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Vigor’s Alaska Shipyard Activities Grow

Company develops workforce and infrastructure


Workers piece together panels of one of two Alaska Marine Highway System Alaska Class Ferry day boats at the Vigor Alaska Ship Assembly Hall in Ketchikan.

Photo by Owen Kendig | Courtesy of Vigor Alaska

An ongoing public-private partnership between Vigor Industrial and the state of Alaska is paying off in jobs, long-term contracts, and development at the Ketchikan and Seward marinas.

Vigor Alaska, a division of Pacific Northwest ship building and repair company Vigor Industrial, purchased Ketchikan-based Alaska Ship and Drydock in 2012. It also bought Seward Ship’s Drydock in 2014. Both sites are growing and thriving, says Vigor Alaska Director of Shipyard Development Doug Ward.

“We’ve become an economic development project,” Ward says, referring to the partnership between Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan that formed after the collapse of the timber industry in Southeast in the 1990s. Ward has been with the company since 1994 and has seen it grow from 35 employees to nearly 250 people today, between the Ketchikan and Seward shipyards.

Vigor Alaska services a broad range of clients, from cruise ships to Crowley Marine tugboats that shepherd oil tankers in and out of Prince William Sound to fishing vessels working all over the state. The state of Alaska’s Alaska Marine Highway System is the company’s largest volume customer. The company has a contract to perform all routine maintenance and repairs necessary to keep the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries running according to US Coast Guard specifications.

In April, Vigor employees were hard at work making repairs to the M/V Tustumena, a ferry that serves Alaska communities from Homer to Kodiak and out to Dutch Harbor.

“It’s the only vessel that serves the [Aleutian] chain,” says Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow.

The Tustumena ended service for its annual overhaul on March 10 and was expected to be back in service by May 15, but workers found the metal decking in the car deck area of the fifty-two-year-old vessel was corroded. Like rotten wood on an outdoor deck, Woodrow says the corroded metal had to be cut out and replaced to ensure it was strong enough to safely carry vehicles.

The additional work was expected to be complete May 27, Woodrow says. Ward says the job is a top priority for their crew.

“For any of our customers, and the Marine Highway System in particular, whenever there is mission-critical work that is preventing one of our customers from completing its mission ... We pull out all the stops and try to get it back to work as quickly as possible,” Ward says.


A marine worker measuring against blueprints at the Vigor Alaska shipyard in Ketchikan.

Photo by Owen Kendig | Courtesy of Vigor Alaska


Investing in Alaska’s Shipbuilding Industry

Vigor is the only ship-builder in Alaska currently building new ships. It’s midway through a four-year contract to build two new ferries for the Alaska Marine Highway System, ships that will travel between Skagway and Juneau. The vessels are expected to be finished in the fall of 2018, though when they go into service will depend on current service needs and available funding.

The Alaska-Class ferry project was created during the administration of former Governor Sean Parnell. Woodrow says the goal was to use state funds for the project.

“Then we could select the shipyard where we wanted these ferries to be built,” Woodrow says. Using federal funding requires a nation-wide bidding process, he says. Parnell wanted to be sure the funding stayed in Alaska.

Vigor, which was Alaska Ship and Drydock at the time, was the only shipyard in the state large enough to handle the project. Woodrow says the state used a construction manager/general contractor method of construction for the project, in which the owner makes a preliminary design and then brings the contractor on board to finalize the design. As the two groups worked together, Woodrow says, Alaska Ship and Drydock helped identify ways to streamline the construction process to bring down the construction cost. The end result, he says, is a $120 million budget for the two vessels.

Vigor purchased Alaska Ship and Drydock in March 2012 and the deal was signed later that year. Woodrow says the goal of building the ships in Alaska to create jobs and bring new industry techniques to the state has paid off in other ways, too.

“There are lots of savings that come with having a local builder, especially with the Marine Highway System being based in Ketchikan,” he says. “Normally, if we have a construction project, we have an engineer on site the whole time of the project. If it’s in Portland [Oregon], we would pay for them to live there during the whole process. But they live in Ketchikan, so we don’t have to pay that.”

Woodrow says it’s a bonus to have a workforce that is familiar with Marine Highway vessels, so they can more easily maintain the fleet.

The ferries are being built using modular construction, with each panel already fitted with pipes, electrical cable raceways, and other components already in place. Each ferry has twenty-three modules; as of a February update, six were in place. Construction was expected to ramp up during summer, Woodrow says, as winter is typically Vigor’s busy season.

“By extending the contract, we were able to agree that they would not [have to] do as much work in the winter, then when their other contracts were back out on the water, their workforce would come back to the ferries. By extending that out, we’re also not paying as much overtime,” Woodrow says.


