis. By war’s end, the lights were burning round-the-clock in Richmond as the production of ships from 27 shipways approached one every other day.

Across the Bay, a similar transformation took place as Sausalito became a major center of shipbuilding for the war effort. Taken together, the Navy’s Mare Island and Hunters Point yards, plus the four Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, the Bechtel yards in Sausalito, the Union Iron Works, shipbuilders along the Oakland Estuary, and other yards, the Bay Area was the center of worldwide shipbuilding during the war years.

The achievement was so profound that it caused Winston Churchill to write, "Without the supply columns of Liberty ships that endlessly plowed the seas between American and England, the war would have been lost." A substantial number of those ships were built right here in the Bay Area.

But the glow didn’t last for long. Within a few short years, the yards in Richmond and Sausalito were history. By 1975, the Navy closed its Hunters Point Yard, and finally, in a frenzy to close military bases, Ship Yard Mare Island was closed a few years ago.Today, what is left? The Union Iron Works, now San Francisco Dry Dock, after more than a century of activity, is still engaged in large-scale ship repair operations, and ship repair facilities for tugs, ferries, tour boats, and smaller vessels exist around the bay.The Bay Area, under the pressure of World War II, transformed itself into the center of worldwide shipbuilding. Can the Bay Area do it again on a much smaller scale for the regional high-speed ferry fleet that is needed to relieve the area’s transportation gridlock?San Francisco Bay’s ferry system, as it was


There was a time when the bay itself was almost the only medium for transportation in the area, and San Francisco was at the hub. Both transcontinental railroad lines had reached the eastern shore of the Bay: the Southern Pacific in Oakland, and the Santa Fe in Richmond. Passengers and freight were transferred from trains to waiting ferries for the trip across the bay. Even railroad cars were rolled onto barges and delivered to yards in San Francisco.

If you lived in the East Bay and worked in San Francisco, you took one of the many SP or Key Route trains and transferred to the ferries. In Marin and Sonoma counties, you took a train to Sausalito or Tiburon to catch a ferry for the trip to work. Literally thousands of commuters passed through San Francisco’s Ferry Building every day on their way to and from work.

Most of the ferries carried both passengers and vehicles. For many years, the ferry was the only way to cross the bay, or even to cross the Carquinez Straits, or get from Richmond to San Rafael, whether you were commuting to work, delivering goods, or taking the family for a Sunday outing.

In the 1930’s came the bridges, and soon passengers and vehicles began leaving the ferries for the much faster trip across the bay. It didn’t take long before ferry service on the bay ceased to exist. Ferries had become not only an endangered species, but also a species that ceased to exist. For some 30 years, there was no regular ferry service on the bay, and freeways crowded with automobiles completely dominated local transportation. The old single-steel-hull ferries were indeed too slow for the pace of modern life.

By the 1970s, the picture began to change dramatically when ferry buffs began to realize that there was a way to attract passengers: give them speed and comfort, and they will come!

Their persistence led to three technological breakthroughs that completely revolutionized ferryboat design. It started when they began asking specific questions such as,

Why not build ferries of a lighter material than heavy steel plate?

At the same time, the aluminum industry was eying new markets where the metal’s lightweight and structural strength was a distinct advantage, but where the difficulties encountered in welding the metal had been a barrier. After years of effort, metallurgical engineers persisted, and breakthrough-welding techniques were finally developed, ushering in a new generation of ferries built of lightweight aluminum.

The second and third steps of the revolution in ferryboat design had their roots in far off Sydney, Australia, where the locals retained a fondness for ferries. They began asking

Why have a single-hull vessel? Why not have two or more smaller hulls that would create less resistance as boats moved through water?

Why not use another means of propulsion than traditional propellers? Why not water jets?

