West Coast Shipyards: Changes & Challenges

Everett Ship Repair
The Everett Ship Repair drydock and pier side facilities at the Port of Everett. Photo courtesy of Everett Ship Repair.

Busy West Coast shipyards are expanding their capacity and capabilities, making investments in their drydocks and marine lifts not just to enhance services in the markets in which they’re already established, but to grow into new markets, as well.

Newer players such as Everett Ship Repair have found success meeting demand for dry docking large vessels in the Puget Sound, while established shipyards like Commodore’s Boats in British Columbia continue to leverage their reputations to build new business.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s Pacific Fishermen Shipyard is facing a cost challenge that threatens its long-term sustainability as an urban shipyard.

Commodore’s Boats

Five years ago, wood boat specialists Commodore’s Boats forged into new markets, investing in a steel and aluminum weld fabrication shop that doubled its footprint and a fiberglass shop at its shipyard in the Shelter Island Marina and Boatyard in Richmond, British Columbia.

Today, about 85% of its construction, marine restoration and repair work is on steel, aluminum and fiberglass work boats, yachts, tugs and jet boats.

“We were known as wooden boat guys. Anything steel, aluminum or fiberglass, just wasn’t bothering with us,” Business Development Manager Ryan Galovich explained. “Once word got out that we were also proficient in welding fabrication and in our fiberglass, it started to bring in customers, and their word of mouth has brought in more customers.”

“We’ve been around 28 years so we know what we’re doing,” Galovich said. “Really, it’s just a matter of a boat is a boat is a boat. There’s just different ways to approach it.”

Commercial fishing vessels account for about 70% of business, according to Commodore’s. Since the transition, revenues, profits and employees have steadily increased, despite feeling some effects of the global coronavirus pandemic over the last year-and-a-half.

Prior to the pandemic, Galovich said, the Canadian shipyard was starting to see more U.S.-based boats for repair work — in large part, to take advantage of the lower value of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar. The CAD hit a multi-year low against the USD in March 2020.

But then American boat work at Commodore’s slowed amid uncertainty around border closings, quarantine requirements and other health-related restrictions to stem the pandemic. Now, Galovich says, U.S. vessels are returning.

“You’re starting to see more predictability and certainty, and now you’re starting to see that they will be coming up again,” he explained. “We welcome those opportunities.”

Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards

Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards has approved an investment proposal to add two additional dry docks to serve a smaller vessel market that includes commercial fishing boat operators and owners.

Plans for a 300-foot dry dock and a 150-foot dry dock are in the permitting phase, with a final decision by the Port of Vancouver expected in September, said Ad Bertens, the director of business development for Seaspan’s ship repair yards.

Currently, Vancouver Shipyards has 660-foot and 440-foot dry docks at its North Vancouver facility. The shipyard does a lot of work on transportation vessels, and about 15% of its business is fishing vessels.

“We are going into the smaller market segment, which suits the fishing industry very well, where we are able to quote much more cost competitive for the fish boat operators and owners,” Bertens said.

He added that he expects the better mix and variation in dry docks to help the yard attract not only fishing vessels but also smaller ferries and barges. He says fishing boat owners and operators are attracted to the shipyard’s flexibility in scheduling, savings they get from a strong U.S. dollar relative to the Canadian dollar and quality standards, especially in the preparation of vessels.

“We shifted two years ago to an environmentally friendly solution for the preparation of vessels by ultra-high pressure water cleaning to remove paint from vessels with about 30,000 psi. It is the news standard in our shipyard,” Bertens said. “You can see the fishing industry is more and more focused on this type of environmentally friendly solution, rather than only a cost solution.”

U.S.-based boats are about 60% of the shipyard’s customer base, and pandemic restrictions had some effect on that business, Bertens said. But knowing the importance of the American market, Seaspan set up a mobility team in March 2020 that consisted of medical professionals, a law firm and administrative employees to connect with foreign customers ahead of time to prepare for their arrivals.

“Despite the pandemic we were able to keep the yard very well occupied over 2020 and it looks like we will repeat that in 2021,” Bertens said.

Everett Ship Repair

When Everett Ship Repair opened two years ago, the shipyard at the Port of Everett sought to meet a demand for more large vessel dry docking capacity in the Puget Sound.

Everett planned to piggyback on the success of its sister company, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, both held by Ice Cap Holdings LLC. Everett purchased a floating drydock called the Faithful Servant from a competitor to take vessels up to 430-foot x 110-foot with a lifting capacity of 7,800 tons. The shipyard has been busy ever since.

