260-foot-long riverboat out for river testing

River Boat

A striking, carefully crafted five-story paddleboat, built at Chesapeake Shipbuilders, has been launched and will leave for Mississippi in a few weeks.

An overnight passenger mini-cruise ship, it holds 150 and is similar to one built at the Salisbury plant two years ago, said Tony Severn, president of Chesapeake Shipbuilders, on Fitzwater Street.

“It’s one of a few in the country. There are very few in the country. It’s like a replica of a steamboat on the Mississippi. It has a paddlewheel,” he said.

“Everything was done by hand. There is a lot of handwork, welding, all the interior work, all the plumbing, electrical, carpet. Everything is done right here,” Severn said.

The paddle boat is 260 feet long and 60 feet wide. Severn wouldn’t reveal the cost.

“Right now the public health service is inspecting the galley, the water drinking supply. During construction, the public health service inspects it,” he said.

“These are the type of cruises that a company does primarily for older, retired people. It doesn’t have a casino. It’s very quiet with a lot of personal service. It goes to small towns. It goes to Crisfield, St. Michaels, Cambridge, and then it goes on the inner-coastal waterways and stops at places like Charleston, Savannah. They gave tours and then people come back for dinner on the boat.  The average age of the passengers is late ’60s,” he explained.

The vessel was purchased by American Cruise Lines, based in Connecticut. The company operates six boats in the country, and five were built in Salisbury.

They are in Alaska, on the Columbia River and in Mississippi. Three  travel up and down the East Coast on seven-night cruises. “They go to New England, maybe Rhode Island, to Martha’s Vineyard,” Severn said.

Chesapeake Shipbuilders is the only shipyard on the Chesapeake Bay other than those where U.S. Navy work is done. “We’re the only game on the Chesapeake Bay,” Severn said.

In a typical year, the company builds one and one-half boats, and two in some years. Last year, two were delivered, and this year, there will probably be three.

“We put a building up last year to increase output. We moved from one and one-half to two and now we want to go to three,” Severn said.

The company receives orders for boats, most that stay in the United States, and some that said in Puerto Rico or Costa Rica.

Involved in ship building close to 40 years, Severn has worked at Chesapeake Shipbuilders since a few months after it opened in 1981. He was working in a submarine yard in New England and wanted to return to Maryland, where he grew up.

The property had been a shipyard until the 1950s, when it was abandoned before being reopened in 1981.

“For a lot of years it was pretty low key and an unglamorous rough operation. It struggled for a few years. “It was pretty much derelict buildings,” he said.

Now, the yard spreads over 13 acres, with about 2,000 feet of bulkhead on the Wicomico River. Buildings feature, the company Web site explains, “automatic welding equipment, a compressed air system, and a rail system that allows vessels to be moved to the launch ways.”

In a related matter, Severn said his company is trying to obtain building permits to erect another building, but the permit process has been a struggle. “We were ready to go last November. We may lose an order for two more tugboats because we can’t get it going. They want to change the design,” he said.

A plan the company submitted was returned with 69 comments. “We never had that many comments in the past. A lot of it has to do with storm water,” he said, adding it’s a frustrating process, considering about 500 jobs will be lost when Labinal closes in December 2016.

When Chesapeake Shipbuilders opened in 1981, there were six employees, and now there are nearly 200.

“We’re trying to hire people,” he said. “It’s pretty satisfying work.”


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