When Bruce Washburn and Bruce Doughty started building steel fishing boats in Woolwich in 1977, demand was high. The federal government had just claimed a 200-mile exclusive economic zone to keep foreign competition out, and was offering low interest loans and other incentives to build up the U.S. fishing fleet.

“Fishing boats were all of the business in the 80’s,” recalls Bruce Doughty from his office in East Boothbay where the yard is now located. Looking out over the yard today, there’s not much hint of Washburn & Doughty’s fishing boat heritage. Instead, crammed on ways and alongside the construction bay are massive tugs, with high tech Z-drive propulsion systems and twin engines pushing 5,000 to 6,000 horsepower.

Steel and aluminum are the medium at Washburn and Doughty, and tugs are the yard’s bread and butter. In the past five years Washburn and Doughty has delivered 13 tugs. The yard also built a 70-foot yacht and the 90-foot research vessel . But for Washburn and Doughty, tugs have supplanted fishing boats, and the future looks bright for steady orders.

“We’re almost overwhelmed with work at the moment,” says company president Bruce Doughty. “After 30-something years of scratching for work, now hardly a week goes by that we don’t tell them we’re booked out of sight. That gets old after a while.” Demand is running so high that the company is looking to expand operations and build a new yard in another location.

It doesn’t hurt to have a track record of quality design, craftsmanship, and performance, Doughty acknowledges. But other reasons for peak demand for tugs extend beyond the East Boothbay yard. Energy imports, development of LNG terminals and the growing need for LNG ships are one factor. “Each facility requires four sophisticated tugs,” says Doughty. “We were in on the ground floor of building some of those tugs.”

Now too, all vessels carrying petroleum must be double-hulled. Barges and ships are all growing in size. Consequently they are becoming more than older tugs can handle.

Doughty says the company is exploring Bucksport as the site for its next yard. In Bucksport’s favor are deep-water access and proximity to the large labor pools of Bangor and Belfast.

Tug construction has lagged in the shipbuilding industry since the 1950s, and older tugs with conventional screw-drive propulsion need to be replaced. “We also had our own design, which happened to be the right design at the right time. So we’ve been fortunate in that respect,” says Doughty.

Tugs are a class of workboat unto themselves, an expression of brute power and utility that belies the modern refinements and technical engineering that Washburn and Doughty installs below waterline. Twin openings cut in the belly of the steel hull make room for the Z-drive units. Made by Ulstein (a subsidiary of Rolls Royce), they look like the lower unit of a giant outboard. Each Z-drive can rotate 360 degrees, so even a heavy 92-foot tug displacing 450 tons can turn on a dime. A slightly flattened hull bottom adjusts to the 360-degree torque of its two drive units. Over 5,000 horsepower delivered by twin diesels turning two eight-foot propellers are controlled by the captain’s careful manipulations of joysticks up in the pilot house. Mobility is instant and efficient: with the drives directed abeam, the tug can move sideways, lugging or shoving whatever is alongside in the desired direction. When positioned dead astern, the drives give the tug 100 percent thrust in that direction.

Doughty says that the tug building market is now booked to the hilt. “This is a worldwide phenomenon. Everybody is busy,” says Doughty. While that’s good for business, it can spell backlogged orders for parts. Washburn and Doughty’s supplier of Z-drives was originally scheduled to deliver 20 ship sets (two in each set) to the U.S. in 2006. Demand has remained so high, they only were able to deliver nine ship sets. Only a handful of manufacturers worldwide make Z-drives. Doughty says there is even a worldwide shortage of gears for conventional screw-propulsion tugs.

Given the rosy forecast, building a new yard might seem a logical business decision. “This is one of the most stupid ideas I ever had,” says Doughty, probably jokingly. “We should just build what we have here, and say that’s enough.” If the company settles on Bucksport and receives the requisite permits, Doughty says he can find skilled millwrights, pipe fitters, and electricians in the area (because of the pulp mills). And, Doughty says the local community college is eager to start training welders. “We’d be happy to help develop the skilled force that way, but I’m not going in with rose colored glasses; this isn’t a typical occupation.”

Doughty doesn’t feel he gets much competition from Bath Iron Works for trained welders, since the two companies offer completely different work environments. “The union regime and big company atmosphere isn’t for everyone,” says Doughty, “and we’re still fortunate that there are enough independent people in this state” who take pride in the Washburn and Doughty’s accomplishments.

Washburn and Doughty has a new tug design on the boards that it calls the “wide body 92.” The current 92-foot model tug has 5,000 horsepower capacity. The wide body 92 will have a wider hull to lend enough stability to handle 6,000 horsepower. “We have a commitment to build as many as five of these,” says Doughty. “As soon as possible.” Those tugs would be the first built in its new yard.