Joe O’Rourke

All hands on deck for cruise ship work at the Victoria Shipyards

Underneath the 51,000-tonne Crystal Serenity cruise ship is an army of men buzzing like bees.

Underneath the 51,000-tonne Crystal Serenity cruise ship is an army of men buzzing like bees.

Standing on lifts and scaffold, some blast paint off parts of the massive hull while others tend to a giant crane taking supplies to the ship’s upper floors. The clamour of tools is deafening.

It’s been two days since the Crystal Serenity pulled into the Victoria Shipyards for maintenance and all hands are on deck. The work force of 350 to 400 people have 10 days to complete the long list of tasks slated for the ship and work around the clock to get the job done.

“The energy level goes up, the urgency goes up, but we’ve been successful on every vessel,” said Joe O’Rourke, general manager of the shipyards in Esquimalt. “It’s 98 per cent fun and two per cent wow, we have a really big issue we got to jump over.”

The crew tries to keep calm on the first day the ship arrives in the Esquimalt harbour. It takes nearly 12 hours for the vessel to come in, drop off life boats and be correctly placed in the dock, which is then drained like a bathtub, allowing crews to access the hull.

ock is dry, crews walk around the hull for an evaluation and get familiar with where everything is located on the 780-foot-long ship that can accommodate 922 passengers. By mid-day, it’s crunch time.

“It’s pretty easy to get lost on a cruise ship. You can wander around for a while wondering where you have to work today,” said O’Rourke. “You really can’t afford to be behind the curb at any point in time.”

Crews have a long list of maintenance items to tackle on the ship, such as ripping out motors (some as big as a table) for inspection, steel work and re-painting parts of the hull — which can only be done during a certain time frame to allow the paint to dry. Special crews are often brought in to handle all the other bells and whistles associated with the floating hotel.

Although the crew is familiar with the work, averaging two cruise ships a year and close to 30 since the company began operating in the mid 1990s, O’Rourke admits things don’t always go according to plan.

Last December, crews had 10 days to install two giant emission scrubbers and replace bow thrusters on the Ruby Princess. With eight days of rain and seven days of high winds, the weather was some of the worst O’Rourke has ever worked in. The first cruise ship (the 964-foot Celebrity Millennium that can accommodate 2,138 passengers) this year also put the crew’s skills to the test for 14 days.

“We were riding the wild horse on that one,” said O’Rourke, noting there’s a sense of satisfaction, pride and relief whenever the work is done.

According to O’Rourke, the shipyards are one of three places on the West Coast that can dock large ships. In the last five years, the work has been fairly stable due to the frigate and submarine program with the Royal Canadian Navy, which has provided a consistent source of revenue with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Crews continue to work on HMCS Corner Brooke submarine, which has to be brought up to date with the latest systems during the next two years.

Although the shipyards were buzzing for the first six months of the year, things will slow down significantly when the dock undergoes maintenance during the summer months. Once the Crystal Serenity is complete, O’Rourke said the shipyards will likely return to what ship repair is like in most places — lumpy.

“Sometimes you need 1,000 people and sometimes you only need 250. You structure your organization to flex,” he said, noting more work could be picked up thanks to the low Canadian dollar.

Another cruise ship could also come in at the end of the season. O’Rourke would love to get more on board.

“It’s great business,” he said. “Some of these are like going to a hotel in Las Vegas. What they are putting on these vessels is just wow.”