PORT MANATEE -- A custom fiberglass yacht builder best known for its multimillion-dollar luxury craft is using an unlikely new product to set itself up as one of the area's specialty aluminum boat manufacturers.
A South American oil company's order for 26 of the 45-foot-long water taxis has kept Sea Force IX's boat building facility busy building nothing else for the past 10 months. A low-volume, family owned manufacturer near Port Manatee, the company has taken up to two years to construct luxury yachts as long as 94 feet. Sea Force IX picked up the new work on a referral from a friend in the industry.
The company won the $15 million contract to build the boats even though it had never built a single aluminum craft.
"At the end of the day, a boat's a boat," said Chris MacKenzie, the company's sales and marketing executive.
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The work couldn't have come at a better time. Last summer, the company was winding down from building a $12 million, 94-foot yacht for a Spanish customer and had cut its workforce to just 10 employees. Once work on the water taxis started, Sea Force IX had up to 35 people working two shifts a day to fill the production line and keep it moving.
Now Sea Force is bidding on other commercial production. MacKenzie said the company is expecting an order for 45 security boats from another South American customer. Sea Force IX could eventually position itself to also build pilot boats and tug boats.
All this has the company planning to expand its 20,000-square-foot production facility and acquire more land for its boatyard. Eventually, MacKenzie said, Sea Force IX may find itself operating three separate production lines for aluminum, steel and fiberglass boats.
The company's biggest challenge is operating without easy access to water. Landlocked along the west side of U.S. 41, Sea Force IX trucks all its boats to Port Manatee where it uses facilities provided by stevedoring company Logistec to
launch and test its craft.
The new aluminum boats will be the most involved testing and shipping project the company has taken on. Once all the boats are tested, they will be stored at Port Manatee until Logistec loads them onto ships bound for South America. Previously, Logistec has used two giant cranes it purchased in partnership with the port to launch Sea Force's big pleasure craft.
This will be the first time Sea Force IX has actually shipped its boats out of the port. Previously, the company has delivered all its boats by sailing them to clients.
Once delivered to the customer, the South America-bound water taxis will be used to transport up to 25 workers at a time to oil rigs.
MacKenzie said Sea Force IX will be ready for more aluminum boat orders after the last of the water taxis leave its crowded boatyard. The company has eight new welding machines and can now build a new boat hull every seven days. MacKenzie said he expects the transition to the next set of aluminum boats to be "seamless," which will keep the company's workforce on the job.
In addition to its new specialty, the company is continuing to pursue custom yacht construction work. Virginia Zimmermann, a spokeswoman for Port Manatee, said the port is aware of Sea Force IX's operations, but hasn't worked with the company as a client.
Logistec's operations manager, Andre Dubois, did not respond to a request to detail his company's involvement with the upcoming boat shipment.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.