Success through managing requirements and maintenance processes
By Tracy Barbour
The Alaska Marine Highway System’s new ferry M/V Tazlina emerging from the ship assembly hall (left) and the ocean class ferry Tustumena in Dry Dock #1 (right) at the Ketchikan Shipyard. The Tustumena, which is fifty-three years old, is scheduled to be replaced in the next year.
Image courtesy of Vigor
Image courtesy of Seaview Boatyard
Boatyards and shipyards deal with a plethora of requirements to sustain their operations, which are critical to the communities they serve. Their operational processes and costs include maintaining equipment, supplies, labor, customer service, and workers compensation and other insurance.
Facilities including the Ketchikan Shipyard, Wrangell Boatshop, and Seaview Boatyard cater to a variety of customers ranging from the government to commercial fishermen and pleasure craft owners.
Filling a Vital Role in the Community
The Ketchikan Shipyard is the largest shipyard maintenance and manufacturing facility in Alaska. It’s also a critical economic development project in an area rocked by the disappearance of the timber industry. Through a unique partnership, the Ketchikan Shipyard is operated by a private company—Vigor—and owned by AIDEA (Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority). The full-service shipyard is a mid-sized, depot-level maintenance facility with wide-ranging capabilities.
The Ketchikan Shipyard is an advanced facility that provides an ideal year-round location for new builds, repair, and refit to support almost any vessel working Alaska's waters. It features a new 70,000-square-foot assembly hall with an adjacent indoor fabrication shop that shields workers from Ketchikan’s rainy weather. “Our yard is one of the newest, more modern shipyards in the nation,” says Director of Shipyard Development Doug Ward. “It’s also the only shipyard in the nation that has a totem pole out front.”
Vigor also operates a second facility in Alaska: Seward Ship’s Drydock. The 11-acre shipyard is strategically located to provide services to Alaska customers in the fishing, marine transportation, and oil and gas industries.
Initially conceived as a ferry maintenance facility, the Ketchikan Shipyard began building ships in 2001, starting with the municipal ferry connecting Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island. In 2012, the shipyard built the Arctic Prowler for Prowler Fisheries. The 136-foot freezer longliner was the first large commercial fishing vessel ever built in Alaska. Currently, the Ketchikan shipyard is building two ferries for the Alaska Marine Highway System: the Tazlina and Tustumena. The vessels—the first ferries to be built in Alaska—are each 280 feet long.
Unlike some yards that specialize in either shipbuilding or ship repair, the Ketchikan Shipyard does both. It can build ships up to 300 feet long and repair ships up to 450 feet. The shipyard is also a conversion yard, and it’s currently working to secure funding to build a $45 million conversion hall to further enhance its operations. The Ketchikan Shipyard is also planning to explore non-ship manufacturing opportunities around the state to diversify its markets.
Image courtesy of Wrangell Boatshop
Patrick Ellis, Owner of Wrangell Boatshop
At Wrangell Boatshop, the focus is strictly on providing maintenance and repair. The shop services about one hundred vessels annually, 60 percent of which are commercial fishing boats. This time of year, Wrangell Boatshop is conducting a lot of “triage,” often helping commercial fishermen address urgent repairs. “Most of them are fishing multiple fisheries, and they don’t have a lot of time,” says Owner Patrick Ellis. “We have to know how to do a lot of different things.”
Services at the shop range from fixing fiberglass, replacing rotting wood, and repairing steel to wiring, yacht-quality paint jobs, and basic spring maintenance. “We cover just about everything, except for engine repair or refrigeration,” Ellis says.
Wrangell Boatshop is a unique type of “boatyard.” It doesn’t maintain any acreage to park boats on—but it can take boats out of the water. The shop is what Ellis categorizes as an intertidal railway. It has railway tracks that lead down into the water, and uses winches and cradles to haul vessels out for maintenance. The facility, part of which was constructed in the 1920s, can handle vessels up to 100 tons and 50 feet tall. “As far as I know, this is the only privately-owned, covered marine railway in commercial operation in Alaska,” Ellis says.
Seaview Boatyard operates several full-service boatyards in Washington State’s Puget Sound area. With state-of-the-art facilities in Bellingham and Seattle, Seaview focuses on providing recreational boaters, commercial fisherman, and the yachting community with cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally-sustainable boat repair and maintenance services. Seaview also has a Fairhaven facility that primarily functions as an outdoor storage yard.
Seaview, which has a fair amount of Alaska customers, serves a mixture of recreational vessels (about 70 percent) and commercial boats (about 30 percent), according to Vice President of Operations Tiel Riise. It does everything from haulouts up to 165 tons with a 26-foot beam to long-term outdoor and heated indoor storage. The boatyard’s primary services are general maintenance, bottom coatings, top side painting, and fiberglass repair. In Bellingham, Seaview specializes in running gear repair and alignments and does a substantial amount of woodworking.
The journeyman staff at Seaview perform most marine services in house. But specialized areas of repair such as canvas work, upholstery, internal engine repair, and fuel polishing are completed through a vendor. For these services, Seaview Boatyard can act as a general contractor and project manager to coordinate the work on customers’ behalf. In addition, Seaview can provide free estimates to help clients determine the budget for their project and work with surveyors/adjustors on insurance work and damage repairs.
