tampabay.com

Latest creation is ready to set sail

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 4, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS - While tourists shopped and sampled Greek pastries on the Sponge Docks, a private ritual unfurled Monday on the other side of the Anclote River.

A winch turned, a cable loosened and hundreds of tons of steel slid into the water. For the 50th or 60th time, workers at Duckworth Steel Boats launched a freshly built commercial fishing vessel.

"I feel great about it," said a smiling Junior Duckworth, an accidental shipbuilder who has made boats for 35 years.

When he said "great," he meant "relief." As much as he likes boat-building, Duckworth said he still gets butterflies on launch days, because of everything that can go wrong.

But nothing did go wrong, except for a little scraping of blue paint from the hull, which will be touched up soon. A cheer rose from the crowd of about 75 workers and friends as the 93-foot scallop boat entered the river.

The boat, called Polaris, will go to New Bedford, Mass., and brave the tall waves and fierce storms of the North Atlantic.

"It's really a sturdy boat," Duckworth said. "That boat will take green water over that mast."

In a town better known for its history of sponge diving than for any current industry, the Duckworth boat works is mostly hidden.

But the small boat yard with a staff of about 25 sits on a stretch of the Anclote where pleasure crafts and condos are constantly inching closer and where heavy industry increasingly feels out of place.

Duckworth, 64, originally dreamed about becoming a commercial fisherman, not someone who builds their boats. While working at another Tarpon Springs boat yard in the early 1970s, he decided to build his own steel boat on the side. He learned more about boats with each sheet of steel he cut and welded into place. Duckworth eventually planned to cruise the Gulf of Mexico and catch grouper.

But he ran out of money and sold the boat to someone else. He started building a bigger boat for himself, but sold that too. And never stopped.

Over the past three decades, he has built dozens, including the bright red Capt. Memo pirate cruise boat on Clearwater Beach. But most of his boats are for commercial fishing, such as a series of 160-foot clam vessels he created in recent years.

Wayne Wilson, 61, started welding for Duckworth 25 years ago. He said Duckworth is a no-nonsense boss who expects good work and trusts you to do it.

Wilson said there's no back-stabbing among his co-workers, just a lot of guys trying to get the job done.

"I think the best thing about the place is the fact that the owner's out there with you every day," said electrician Nick Ellis, 61. He also likes knowing that he can come to work every day with his dog Bammer, who climbs ladders and explores boat decks.

"Junior'll do anything," said Duckworth's nephew, Jonathan Ulrich, a fabricator who is one of several family members at the business. "He's as old as he is, and he'll climb up a scaffolding and act like a damn kid." If the crew is at work on a physically demanding job, "he'll do it too, that's just the way it is."

Duckworth said he loves the business, but doesn't like the government regulations that cover such things as runoff from his property and how to handle such jobs as sandblasting.

Duckworth said he has sometimes tussled with environmental agencies. He wishes the Anclote could be dredged, because it's hard to build big boats on a river that's 12 feet deep - when the tide and wind are just right.

He said he has occasionally considered quitting the business but isn't ready just yet.

When the cable lowered the ship into the Anclote on Monday, wind caught the bow, a small boat pushed in on the stern, and a half-dozen men grappled thick ropes. All this turned the boat parallel to a dock, and the men secured it with the lines.

In a month and a half, workers will finish the interior, power up the engines, and finish the sea trials. Then it will be ready for scallops.

Frank O'Hara, co-owner of Polaris, was all smiles.

"It's just a great feeling," he said.

Fast Facts:

The Polaris

Weight: About 300 tons, unfueled and unloaded.

Capacity: Can carry 130,000 pounds in its hold.

Dimensions: 93 feet long, 28 feet wide, will have a draft of about 13 feet when loaded.

Rigging: Will include two 15-foot "drags" for scooping up scallops.

Cost: More than $2-million

Home port: New Bedford, Mass.