All Hands on Deck
Naval architecture and marine engineering require communication and collaboration
This ATB unit was designed by Crowley’s Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering subsidiary, Jensen Maritime. It meets Ice Class and Polar Code requirements including increased structural framing and shell plating and extended zero discharge endurance.
It’s easy to marvel at the size and scope of the large marine vessels that pull into port in Glacier Bay, Juneau, Ketchikan, or Sitka. Between their size, design, and stature, the sight of some of the vessels can take a person’s breath away.
Vessels of this scale are typically used for decades, but every vessel, including cargo ships, barges, fishing boats, container ships, and bulk carriers, was first ignited in a moment by an idea—a vision that somebody once dreamed would become reality. The process of turning a project from an idea to actuality is time consuming, stressful, and exciting; it’s also invariably costly. Undertaking the process of engineering and building a marine vessel requires input from a vast range of people with specific areas of expertise, but it all starts when a prospective owner approaches an architect or engineer with the hope of turning a dream into a tangible blueprint.
Because every owner has different operational needs and mission requirements, designers must be versatile and flexible.
“Naval architects and marine engineers are really kind of like Jack-of-all-trades,” says Pat Eberhardt, owner and principal engineer of Coastwise Corporation. “It takes reasonable knowledge of many different subjects to put a vessel together.”
Understanding Mission Requirements
In most cases, vessel owners will approach a naval architect with an idea. They can envision the finished vessel at sea, but the vessel’s look and shape are open to interpretation. Although customers might be unaware of how the finished vessel will look, they always know what they need their vessel to accomplish. Mission requirements vary depending on the industry in which the vessel will be used, and, like with all design-work, some ideas are much more difficult to execute than others.
“A big modern factory trawler is one of the most complex vessels,” explains John Waterhouse, who is the principal engineer and serves as the concept engineer for Elliott Bay Design Group. “They’re so expensive because they have to do so many different things. They have to not only capture the product, but they have to process the fish and store them at very cold temperatures. They have to have their crews on board; they have to feed those crews and have safety equipment for them.”
Waterhouse describes fishing vessels as among the most challenging to design because of their mission requirements, but that isn’t to say passenger ferries and major cruise ships are a breeze.
“Ferry boats are challenging because it’s all about the main deck on a ferry,” Waterhouse says. “You have to find room for cars and for people to get on and off. You also have to find room for elevators and ventilation and exhaust piping. All of that makes the main deck the puzzle that needs to be solved.”
In order to fulfill a vessel’s needs, the first step for architects and engineers is to understand the precise objectives their customers hope to achieve.
“Initially, the process is really focused on setting the requirements, whatever the mission might be, whether that’s carrying fuel or fishing,” says Jay Edgar, vice president of Crowley Marine’s engineering services, which includes Seattle-based Jensen Maritime. “There’s usually a fair amount of effort taking the owner’s ideas of what the vessel needs to do and how it needs to perform. Often times, that’s sitting down with the owner and helping them understand what they’re looking for and turning that into boat terms.”
Long before a vessel is built at a shipyard, a team of architects and engineers must first create a design that includes all of the specifications the ship builders will use. The process of designing a vessel starts with regulations that differ for each industry. For fishing vessels, the fishing authorization act requires all drawings to be stamped by a professional engineer. “These are regulations that mandate the amount of engineering in a new vessel,” Eberhardt says.
There are different tiers of regulations based on a vessel’s purpose; the largest tier includes large passenger ferries and the smallest tier accounts for small passenger vessels. According to Eberhardt, all of those passenger vessels need to be reviewed by the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard’s inspection includes mechanical electric systems and the vessel’s stability. Because the review process can be extensive, Eberhardt says it’s unusual for people to break into the industry without prior vessel building knowledge. “These projects come fairly scrutinized, so when a new owner shows up, they have usually been in the business long enough or have their own experience and know what’s been working,” he says.
In addition to sketching design plans, there’s an intermediate step called lofting that takes place before a shipyard gets involved in the building process.
“Boats are all computer cut nowadays, and that process of taking a 3D shape and our drawings and turning it into pieces to cut is called lofting,” Eberhardt says. “Many of the big firms in Seattle can do that in-house—and we can do it in-house, too—but for our small projects it’s really more efficient to have subcontractors do the lofting work. Lofting is a fairly detailed process, and it’s not something you can rush. Say you’re doing a new fishing vessel, you really need six to eight months of design time and two to three months of lofting before you can give it to the shipyard. The shipyard would probably then want a year and a half to finish that vessel comfortably.”