Seaview Boatyard tailors its yard policies to accommodate the varied needs of its customers. For example, commercial boat owners are welcome to haul out and rent space at the yard so their crews can do their own maintenance and repairs. But there are a few exclusions: Do-it-yourselfers can’t complete bottom prep work, sandblasting, or spray painting, as these tasks must be done by Seaview personnel for environmental and/or safety considerations. Seaview also has a fully-stocked store with a variety of marine products at each location so customers have easy access to the parts they need for their projects.
Riise says most of Seaview’s commercial customers haul out in the spring time, right before they head north. But if they haul out in the fall and winter, they could get in and out quicker and avoid being placed on a waiting list. “It’s a smart move to come out in the fall or winter time because that’s when you can get specials or winter rates,” he says. “On vessels maintenance, you want to stay on top of it; haul out annually to prevent expensive surprises.”
Ongoing costs are a key factor of maintaining a boatyard and shipyard. Ketchikan Shipyard spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on facility maintenance. The shipyard maintains two dry docks, an assembly hall, machine shop, and other specialty shops, as well as a whole fleet of cranes. Painting equipment, welding machines, personal protective gear, and insurance are also significant expenses for the yard.
Image courtesy of Vigor
Doug Ward, Director of Shipyard Development for Vigor
Shipbuilding and repair inventory is another major area of expense for the Ketchikan Shipyard. From electrical supplies to paint to steel plate, the yard has to ensure ample supplies are on hand to help vessels make needed repairs. “The trick is to not to keep too much inventory, but keep enough on hand,” Ward says. “So far, that hasn’t been a problem. We have three barges a week that come from Puget Sound.”
Having supplies on hand is especially important when emergency repairs are needed. “Because we’re so far north, we often get vessels in distress,” Ward says. “If there weren’t a shipyard in Ketchikan, they would have to be towed to Puget Sound. One of the benefits of our being here is the increased safety of life at sea.”
Like the Ketchikan shipyard, Seaview Boatyard employs a variety of equipment to maintain its operations. For instance, the yard relies heavily on having its boat lift, hydraulic trailers, and other boat-moving equipment running properly. It also employs various tools to make maintenance as efficient as possible.
Maintaining a tidy work space is also essential to Seaview’s processes. “It’s important to make sure things get put back where they belong and work areas are cleaned up at the end of the job,” Riise says. “That allows you to come back at the end of the day and hit the ground running.”
Supply chain management is also a key aspect of operating Seaview Boatyard. Effective planning keeps people from having to wait on equipment, parts, and other materials. “In our Seattle operation, it’s easier because everything is at your fingertips,” Riise says. “In Bellingham, it requires more forethought and planning.”
Labor costs are another significant part of running a boatyard. The key issue for the Ketchikan Shipyard, for instance, is having a knowledgeable and skilled workforce. It’s difficult to get workers to relocate to an isolated, challenging environment like Ketchikan. So the Ketchikan Shipyard focuses on hiring locals and training them for shipbuilding and repair skills. “In order to ensure year-round work for people, we teach them multiple skills and multiple certifications,” Ward says. “That is really the trick up here because, unlike with most shipyards in the Lower 48, we have a stranded workforce. You can’t commute to Ketchikan. A multi-skilled workforce assures our people will have year-round employment.”
Sierra Callis is a prime example of a multi-faceted employee. As a journey level welder/fitter and workforce development specialist, she wears multiple hats at the Ketchikan shipyard. Callis runs the skills-building program for about 200 employees at the Ketchikan Shipyard. Recently, the yard started a registered apprenticeship program that aligns what apprentices learn from textbooks with what they do on the shop floor to make learning more relevant. “When you’re able to put hands on what you are reading in a book, you have a higher retention rate,” she says. “We have the utmost optimism for this apprenticeship program.”
Image courtesy of Vigor
Sierra Callis, Workforce Development Specialist at Vigor
The program, which has fifteen journey workers and fifteen apprentices, is scheduled to last three years for entry-level individuals. But participants can accelerate the process by testing out of the curriculum and taking quarterly performance evaluations. “Our workforce initiative is accelerating entry-level individuals while maintaining quality,” Callis says.
The Ketchikan Shipyard also uses a pre-apprenticeship program to reach out to the community. It holds a maritime construction career day for area high school students, providing hands-on, educational stations on areas including welding, crane operation, machinist, and electrical. “We use interactive activities to show them that there are options out there,” Callis says. “We’ve actually hired quite a few employees who came for the career day event. It’s neat to see that it’s working.”
At Wrangell Boatshop, it’s also a challenge to attract skilled workers. Labor costs are fairly high for the shop’s four employees, who Ellis is committed to paying and treating well. “You can’t just burn through employees. We live on an island, so where are you going to find them? They can’t just commute.”