One by one, solutions were developed resulting in three technological breakthroughs that set the stage was set for

The Dawn of the Age of High-Speed Ferries

In the Bay Area, the Golden Gate Bridge District, seeing the pressure of mounting traffic congestion on the bridge, was the first to plunge into the new era of commuter ferry service utilizing recently developed welding techniques for fabricating aluminum hulls. Acting on a ferry transportation plan developed by Philip F. Spaulding and Associates of Seattle, Washington, a unique, single aluminum-hull vessel was designed. Working with Kaiser Engineers, a terminal site was selected at a former barge-loading facility at Larkspur Landing, and a ferry terminal was built. By 1976, the first 725-passenger aluminum ferry was in operation, carrying passengers on a 45-minute run to the Ferry Building. The venture proved to be so successful that two additional ferries of similar design were added.

Next to enter and then dominate the Bay Area ferry scene were the catamarans. These high-speed ferries took advantage not only of lightweight aluminum, but also twin-hull design and water-jet propulsion systems. They can attain speeds of 36 knots, while requiring a draft of only five feet (important in the shallow waters of the bay), and providing a fast, comfortable ride. Red & White Fleet placed the first of the catamaran ferries, the "Catamarin," in service between Tiburon in Marin County and the Ferry Building in 1985. What had been a 40-minute run was reduced to only 20 minutes, giving passengers scarcely time to gulp their coffee. The operation proved so successful that a second catamaran was ordered.

The dawn of the "Age of High Speed Ferry Service" had begun, and high-speed catamaran ferries began operating to Tiburon, Vallejo, and Alameda/Oakland, as well as for tour and excursion service. At Larkspur Landing, Golden Gate Ferries placed its first catamaran, the "Del Norte," in operation, reducing the run to the Ferry Building to only 30 minutes. That service proved so successful that a second vessel has been ordered. An additional catamaran is also on order for Alameda, with further orders expected for Vallejo and possibly Richmond and Redwood City. Because of the appeal of the fast, comfortable service provided by the high-speed catamarans, the Bay of San Francisco is once again becoming a transportation corridor. The number of regular ferries of all types operating on the bay has increased from zero to more than a dozen.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission foresees an increase of only five vessels in the immediate future, but the number could increase dramatically, if the plan for "A Bay Area High-Speed Water Transit System for the 21st Century" is implemented in whole or in part by the recently formed San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority. That plan calls for 28 new ferry terminals and 75 high-speed ferries.

All of the high-speed aluminum catamarans in operation in the Bay Area have been built on Puget Sound in the State of Washington … most of them by Nichols Bros. Boat Builders in Whidbey Island, Washington, under license from International Catamarans, Ltd. (Incat) of Australia. A second firm, Dakota Creek Industries of Anacortes, Washington, is building catamarans under license from Advanced Multi-Hull Designs also of Australia.

In the Bay Area, the maintenance and repair of these ferries is being done by local shipyards, with Golden Gate Ferries able to handle all but major maintenance requiring dry docking.

As the number of aluminum catamarans operating in the Bay Area increases, questions arise:

First, can these vessels be maintained and serviced by existing local facilities, in view of the stringent requirements for aluminum fabrication?

Secondly, can these vessels be built right here in the Bay Area?

Specialized fabrication techniques

It must be emphasized that a key factor in the building, maintenance, and repair of these vessels is that they are made of aluminum. Welding must be done in a dedicated covered environment, out of the wind and out of the rain, uncontaminated by steel fabrication, and free of dust and moisture. Welders must be specially trained and certified by the US Coast Guard. In Puget Sound, the shipyards of both Nichols Bros. and Dakota Creek have been especially designed for aluminum fabrication.

Ship Repair

In the Bay Area, almost all of the drydocking and major repairs to aluminum-hulled ferries, including those of Golden Gate, Blue & Gold, and Red & White fleets, has been done by Bay Ship & Yacht in Alameda. The firm has trained and certified aluminum welders, developed an expertise in aluminum fabrication, and established the necessary specialized repair facilities. With these capabilities, the firm appears to have been the only one bidding on the repair work and drydocking of the catamarans. Pacific Maritime magazine, in its annual shipbuilding issue, lists Bay Ship & Yacht with one drydock having a lift capacity of 2,800 tons, two outfitting docks on the Oakland Estuary, two fabrication buildings and other shops. The firm has recently added a second drydock of smaller capacity.

