Bradford Marine bets big on the Bahamas

Posted on Written by Jim Flannery

43_bradford_01The boatyard’s 47-acre facility in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island is a long-term investment

The yard is humming despite all the bad economic news. A fast ferry is in dry dock. Nearby, a steel tug lies on the hard for hull repairs. In the water, a luxury sailboat is prepped for painting. Meanwhile, workers in white coveralls sand down one of a dozen lifeboats from Carnival Cruise Line’s Sensation, which is itself getting a refit in an enormous dry dock in a neighboring shipyard.

This is Bradford Marine Bahamas, a 47-acre yard in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island and sister company of Bradford Marine, one of Fort Lauderdale’s premier yacht and boat repair centers. Right now, the Bahamas facility is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture and vindication of a decision Bradford Marine made a little more than 10 years ago to open a yard in duty-free – tax-free – Freeport.

When Paul Engle, Bradford’s shrewd 52-year-old president, told people what he planned to do, they were skeptical. Managing a boatyard is tough enough without doing it from across the Gulf Stream or starting without an experienced work force or a lot of supporting marine services. Engle was undaunted.

43_bradford_02He trained local workers at his Fort Lauderdale yard. Bradford Marine Bahamas employs about 90 now and Engle says he’ll stack their work against any yard in the region. He installed duplicate accounting software in Freeport so he could keep a tight rein on the business. And he has invested frugally, growing the yard slowly as business has grown. “We’re willing to let time work to our advantage,” he says.

Bradford Marine Fort Lauderdale, which specializes in repair and refit of large yachts and megayachts,

hasn’t weathered this recession unscathed. “Some people think we [in the megayacht business] are recession-proof,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Revenue at the Florida yard, which has repair, towing, yacht sales and yacht charter operations, was off in 2009 – no surprise – but business has been doing well in Freeport, especially the dry dock, he says.

Dry dock reservations are “kind of a mix right now,” says Dan Romence, the yard’s general manager. “We have a lot of commercial work booked now, but overall it’s about 50-50 megayachts and commercial vessels.”

Recently, the 1,200-ton dry dock was fully booked. Romence planned to make room for several mega-yachts whose captains were in a bind and needed emergency service. “We’ll be working extra shifts,” he says.

44_bradford_03Engle says the Bahamas yard has some distinct advantages:

  • It services just about any kind of boat, from 20-foot center consoles to cruising sailboats, megayachts, inter-island ferries, mail boats, tugboats, fishing boats, wood-hulled freighters and Bahamas Defence Force patrol boats. The yard does repairs, refits, repowers, refurbishing, and when the welders aren’t repairing metal hulls they’re building steel barges – a side business – while other craftsmen build concrete floating docks with canvas covers for marinas and waterfront homes, another side business.
  • Its prices are attractive. The yard is on a large, wide canal off Freeport Harbor, where there is no Bahamian Customs duty or sales tax on imported boat materials, parts or equipment not destined for sale or use in Bahamian commerce. Also, its labor rates are less than those in Fort Lauderdale.
  • It has a 1,200-ton dry dock, 150-foot Travelift and offers a full menu of services: painting, hauling, mechanical, welding, fiberglass, carpentry, hydraulics, air conditioning, electrical, diesel, a machine shop, a computerized prop shop with shaft-straightening gear, a dirty oil collection and filtering station, and a yacht brokerage operation.
  • The company uses neighboring Grand Bahama Shipyard’s 27,500-ton dry dock to haul some of the world’s largest yachts. This significantly increases Bradford Marine Bahamas’ large-yacht service capabilities. The yard has 4,000 feet of waterfront lying along a 250-foot-wide canal dredged to a depth of 25 to 30 feet – plenty for superyachts – with no vertical ceiling for sailboat masts.

Ten years ago, Engle saw the handwriting on the wall. Megayachts were getting bigger and Bradford Marine Fort Lauderdale couldn’t handle the biggest of the big. Its Syncrolift could haul boats to 155 feet and 250 tons. Its covered slips could dock yachts to 180 feet with 45-foot vertical clearance. Its dockside depths couldn’t handle deep, deep drafts.

“There was no way we were going to be able to service clients that were moving up in size to the largest yachts,” he says.

Initially, Engle didn’t want to move offshore, so he checked out properties in Florida – on the St. Johns River and near Fort Pierce. He couldn’t find anything suitable, affordable or conveniently accessible. Engle says the Bahamas yard turned out to be the answer.

Seventy-five miles from Fort Lauderdale, Bradford Marine Bahamas is a 35-minute flight across the Gulf Stream in the company’s Navajo Chieftain. The workhorse seven-seater flies to Freeport three times a week carrying supplies and personnel. If the Bahamas yard is shorthanded or needs specialized help, workers from the main yard fly over. Bahamian workers fly to Fort Lauderdale for training.

If there’s one shortcoming, it’s that Freeport lacks the wealth of marine subcontractors that South Florida has. Engle hopes to resolve that by wooing subcontractors to the yard and renting space to them on its 47 acres.

Bradford Marine Bahamas recently opened new offices at the shipyard – comfortable, attractive, built to hurricane standards – with crew lounge, Internet access, wide-screen television and captains’ offices. It just finished building and landscaping 1,110 feet of fixed docks for transient and long-term rental.

After a loan default, mega-developer Ginn Company, of Orlando, Fla., is moving forward with its creditor, Credit Suisse, on a 10-year, $5 billion project to transform Grand Bahama’s West End into a luxury resort with a 500-slip marina, 4,000 condominiums, 800 single-family homes, a hotel, casino, two golf courses and other amenities. Engle expects this can only generate more demand – much more demand – for Bradford Marine Bahamas’ repair services in the future. “It’s a no-brainer for us to work jointly [with Ginn] to service their clients,” he says. “Every client of theirs who buys a home more than likely also will have a boat.”

The decision to build a boatyard in Freeport looks better every day, although in these difficult times Engle takes nothing for granted.

“I hope I still can say that two months from now,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.

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