Image courtesy of Wrangell Boatshop
Boat repair is a key industry in Wrangell, but it’s difficult to attract workers to a place with a population of less than 2,000, no Wal-Mart, and a movie theater with limited showings on the weekend. “I spend the money and time to nurture the people locally and teach them the way I want things done,” Ellis says. “I’ve been pretty successful at having long-lasting employees.”
By necessity, Wrangell Boatshop’s workers need to have a broad set of skills. Ellis expects employees to be able to pitch in and do different aspects of the work that needs to get done at the shop. Technical expertise is important, he says, but practical experience in southeast Alaska is more critical. Ellis says: “I’ve got guys who have been with me for ten years. They know how we do business and how the fleets around here expect things to be done. My employees have all fished and have been out on the water, so they understand how things should be put together and maintained.”
Attracting and retaining good employees is also vital for Seaview Boatyard, which has a staff of fifty. The company pays its employees a “family wage” and offers a good benefits package, Riise says. And Seaview listens to employees about their approach to doing work and values their input. “I think we treat our employees very well,” he says.
Other Key Issues
Keeping customers happy is one of the requirements for maintaining a successful boatyard or shipyard. At least, that’s Riise’s perspective. In fact, satisfying customers by offering flexible services is a key focus at Seaview Boatyard. “We’re one of the few boatyards that allow do-it-your-selfers to come in, as long as they work under our guidelines for safety and environmental standards,” he says.
Image courtesy of Wrangell Boatshop
Likewise, customer relations is paramount for Wrangell Boatshop. Ellis and his wife/business partner, Kelly, have deep ties to the area. Both were born and raised in nearby Petersburg. Her family fished; his dad operated a boat repair shop. “To us, it’s very important that we’re here to help the fleet,” Ellis says. “We listen to what they ask. We try to keep our costs within the budget they have. I always keep in mind they have a limited amount of time to get things done, so we communicate that to our crew. We make sure they can get back on the [fishing] grounds and can get back to their business. For yachts, we’re also conscious of the time involved because they want to be able to take advantage of the limited time they have to enjoy the water.”
Wrangell Boatshop also prioritizes customer satisfaction. Customers can bring their work to the boat shop and know the company will stand by it, Ellis says. “If somebody has a problem with a job we did—if the paint flakes or if something leaks—they can bring it back to us, and we will fix it,” he says.
Following environmentally-friendly processes is also essential to operations at boatyards and shipyards. At Wrangell Boatshop, for instance, no one dumps products in the water or sandblasts without some sort of containment. “We do the best we possibly can. We make sure we’ve got tarps and covers up around our building to make sure we’re not sending volumes and clouds of dust out into the environment when we are painting or sandblasting,” Ellis says. “If we do sandblasting in huge volumes, we stick it in a container van and ship it out when we’re done. Or we get it tested, and if it’s tested as inert, we can dispose of it locally.”
At Seaview Boatyard, the goal is to offer environmentally-sustainable boat repair and maintenance services. As part of this, all Seaview locations are inspected and certified as clean boatyards by the Clean Boating Foundation. Seaview also participates in the Northwestern Marine Trade Association, which addresses various issues relating to boatyards. With a membership exceeding 700, the Northwest Marine Trade Association is the country's largest regional marine association.
Like Seaview Boatyard and Wrangell Boatshop, the Ketchikan shipyard also employs environmentally-friendly practices at its operations.
In Alaska and elsewhere, there are ongoing efforts to protect harbors, marinas, and waterways from harmful environmental practices. The Alaska Clean Harbors program, for example, is working throughout the state to help harbormasters, communities, and boaters prevent pollution and reduce waste in harbors and waterways. “It’s about managing every aspect of waste from fish cleaning tables to cleaning products to abandoned/derelict vessels,” says Bryan Hawkins, who serves on the voluntary advisory committee of Alaska Clean Harbors.
Alaska Clean Harbors’ voluntary, non-regulatory program encourages communities to take a pledge to operate a clean harbor. The city of Homer, which helped develop the program, took the pledge and received its clean harbor certification in 2010. Other communities are following suit. “I think there are about a half a dozen harbors within communities that have taken the pledge and are working on taking the certification,” says Hawkins, who also is the director of the Homer Port and Harbor and vice present of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters & Port Administrators.
Currently, Homer, Seward, Haines, and Sitka have certified clean harbors. Juneau, Whittier, Dillingham, Kodiak, Bethel, and Valdez pledged to support the Alaska Clean Harbors program. To become a certified Alaska Clean Harbor, facilities must, in part, implement best management practices that help prevent pollution and reduce waste. These practices can involve all types of activities that happen in most harbors and boatyards, including hull maintenance, engine maintenance and repair, painting, and winterization.
Hawkins says most harbors in Alaska are already using many of the practices advocated by Alaska Clean Harbors. But all entities—whether they’re privately-owned boat/shipyards, boat shops, or boat owners—are encouraged to follow best practices whenever they use Alaska’s waterways and harbors.
Harbors are the gateway to the ocean, Hawkins says. “That’s the concentration point; it’s where all the vessels come and go,” he says. “So that’s the place where we can do our best work educating boaters on how we should react with our environment and our oceans.”