Eastern Shipbuilding lands huge contracts

Building the next generation of Offshore Patrol Cutters
Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 8:58 PM CDT
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Brian Disernia founded Eastern Shipbuilding Group in 1976 on one acre of leased land on Watson Bayou in Panama City.

He was a commercial sword fisherman and wanted to build shipping vessels for himself.

What started as a one-man operation is now run by his children. It has more than a thousand employees and has landed a very sought-after contract.

Eastern Shipbuilding is still a relatively small fish in a big pond when compared to others around the country. So being awarded a contract to build a Coast Guard offshore patrol cutter or O.P.C is no small feat.

“Like the story of David and Goliath, little Eastern Shipbuilding Group in Bay County, Florida stunned the world by winning this construction project,” said President Joey Disernia.

They immediately began a two-year detailed design period.

“We were slated to get awarded the construction of the first offshore patrol cutter in September of 2018,” said Disernia.

Meaning more jobs and more money coming into the local economy.

“Ten days after being awarded the construction of the first offshore patrol cutter, Hurricane Michael hit Bay County,” said Disernia.

The hurricane dealt a heavy blow to the shipyard and many of its employees.

“So here we are as a shipyard, as a community, as a region, as a state having invested so much time, effort and money into winning this project, which from an economic standpoint is truly transformational,” said Disernia. “You’re talking over two decades of economic prosperity as far as shipbuilding goes in the area, and so now (right after the hurricane) we’re fighting first for our survival.”

Eastern lost nearly 10 percent of its workforce after the storm.

“Everything in the shipyard was heavily damaged if not destroyed,” said Disernia. “Nearly all of our employees, their homes were either heavily damaged or destroyed. Many of them were homeless.”

Disernia said his employees and their needs came first. The company bought campers to house around 100 employees who had nowhere else to go. They also helped in other ways.

“We raised a quarter of a million dollars through a GoFundMe account and we made that available to the employees that were most in need,” said Disernia.

Now two and a half years later.

“We’ve gone from roughly 730 employees to over 1300 now and we’re continuing to grow,” said Disernia.

One reason for that growth is the shipyard didn’t let the hurricane stop the O.P.S project.

“(After the storm) we’re trying to assure the Coast Guard who had just awarded us this contract that hey, we’re still Eastern, we’re still here, we’re still Bay County, we’re still strong, we’re still the people you chose to build your next generation of off shore patrol cutters. We’ll bounce back,” said Disernia.

And bounce back they have.

“We’ve done a very good job for the Coast Guard as a company and as a community,” said Disernia.

“We’ve made promises and we’ve kept them and so they continue to be happy with what we’re doing. So much so they’re about to award us a third offshore cutter,” said Disernia.

Something employees say certainly floats their boat.

“We’ve never done anything of this magnitude as far as the government contracts,” said Welding superintendent Will Powers. “We’ve built many, many different types of sophisticated vessels. But we’ve been excited for this challenge. You know something that’s going to protect our country and protect our borders and help against the war on drugs.”

Powers has worked at Eastern Shipbuilding for 16 years. With the second O.P.C. project also underway and a third just around the corner, Powers is always looking for good welders.

“I have 101 structural welders and 30 pipe welders at the time and we have open requisitions for both pipe and structure welders,” said Powers.

There are so many moving parts to building a huge vessel like this.

“That’s a lot of teamwork,” said Ship Fitting Superintendent Timothy Kwiatkoski. “Everybody’s got to work together with the ship fitters, and the welders, then we get the electricians in there and the machinists, so then the painters can get in there, insulators and stuff.”

For Kwiatkoski being part of this project has a special meaning.

“I like this project in general cause my dad was in the Coast Guard,” said Kwiatkoski.

Disernia emphasized that keeping the cutter contract in Bay County is crucial for future growth.

“We stand at around 1,300 employees. Multiply that out over the indirect jobs, nearly 5,000 workers, employees, citizens of Bay County and surrounding counties are directly associated with this shipyard,” said Disernia.

Eastern is actively competing with other U.S. shipbuilders to build offshore patrol cutters number 5 through 15.

Even though they have the first two and soon-to-be three contracts doesn’t mean they automatically get the follow-on ones. They have to re-compete every time.

They’re hoping for the full support of the community since this would impact the economy for many decades to come.

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