Victoria Shipyards buzzing with activity

In a perfect world, the dry dock at the Victoria Shipyards would always be full and Joe O’Rourke could run 800 staff per day.

In a perfect world, the dry dock at the Victoria Shipyards would always be full and Joe O’Rourke could run 800 staff per day.

But after 30 years of working in the shipyard industry, O’Rourke knows that’s never going to happen.

O’Rourke, however, is happy with the amount of work that’s come in to the shipyard (owned by North Vancouver’s Seaspan ULC) ever since he arrived from Portland, Oregon 10 months ago to take the reins as general manager. But he’s also actively bidding on a lot more commercial work, specifically aiming at markets in the United States due to the low Canadian dollar.

“I feel confident that Victoria Shipyards are going to continue to grow, albeit on a cycle. Some years are down versus others just because there’s only so much in that market you can grab,” said O’Rourke, noting the first six months of the year are busy, but after that the workload is fairly light.

“We’re trying to fill the gaps as much as possible.”

Compared to previous years, the work at the shipyards has been fairly stable. Six years ago, a lack of contracts dropped the number of workers significantly, but one year it reached as high as 1,200. O’Rourke expects to have 550 to 600 direct people working on vessels in the future.

Much of the stable work is due to the frigate and submarine program with the Royal Canadian Navy, which has provided a consistent source of revenue for the last five years with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to O’Rourke, the navy work (under prime contractor Lockheed Martin Canada) involves part modernization (with new combat systems) and part life expansion. There is never a day that employees don’t have some job they’re working on that takes at least 100 trades people. The shipyards rarely, if ever, fall below 300 people.

“You want to take a vessel and make enough improvements and bring it up to a standard that’s going to extend its life out,” said O’Rourke, adding there are many changes with sensor and weapon systems. “You have to upgrade to whatever the new equipment that comes in.”

During the peak of the program, 485 workers were employed, but that number now hovers around 350. After 11 months, work on the fifth frigate — the HMCS Regina, will be completed this spring. After that, O’Rourke said the shipyards will continue to do work off and on for the navy thanks to a contract that runs through 2018. The HMCS Corner Brook submarine is also now on the yard and will be brought up to date with the latest systems during the next two years.

“It (work) won’t be as high as it was before, but it’s still going to be very substantial and more substantial than it was prior to the modernization program,” said O’Rourke, noting the shipyard is like a glorified gas station with a repair function.

“It (the shipyard) is not a factory that processes things. To some end your work load is determined by what’s available, by what the customer will give you. You can go and seek more markets, but there are periods where nobody has repair needs so you train your organization that it’s ready to go down to 350 people or max back up to 1,000.”

The large graving dock at the shipyards can hold three small vessels or one large cruise ship — a lucrative industry the company has also managed to tap into.

In December, the Ruby Princess was pulled into the dry dock with a refit contract worth around $5 million that employed about 330 people at its peak. Putting in 10 to 12 hour shifts every day, workers had 10 days to complete the task of installing two giant emission scrubbers and replacing bow thrusters.

Adding to the pressure of an already intense job with tight deadlines, the work was done in some of the worst weather O’Rourke has worked in. Crane services were taken down seven times in 10 days due to safety reasons.

The Ruby Princess was the third cruise ship to have scrubbers installed in the Victoria Shipyards. Two more cruise ships are scheduled for work in April and May, and another two are booked in the fall of 2017. The shipyards also do general commercial work with B.C. Ferries, tow ships, fishing vessels and barges.

The work with the navy’s frigate modernization program has also been noticed overseas. Negotiations have yet to be finalized, but starting in 2017 the New Zealand Navy is slated to upgrade its first of two aging frigates in Victoria. Each frigate is expected to be here for about six months, providing 300 to 400 jobs during that period.