Blue sparks and the zap of a welding torch marked the beginning of a new class of U.S. Army landing craft under construction at Vigor Industrial in Vancouver.
Holding the torch, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, melted her initials into metal for the new prototype during a ceremony Monday called “Laying the Keel.” The ceremony kicks off a massive 37-ship, 10-year and nearly $1 billion project at Vigor’s Vancouver facility, which formerly housed Christensen Shipyards.
In February, Portland-based Vigor announced that it chose to purchase the former Christensen yachts building at 4400 S.E. Columbia Way to build the vessels.
The project so far has brought fewer than 100 jobs to the site but will ramp up to 300 jobs by 2023, said Jill Mackie, spokeswoman for Vigor.
“I’m thankful that they’re going to be building it right here in Vancouver,” Herrera Beutler said. “There’s nothing more important, in my view, than having good-paying jobs (and) good employment that supports families and individuals.”
Frank Foti, CEO of Vigor, said the keel-laying ceremony is the first in its Vancouver facility, which is dedicated to aluminum boat building.
“We really love being here,” Foti said. “The city’s great. The facility’s great.”
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she is excited to welcome Vigor and its employees.
“We’re very excited and proud that the history of quality boat building is back,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
Critical to fleet
Each vessel, called the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), serves as a landing craft for the Army. They will improve the Army’s ability to move fuel, supplies, equipment, personnel — and even tanks, said Chad Stocker, product director for the Army watercraft system. The vessels can travel at 21 knots with a full payload of 82 tons while having 5 feet of draft. Each will cost about $19 million, he said.
“This is critical to the modern army fleet,” Stocker said.
The last time the Army held a keel-laying ceremony and started a new class of vessels was in the 1980s, said Tim Goddette, U.S. Army program executive officer.
“We will be building, testing and delivering these vessels to our sons and daughters, our brothers and our sisters, the soldiers,” Goddette said. “That makes it special. It’s not just another boat.”
The prototype craft is named after Elroy Wells, an Army mariner who died in Vietnam, said Jered Helwig, U.S. Army chief of transportation.
Wells died on his third tour in Vietnam while working as a watercraft operator. On Dec. 27, 1970, enemy soldiers used rockets to fire at the boats, killing Wells, 13 other Americans and eight Vietnamese soldiers, Helwig said.
This story was corrected to accurately reflect the number of current jobs at Vigor’s Vancouver plant.