San Francisco Drydock has the capability of doing drydock repairs for the new ferries, but may not be prepared to develop the necessary expertise and dedicated facilities for aluminum fabrication. As the largest active shipyard in the Bay Area, the firm is listed by Pacific Maritime magazine as having two drydocks each with a lifting capacity of 60,000 tons, a floating crane, craft shops and fabrication buildings, plus a recently acquired dock from the Navy. Some other shipyards, including Nautical Engineering in Oakland, are capable of providing ship repair services. Few offer expertise in aluminum fabrication, but that expertise could be developed.


San Francisco Drydock is currently focused on servicing larger cargo, cruise, and Navy ships, but the yard is capable of building any type of ship or ferry.

Bay Ship & Yacht has already taken the first step toward developing the facilities necessary for building catamarans. At the former Alameda Naval Air Station, the firm has leased several bays of the former Corrosion Control Facility, which features advanced environmental controls and is large enough to handle a Boeing 737. Adjacent are former seaplane launching ramps. Together these facilities could provide the closed environment necessary for building aluminum ferries. In addition, Bay Ship & Yacht has a license from a third Australian firm to build catamarans.

Former Naval Shipyards at Hunters Point in San Francisco and especially Mare Island in Vallejo offer facilities that could be utilized for building high-speed ferries. Unfortunately, each of them has problems.

Hunters Point was closed in 1975, and very little has been maintained since then. According to a representative of the US Navy, "Berthing is in bad shape, and buildings are in bad shape. There are three drydocks at Hunters Point: two of them have not been maintained for more than 15 years. It would take $3 to $4 million to restore them, including the missing caissons for closing the docks. The third drydock is leased to Astoria Metals Corp, which has a ship breaking contract with the Navy." So, there is only an "outside potential" for utilizing this former shipyard.

Mare Island offers a far greater potential. Facilities include four drydocks measuring up to 675 ft in length, 88 ft wide, and 35 ft deep, 13 berths up to 600 feet in length, five piers up to 725 feet in length, three shipways, and numerous buildings that could be used for fabricating ships. These facilities are actively being leased by Lennar Mare Island, LLC.

According to one of the shipbuilders from Puget Sound, "Mare Island would be the logical place to start looking for a shipbuilding facility in the Bay Area, but it has problems, since it was a steel fabrication facility, and aluminum fabrication can not be contaminated by steel from a previous operation." According another Puget Sound shipbuilder, "Our first choice for a shipyard in the Bay Area would be Mare Island."

Fortunately, the base has been closed for only a few years so most facilities are in relatively good shape. The cranes are still working, but pump houses may need upgrading. Probably the major problem is dredging, since none has been done since the base was closed a few years ago. There is heavy siltation in the estuary, and gates to the graving docks are blocked by at least 15 feet of silt.

Former Kaiser Shipyard No. 3 at Richmond might also serve as a site for a shipyard to build catamarans. It has two deep-water finger piers, and five deep-water graving docks, the largest being 750 ft long, 100 ft wide, and 30 ft deep. Two of the graving docks have gates and the others would require a caisson for closure. There is a nearby concrete structure dating from the 1940s that possibly could serve as a fabricating shop, but probably such a facility would have to be built.

Who Would Operate a "New" Shipyard for Building the Bay Area’s Catamarans? Bay Ship & Yacht undoubtedly would have an interest in expanding its shipyard and acquiring additional facilities. As for the two catamaran shipyards in Puget Sound: One responded, "Our firm would have no problem establishing a facility to build and maintain catamarans in the Bay Area if there is the business." The other was less interested, citing high labor and housing costs.

To answer the basic questions posed earlier in this article.

1. Ship repair facilities are adequate for maintaining the current fleet of dozen or more ferries, but would need to be expanded to meet the further needs.

2. Shipbuilding capabilities could be developed to meet the needs of an expanded regional ferry system by utilizing facilities at San Francisco Drydock, facilities leased to Bay Ship & Yacht at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, and rehabilitating facilities at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Kaiser’s Shipyard No. 3 in Richmond.

Yes, we can build and maintain our ferry fleet right in the Bay Area!