Vigor Alaska worker Gerald Orton prepares to install a repaired prop on a fishing vessel.

Photo by Owen Kendig | Courtesy of Vigor Alaska


Using Cutting-Edge Tools to Hone Skills

Ward says Vigor is using new technology to make the construction process go more smoothly. An employee working for Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm Glosten, a consultant on the construction project, designed an app to record in real time, using cell phones, changes that need to be made to the project design.

In most construction projects, Ward says, if a problem emerges a redline is submitted for review. Then project drawings need to be changed with the new information incorporated. The process can take weeks, he says. The app Vigor is using allows workers on any level of the job to record their comments on their phone, take pictures, and even draw directly on the photos to highlight the problem and submit it to Glosten’s engineering team, where the change can be made to the project plans.

“It maintains visibility and everyone can watch how the problem resolves. That is a learning event,” Ward says. “We’re trying to make learning in the shipyard more of a continuous process.”

Ward says the app can also be used to record near-misses at the shipyard. If a worker sees an unsafe practice that doesn’t result in an incident, he or she is required to report that. Reporting typically meant going to the company’s office, taking pictures of the incident, writing it out on paper, scanning the documents in, and then sending it to the appropriate person, who interprets the issue and transfers it to someone who can make a correction and change the unsafe practice.

“Now, you can take a picture of the unsafe condition, note orally or visually, and hit send and watch for the direction to correct the unsafe condition, if [the worker] hasn’t already fixed it,” Ward says.

Vigor also uses diagnostic planning tools to keep the project on schedule and on budget.

“We’re using [the planning tools] to determine which workstation is falling behind on the schedule and it tells us where to make more workforce investment,” he says.

Using modular construction is another way the company has reduced cost and sped up production. Building vessels panel by panel, with electrical raceways and pipes already in place in each panel, saves seven hours over traditional construction methods, Ward says.

“We’ll be able to break even—maybe even earn a profit on these state ferries,” he says.


A welder welds fuel tanks for one of the Alaska Marine Highway System Alaska Class Ferry Day Boats Vigor is building. The four-year project is set to be complete in 2018.

Photo by Owen Kendig | Courtesy of Vigor Alaska


Big Names Make Up Customer Base

Vigor Alaska Senior Projects Manager Albert Turner says the company keeps busy by servicing vessels for some of the major forces in the state economy. The Fishing Company of Alaska, based out of Dutch Harbor, had three rigs overhauled this winter, he says, and Icicle Seafoods had an unplanned repair handled in the company’s Seward drydock. The company regularly services Alaska Marine Lines and Crowley tug and barge vessels, he says, and works on Holland America cruise ships throughout the summer.

“Sometimes we have to travel on them too and do repairs,” he says.

Vigor also services US Forest Service camp barges and other vessels, Turner says, and the company handles maintenance for the Alaska Inter-Island Ferry Authority, which offers daily service between Hollis, on Prince of Wales Island, and Ketchikan.

The company also works with several local barge operators and other contractors as well, he says.


State Partnership Paying Off

The Ketchikan Shipyard, as it was originally called, was built by the Alaska Department of Transportation for $30 million in the 1980s in part to provide space for maintaining Alaska Marine Highway System vessels. The department transferred ownership to AIDEA (Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority) in 1997, and an operating agreement between AIDEA, the city of Ketchikan, Ketchikan Public Utilities, and Ketchikan Gateway Borough was created, giving the operational control of the shipyard to Alaska Ship and Drydock. Alaska Ship and Drydock sold to Vigor in 2012, but the facilities are still owned by AIDEA.

Ward says the relatively recent addition of a second drydock to the company has been vital to making the company succeed. The original company opened with a single floating 430-foot drydock. Ward says having a single drydock limited the company’s ability to grow.

The company applied in 2006 for a $10 million grant to allow it to build the second drydock, which was designed to service commercial vessels up to 225 feet long. It won the competitive grant, and the new drydock became a reality. Since that time, Ward says the company has grown rapidly.

“The drydock is making us commercially viable. There have been tens of millions of dollars of new investment that have occurred as a result of the state’s investment in the drydock,” he says.

The company has the largest drydock and the largest workforce of any shipbuilding or ship repair company in the state, Ward says.

A new, state-of-the-art, seventy thousand-square-foot ship assembly hall was built in 2012, followed by construction of a $10 million module fabrication shop built adjacent to the assembly hall.

Vigor is holding to the commitment Alaska Ship and Drydock made twenty years ago, Ward says.

“We said we will build commercially viable infrastructure and also develop a competitive workforce,” Ward says.

“Vigor is helping develop practices that are working. As the maritime industry evolves, so will our practices.”



This article first appeared in the June 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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