Junior Duckworth has been building boats in Tarpon Springs for 44 years, usually specializing in fishing boats, scallop, clam and ferry boats. But on June 1, he will begin work on something new: a $6 million state research vessel.
Duckworth's 32-man crew at Duckworth Steel Boats, 1051 Island Ave., was chosen this month to build the 78-foot boat for the Florida Institute of Oceanography, an organization hosted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg that provides resources to state universities and research agencies studying marine science.
The boat, which has not yet been named, will be housed at the university's College of Marine Science in downtown St. Petersburg and available for use by students, professors and researcher partners across the state.
Duckworth says the boat, which will house two state-of-the-art laboratories, will be "a little different" from his regular projects, but welcomes the chance to do something that will benefit education and give researchers more insight into local waterways, a vital resource in Tampa Bay.
"I don't know exactly what they do, but I know it's important," Duckworth said. "In a way, it's just another boat, but in another way, it feels different. Like I'm doing something bigger … It makes me feel good to know I am helping out."
Oceanography institute director Bill Hogarth, who previously served as dean of USF's College of Marine Science from 2008-2011, said the boat will replace the current 71-foot research vessel, Bellows, a boat "at the end of its useful life" after 46 years of operation that will be sold for scrap. Like the Bellows, which played a big role in responding to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it will be used to take marine science students out for hands-on coastal research education.
David Hastings, professor of marine science at Eckerd College and frequent user of the Bellows, said textbooks and lectures inside a classroom could never compare to the type of learning that happens out on the water.
"Students consistently tell me (going out on the boat) is the most important part of their education in the marine science program," he said. "They are able to practice real-life marine science or oceanography and gain real insight into what the industry is like."
Mark Collins, oceanography institute public education officer, agreed and said a student's experience onboard a research vessel can become the "game-changer" and "eye-opener" of their academic career.
"It really ignites a fire of interest for students when they get out on the water and into the field," he said. "The tools and concepts can be difficult to comprehend when it's not in their presence, so when we are able to get it in front of them it becomes invaluable."
Collins said funding for the boat came from many places: $3 million from the state, $1 million from the institute, $250,000 from the city of St. Petersburg, where the boats are housed, and the rest from a combination of 12 Florida schools that have used the Bellows over the past five years. He said the University of West Florida and University of South Florida, whose students use the boat the most, were the biggest school contributors.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who spearheaded efforts to include funding for the new vessel in the year's state budget, said he is pleased about the construction of the boat, but even more glad it is being built in his district.
Latvala referenced the difference the Bellows made during challenges the Tampa Bay area faced with the BP oil spill and Red Tide.
"Our water is an important part of our economy here," he said. "I think it's important to have research going on here to protect it as a valuable resource for our area and for the state of Florida as a whole."
Duckworth said the project, which will start at the shipyard with a keel-laying ceremony on June 1 at 10 a.m., will take 12-15 months. He said everything — the shell, fuel systems, fire systems, electric work, painting, sealing, sandblasting, air conditioning — will be done by him and his team on site.
"We are a smaller yard, but we do just about everything," he said. "It makes you feel good when you can look at something come together, knowing you planned it and did it all."
Duckworth said a lot of the plans have yet to be finalized, but he knows one thing for certain: he wants the boat to make a difference.
"I think and hope this boat can be used to help everybody," he said. "We can do our part by building the best boat we know how and the students can do good science that can help our fisherman and waterways."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.