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Strength in Numbers

by Kate Calamusa
Silverback Marine
Courtesy of Silverback Marine

“You don’t have to accept the status quo.”

It’s a bold statement, but one that nicely encapsulates the ethos of Silverback Marine, a burgeoning Tacoma-based shipbuilder making waves within the workboat category with its partially and fully custom aluminum vessels sold within the marine industry.

The quote itself comes from founder and CEO Ian Gracey, who set out to challenge the standard from the get-go, starting the company in 2018 after observing a disparity in the market between the custom yacht design experience versus that of custom workboats.

“Working around vessels in marine applications like paint finishing and glasswork, I took note of the strengths of the yacht design process—how customers were able to collaborate on ideas, receive top-quality renderings, and enjoy a very turn-key experience in the end,” Gracey explains of the initial inspiration for the company, which was fittingly named after the silver-striped Kodiak grizzly bear. “This was very different from what was happening with workboats, which essentially were being bought ‘off the shelf’ or, alternatively, taking anywhere from 6-24 months to custom build. Silverback was created to fill the gap and bring the yacht buying experience to smaller working vessels.”

Courtesy of Silverback Marine

Today, the company’s most popular vessel, the Grizzly 21, is an apt example of just exactly how Gracey has taken that concept to construction. Designed with the agility of a smaller skiff, the powerhouse 21-footer incorporates many of the highlights found in much larger craft, such as self-bailing decks, pushknees (triangular structures jutting out from the bow of the boat), and highly versatile layout configurations, and is available in center console, quarter cabin, or full hardtop control stations. Additional features such as davits, dive doors, crew benches, dive bottle racks, bolster seats, and other customizations can all be added at time of order.

Best of all, it’s always in stock, another distinction that has helped Silverback Marine pull away from the pack.

The Silverback Marine boatyard pre-builds the hulls, and they sit at the ready in Tacoma in varying degrees of completion so that once an order comes in, it is just a few quick steps away from being finished. In fact, sometimes the team can deliver a customized vessel in as little as one to two business days, light years ahead than the industry standard of months out.

“I feel like the lead times in the small workboat industry are just far too long,” says Gracey. “Like, for example, if you need a work pickup, you aren’t going to wait a year, or two, or three for it to come in. Especially if you’ve just been awarded a big contract and need to get to work like yesterday. So, I liken the Grizzly to an F-150 truck; it’s versatile and suits a lot of needs. Rather than spending all our time prototyping each new order, we can work off this base model, suit it to the particular business, and get it to them quickly so they can get to work.”

Now that they have proven the business model with the 21, Silverback is currently working on a new vessel set to cast off later in 2023: A 28’5” flat-bed-style landing craft that they will also keep in stock. The team feels this model will become a popular vessel in areas like the San Juans where getting equipment and building supplies from point to point can be a challenge. (In other words: No dock, no problem.)

Courtesy of Silverback Marine
Courtesy of Silverback Marine

Of course, Silverback Marine can, and very often does, design specialty vessels as well. Each custom job starts with a face-to-face, in-depth meeting to generate ideas, which are then followed up by conceptual sketches with layout options and dimensions. Next up comes the basic architecture and full renderings, then buyers can chime in on other details before engineering takes over to begin the build. Using their larger learnings on efficiency from the Grizzly models, Silverback can usually deliver custom vessels within one to eight months.

A good example is the in-progress Grizzly 34. Built for high speeds and high torque, and fitted with OXE diesel outboards, this vessel also boasts a spacious interior with spotted windows and plentiful storage to help equip it for longer distances. The first hull will be delivered to Shaver Transportation this summer to be used as crew transport on the Columbia River.

The boatbuilder has also worked on several high-profile concepts, such as almost futuristic autonomous boats crafted for government bodies in aid of drone deployment and surveillance patrols; a Bristol Bay gillnetter capable of hitting 20 knots even with 20,000 pounds of sockeye salmon stowed in the hull; and an electric Grizzly concept displayed at the Miami Boat Show.

These prototypes point towards what Gracey deems is another distinction of Silverback Marine: The dedication to collaborating with other maritime entities. “So many boat builders emphasize doing everything in-house, but I feel like that’s a real mistake; how do you become a world-class expert at everything?” Gracey says. “Instead, we’ve tried to embrace a collaborative mindset instead of a competitive one, and lean on other experts in the field to share their knowledge. These partnerships end up producing a better product in the end, as well.”

Some of Gracey’s first connections came from his participation in the second cohort of the Washington Maritime Blue Accelerator Program back in 2021. A non-profit strategic alliance formed by the Port of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Commerce, the program is designed to boost the blue economy, and the Accelerator helps up-and-coming businesses within the sector through networking and tutelage. That networking proved key to Gracey, who says the bonds he forged through the Accelerator helped affirm the value of collaboration—and even lead him to securing the current 9,000-square-foot fabrication facility at the Port of Tacoma, which the company moved into mid-way through 2021.

As that facility churns out Grizzly 21s and other models, it should come as no surprise that Silverback often partners with other area businesses on the specialty work, such as glasswork and electrical systems, in the name of both efficiency and teamwork. The company’s employees, which currently number six, are also asked to pipe up with ideas. “A lot of design input comes from the employees,” says Gracey. “Each and every one of us goes out on the sea trials for the vessels to test them out. Our team is at the heart of what we do, and is always coming up with ways to help  improve the designs.”

One of the company’s most frequent collaborators is Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG), a Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm that helped to design the Grizzly 34 tender and pushboat being crafted for Shaver, as well as the duo’s forthcoming truckable tugboat concept.

Announced last spring and currently under development, the tug dubbed the River Ox can be transported on a standard semi-truck trailer over the road, thanks to an overall length of just over 25 feet and a shallower draft that ranges between 3-4 feet. The compact size means the River Ox can be operated by a one-person crew (and thus avoid United States Coast Guard SubChapter M regulations), while still packing a powerful punch. With 500 horsepower, the tug will produce a bollard pull over 12,500 pounds and has a still water range of 60 nautical miles pushing approximately 10,000 pounds at 4.1 knots. “We think the tug will be another example of filling a hole in the market,” states Gracey. “We love this partnership with EBDG, in particular, because they like to promote boats that are right on the edge, that push the envelope. It’s a place we really like to be as well.”

“Things have been the same for so long in this part of the industry, but it’s time for radical change,” Gracey says in conclusion, circling back to the formative idea of shaking up the status quo. “The consumer base deserves more. They deserve better drawings, they deserve a better experience, and they definitely deserve shorter lead times. And I think by working together and collaborating as maritime leaders, we can continue to affect that change.”

>> For more information on Silverback Marine, and further details on their growing fleet of vessels, go to: silverbackmarine.com.

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