Just north of Seattle, on Ballard’s Salmon Bay east of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, sits an icon that seems to have popped right out of another era. Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, or “PacFish” as it’s known to those who do business here, is part commercial enterprise, part museum, and part a study in Norwegian determination, but in a word, it’s a success. In 2021, the yard celebrates its 75th anniversary while it’s legendary general manager, Doug Dixon, logs his 20th year on the job. And by a perfect triangulating circumstance, it’s also the 150th anniversary of Norwegian shipbuilding in the area.
PacFish finds itself in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that’s losing its industrial character, so its focus on environmental stewardship is central to its survival. They’re a blue-collar holdout in a changing and mixed-use Ballard neighborhood, which has brought bike paths and vegan restaurants to the area. It’s not easy to maintain a full shipyard in a city atmosphere. Well into its eighth decade however, it’s clear that PacFish, one of the top repair hubs for Bearing Sea fishing boats, isn’t going anywhere.
The shipyard was founded in 1946 when 400 Norwegian fishermen and their wives invested $300 per family and formed a cooperative-style shipyard on the site of the old Ballard Marine Railway Company. The co-op soon became a corporation that issued shares and paid dividends.
But even before the co-op was formed, settlers of Norwegian descent were busy building ships here, first as the T.W. Lake Shipyard in the 1870s and later as Ballard Marine (1890s). They built paddle wheelers for city of Seattle founder Joshua Green and Mahoe, the world’s largest (at the time in 1925) diesel tug. Other classes of vessels built on the site included wooden halibut schooners and antimagnetic wooden minesweepers used in World War II. Two of these warships went on to become famous as Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel, Calypso, and John Wayne’s yacht, Wild Goose, which is still in service in Newport Beach, California.
PacFish is a full-service shop that focuses on repair and maintenance of vessels of up to 300 feet. In itself, that’s not that notable, but the real differentiator is its rich shipbuilding heritage and a reputation for craftsmanship that brings commercial fishing craft, ferries, police and fire boats, tugboats, classic wooden vessels and private yachts from ports near and far. They’re renowned for their breadth of services and quality of work. The yard hovers around $10 million in annual revenues and is staffed by 65 employees, most of them union workers in five trades including machinists, shipwrights, boilermakers, drydock crew and electricians.
Celebrities seem to congregate around PacFish, and that goes well beyond Cousteau and Wayne. Sig Hansen, skipper of the king crabber, f/v Northwestern, brings his boat to PacFish before each season. He was made famous by the Discovery Channel’s series, Deadliest Catch. In 2015, he was on hand to help Dixon welcome HM King Harald V of Norway when royalty swept through Ballard. “The king didn’t want to leave the yard,” remembers Dixon. “His bodyguards had to get him out.”
American royalty—or as close as it gets—have also frequented PacFish for service and outfitting of their vessels. Dixon reports that the likes of Paul Alan and Bill Gates have brought their personal yachts. “We service boats that work the Bering Sea,” he explains. “It’s something these big yachts aspire to.”
Currently, about 50% of the yard’s work is done on commercial fishing boats. Ferries make up another 20% and the rest is a combination of yachts, fire boats, tugboats and police craft. About a third of the yard’s customers are current shareholders and a majority of the original shareholding families are still involved today.
When asked about marketing and promotional efforts the yard invests in, Dixon says, “We don’t.” PacFish is a member of the Pacific Northwest Yacht Captains Association and the small community that is the Bering Sea fishing fleet already knows the shipyard well. “Ninety percent of our business is repeat customers,” explains Dixon. “We have no shortage
Like most shipyards, PacFish is salty to say the least, but much about the grounds is more fitting of a living museum with a dedicated collection of vintage tavern signs and retro artifacts from old Ballard. Clearly, Dixon is a bit of a preservationist but when asked what else he plans to add, he says, “Nothing. We’re full!”
PacFish has three haul-out facilities and docks: a 100-foot x 200-ton marine railway, 160-foot x 600-ton marine railway and the original Rowe 145-foot x 600-ton screw lift dock. All three facilities are equipped for hull cleaning, high pressure washing and sandblasting with environmental containment and rainwater reprocessing.
Sustainability has been more than a buzzword for the yard. Numerous, capital-intensive projects have been undertaken throughout the decades to lessen the shipyard’s environmental impact and generally be more than compliant. A 7.9 kW solar array was installed on the roof of one of the shipyard buildings, offsetting 316 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. A high efficiency boiler system and air compressor were added to help conserve energy and a stormwater filtration system now reduces the copper that goes back into Puget Sound. They’ve also increased the use of non-toxic paints, thinners, and cleaning solvents and developed paint booths to contain volatile chemicals that are released during painting operations.
PacFish even opted for re-useable steel grit rather than one-time use sand that requires disposal in a land fill and the footprint of the transport system to get it there. These are big-dollar initiatives that underscore the shipyard’s commitment to being a sustainable neighbor, and the yard was recognized with the 2019 Port of Seattle Environmental Excellence Award.
“Our goal is to put money back into the yard,” says Dixon. “These are major expenditures that make us a part of the community. We’re not going anywhere.”
PacFish is commemorating its 75th year with an alder-smoked salmon and cod barbecue, a tradition for the yard given its Norwegian heritage. Dixon expects a few hundred people to pay homage when COVID permits but he won’t publicize the event. “Too many people would come,” he chuckles. “This is for friends, family and customers. No dignitaries.”
Dixon himself marks two decades with the company. Prior to arriving at PacFish, the Ohio native worked in multiple corners of the maritime industry along the West Coast of the U.S. and in Norway. His career has included stints in oil drilling, surveying and as a naval architect for king crabbers, oil skimmers and tugs. Dixon entered semi-retirement in June of this year but that doesn’t mean he’s done. He’ll be shifting to the role of corporate secretary and continuing on in consulting roles which will keep him occupied about 25% of his time. Not one for idle time, Dixon has also penned a book, “Pacific Fishermen, Inc. – 150 Years of Nordic Heritage Shipbuilding.”
Meanwhile, PacFish isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, either. The iconic yard is widening one drydock to accommodate new, beamier Nichols Bros. fast ferries for Kitsap Transit. To reduce their carbon footprint further, they’re also converting one drydock to electric power from gas. Funding for the projects will be coming from a half million-dollar grant supplied by the Maritime Administration (MARAD) Small Shipyard Grant Program.
As for the 150 years of Norwegian shipbuilding presence? It’s alive and well and with classic Scandinavian determination, it’s possibly that it could continue on for another century and a half.