In November 2020 after expanding its dry dock capabilities, Everett drydocked Washington state’s largest ferry the m/v Wenatchee, a  460-foot x 90-foot Jumbo Mark II Class ferry.

“We have been close to 100% utilized since the start up,” said vice president of sales and customer relations Tor Hovig. “A lot of the initial work was barges. We have done a number of large barges—fuel barges, dry bulk barges, deck barges, crane barges. And then we started diving into more regular vessels. We have more ferry work in our order book. We have done a few tugs, we have done work for the U.S. Navy, fishing vessels and also research vessels.”

Everett also has 500 feet of pier side space available for in-water service and support, enhanced by a 180-foot x 49-foot deck barge and four dolphins, allowing for coordination of multiple projects.

The pandemic caused some slowdowns at the yard, primarily due to social distancing requirements, which remain in place, but Hovig said it never had to shut down.

“It’s been managed very well,” he remarked. “It was challenging, especially in the beginning. Like everybody else, we had to learn how to manage it and get to work around it. But after a while, that becomes routine. It has not slowed down the amount of work; it’s been quite busy, even with COVID.”

“It has been a good run for the two years that we’ve been in operation, and we keep expanding the capability of the yard,” Hovig said.

f/v Keta
The f/v Keta, a modified a Bering Sea crabber that recently had 60 feet removed and then another 83 feet added to it. Photo courtesy of Fred Wahl Marine Construction.

Fred Wahl Marine Construction

Known for its 58-foot fishing vessels throughout the Pacific Northwest, Fred Wahl Marine Construction has plans to add capacity this year with two new marine lifts at its 38-acre Bolon Island shipyard on the Umpqua River near Reedsport, Oregon.

A new 820-ton lift is replacing a 685-ton lift that has been sold, and the shipyard recently placed an order for a new 300-ton lift. It also has begun the permit process to add a slip to accompany a 75-ton lift for servicing smaller vessels including U.S. Coast Guard vessels.

”We do a lot of new construction and repairs, a lot of West Coast fishing boats, a lot of tugboats. We’ve got a niche for building nice big, wide 58-footer fishing boats,” explained project manager Michael Wahl, whose father Fred has been in the boat-building business since 1974.

Like other shipbuilders, Fred Wahl does a lot of work sponsoring boats to improve their efficiency and stability. It recently modified a 99-foot Bering Sea crabber, the f/v Keta, by cutting off 60 feet and then added 83 feet to the boat; most everything on the modified vessel is brand new other than its galley, stateroom and wheelhouse.

Wahl said the pandemic slowed down work some and that there have been some supply chain issues related to COVID-19. But it has also brought in work—overhauling the power system of a mini excursion cruise vessel whose season was canceled due to coronavirus safety restrictions.

“We’ve been fortunate to be staying busy and keeping everybody working,” Wahl said.

Pacific Fishermen Shipyard

This spring, Pacific Fishermen Shipyard won a $556,000 grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration to help pay for several improvements, such as widening a dry dock for servicing a fleet of high-speed ferry service catamarans owned by Clipper Vacations.

Grant money is also going toward conversion of a dry dock to electric power and installing a steel roof over a work area for environmental protection.

But other projects and maintenance necessary for the urban shipyard’s long-term sustainability will cost much more, said former general manager Doug Dixon, who has stayed on as corporate secretary in semi-retirement.

The most expensive among them: the cost of dredging made necessary by the shipyard becoming silted in by pollution from Seattle’s legacy sewer system that combined rainwater and sewage in the same pipes. When heavy rains overload the system, an overflow of untreated sewage and stormwater gets dumped into the Puget Sound and other nearby waters.

One of those overflow pipes is next door to the shipyard on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

“And then everything flows towards the locks, and so all that poo-poo gets deposited on our property—four or five feet of it.” Dixon said. “We can’t drydock the same depth vessels anymore. We’re down to 11-and-half-feet and originally could dry dock 15-foot vessels. We are going to have to dredge.”

A pending sale of the shipyard’s surplus property along Market Street to an apartment complex developer—for $5.5 million—will help pay for the cost to dredge, which Dixon estimates will be about $3.5 million. The sale is pending a rezoning of the property.

“That money we get from the sale,” Dixon explained, “goes right back in to keep the shipyard functional.”