Not everyone who lives on the water has a boat, but most have a dock. No matter what its shape or size, a dock is an integral part of waterfront living--sort of a floating, open-air garage. But constructing a dock is more complicated than building a garage.
"It is a different kind of construction than any other," says Pete Swift.
Swift, 33, and his brother, Tom, 30--owners of Swift Slip--are among a handful of harbor craftsmen who specialize in building, servicing and repairing waterfront docks and piers.
As dock builders, the Swifts not only have to deal with weather, wind and tide, they also have to answer to six or more governing agencies--including the Army Corps of Engineers--that regulate on-the-water construction. On a recent job, it took four months to get the proper permits but only two weeks to do the job, Pete Swift says.
Although the Swifts' jobs have taken them from San Diego to Malibu, the majority of their work is done in Orange County, where Swift Slip is headquartered. Working out of a small construction yard in Huntington Beach, the company, which has three full-time employees in addition to the two brothers, averages 35 to 40 jobs a year. "We do everything from painting and repairing to building from scratch," Pete says.
Most Swift Slip customers are waterfront homeowners. And a typical job begins with a visit to city hall to find out if the job the customer wants done is feasible. If it is, then the Swifts prepare an estimate and negotiate a contract. "Next we have an engineer who actually designs the dock and figures out how big the floats should be," Pete says. "Some reconstruction jobs don't require an engineer because the new dock is just being built like the old dock."
Once the design is finished, special pressure-treated lumber--to prevent dry rot--is ordered from a supplier in Oregon. Other materials include plastic-foam floats, plastic tubs (to house the floats), cleats, hardware and rollers (so the dock can rise and fall easily against the pilings as the tide changes).
When all the materials are in, the dock is built in the Huntington Beach construction yard and trucked to the harbor. Since most of Swift Slip's customers are in Newport Beach, most docks are launched at Lido Shipyard, where they are rafted together and floated to the installation site to be assembled.
The average price of a new dock is $25,000, and the average size is 40 feet in length, Pete Swift says. On the high end was a dock the Swifts built recently at a Newport Beach home--it measured more than 100 feet in length and cost $100,000.
One of the company's most unusual jobs involved constructing a dock that would be moored offshore, just past the surf line, near Malibu. "The man we built it for was going to rent jet skis from it," Tom Swift says. "We had to truck the dock up to Malibu and push it through the surf. It was a tough job."
Another unusual job involved the construction of a 20-slip marina in front of the Chart House Restaurant in Newport Beach. "In order to be able to build the marina, we first had to remove an old dry dock that had been sunk," Pete says. "Nobody knew how big the thing was so we had to hire a diver to go down and attach floats to it to float it up. An hour and a half later, one corner came up and it was huge. By the time the whole thing was out of the water, it looked as big as an aircraft carrier. It floated eight feet out of the water and was covered with barnacles. We knew that pretty soon it was going to start stinking so we had to get it out of there fast."
So far, the 20-slip marina has been Swift Slip's biggest job. "Most of our jobs are at private homes and involve changing an existing dock," Tom Swift says. "The person may have gotten a bigger boat and needs a bigger slip or sometimes they just want to upgrade or redecorate."
The Swifts work only with pressure-treated wood, left natural and unpainted. "Most people today are getting away from painting," Pete Swift says. "When it is painted, you have to repaint it once a year and painting pollutes the bay."
Although dock building is a year-round business in Southern California, the Swifts say their busiest months are June through October. "Back East this would be a seasonal business. You'd have only six good months to put in docks, but here the weather is good all year long. So even though summer is always busier, we work year-round."
The Swifts, who grew up on Balboa Peninsula, say they love their work and "learned by doing."
"We had a friend we grew up with who built docks," Pete Swift says. "And then when I got my first job, I learned by actually taking the dock apart and seeing how it was built."
It was Pete Swift, a UCLA business graduate, who actually founded the company in 1982 and ran it alone, until his brother, Tom, joined him a year later. "That first year I only did three docks and I was having to do auto-body work in the winter to keep going," he recalls.