Bender Shipbuilding & Repair Co. has sealed a partnership with an Australian manufacturer of high-speed ferries that is expected to create a new shipyard on Blakeley Island and as many as 1,000 jobs over the next five years. Bender (Mobile, Alabama), which currently employs about 650 workers, is a 30 percent partner in the joint venture with Austal Limited.
Austal, based in Freemantle on Australia's West Coast, is the world's largest builder of aluminum, motorized catamarans capable of carrying cars, passengers or cargo at speeds of nearly 60 mph.
"These ferries are the wave of the future in the United States," said Bruce Croushore, Bender vice president. Bender and Austal plan to build the ferries, which range from 170 feet to 295 feet in length. The new yard will be built in three phases, with enclosed structures totaling 60,000 square feet, Croushore said. The entire facility is expected to be built in about six months, with vessel construction starting in the first phase while the other two sections are completed. The finished yard will be capable of building up to five vessels simultaneously. Aluminum vessel construction requires a temperature-controlled environment and much cleaner processes than traditional steel shipbuilding.
Austal Chairman John Rothwell, whose company employs about 1,200 workers at its Australian yards, predicted the partnership would shake up the U.S. shipbuilding industry. "With Austal's leading-edge technology and world leadership in the design and production of high-performance aluminum vessels - coupled with Bender's comprehensive capabilities and domestic knowledge - we will revolutionize light-weight, high-speed shipbuilding in the U.S.," Rothwell said. The boats also could be used for high-speed transport of time-sensitive cargo along coastlines or over relatively short distances of open water, such as the Gulf of Mexico.