Every design and engineering firm has its own process that it hands over to a shipyard. For Waterhouse and Elliott Bay Design Group, an emphasis is placed on the communication needed to help ship builders turn their plans into a completed vessel.
“We’ll typically produce what we call plans, specifications, and estimates,” Waterhouse says. “The plans are the drawings of the boat, and a specification is a written description of the things that don’t appear on a plan. An estimate is the calculations that go behind and back up the plans and the specifications. The package of those three things goes out to a shipyard, and we serve as an intermediary of the vessel operator and what their new vessel is supposed to do, as well as the product that comes out through a construction process.”
This environmentally friendly longliner, named the Northern Leader and owned by fishing company Alaskan Leader Fisheries, received design services to include the complete marine-engineering services for the vessel, from the concept design phase all the way through production, engineering, and 3D modeling.
Become an Industry Sponsor
Overseeing the Build
Once an engineering firm passes off its plans to a shipyard, the builders at the shipyard generally take over the responsibilities of transforming the design into a finished vessel. Under certain circumstances, however, the engineering firm will be present at the shipyard to ensure the plans are being carried out to the customer’s specifications.
It’s not unusual for Crowley Marine to have a team present at the shipyard. Crowley’s team isn’t actually physically building the vessel, but it’ll be there to make sure proper testing and inspections are being completed.
“Our team isn’t necessarily doing the inspections, but they’re making sure the inspections are being done,” Edgar says. “They’re witnessing testing. During the course of construction, things come up and our team would help the owner assess the changes and help negotiate pricing as change orders come up. Once the vessel is completed, our team would help on the test and trials and make sure the vessel is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Edgar describes these shipyard services as “an opportunity for Crowley to step up and help the owner get through the build process.”
People are rightfully wary about buying a boat—whether it’s a small raft to float down a river or a luxurious cruise ship capable of transporting thousands of customers, owning and maintaining a boat is often an expensive commitment. Just the process of building a new vessel can range from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars. “New vessels are expensive,” Eberhardt says. “Even a small passenger vessel—just a little 40-foot charter vessel in Homer—people could put $400,000, $500,000, or $600,000 into those.”
Because of the costs involved, it’s unusual for people to decide they want to try their hand building and owning a commercial vessel. “There are a few people who might put that sort of money into it just to try charter fishing, but most of the people who want to build a new vessel know what they’re up for,” Eberhardt adds.
Waterhouse notes that a designer can expect to earn between 3 to 5 percent of the total costs an owner will put into building a new vessel. Edgar adds that the total engineering process equates to about 10 percent of a total contract price, though that 10 percent can be split between designers, architects, and engineers.
Even though the cost of building and maintaining a vessel can be daunting, the good news is ships tend to stay around for decades.
“If you’re dealing with a small aluminum work boat, that might only have about a twenty-year life depending on how hard it’s being used,” Waterhouse says. “I’d say forty to fifty years is what we’re seeing out of the fishing fleet. The Alaska Marine Highway System is looking at sixty years or so for their vessels, simply because they put significant investments into the boat at its midlife, but also because it’s hard for the state to come up with new money to build new vessels. They want to get as much out of them as they can.”
Eberhardt describes a vessel’s potential shelf life as “an interesting and complicated question,” but recognizes it really comes down to materials. While an aluminum vessel may only last a couple of decades, Eberhardt says it’s not uncommon for steel vessels to last for thirty, forty, or even fifty years. In order for vessels to last for decades, it’s important that owners maintain upkeep and modifications over the years. Vessel maintenance is a significant portion of the business. “As an engineering firm, 60 percent of our income is probably associated with new constructions and 40 percent from projects to maintain or modify an existing vessel,” Waterhouse says.
The Industry’s Future
As the years go by, cruise ships continue to get bigger and more extravagant. That poses challenges for both the engineers tasked with designing the vessels and the construction companies that design and build docking facilities. Throughout the United States, shipyards are much rarer than they once were, which can make it difficult for customers to find the resources and services they need.
“We don’t have a lot of good vendors,” Eberhardt says. “Right now, you can’t go get a good passenger vessel, I don’t think, for spring delivery because you’re too late. Even if there was a small enough vessel you could get built in nine to twelve months, the good yards are already booked. It’s not going to happen, I don’t care how much money you have. When you’re in an industry and you can’t necessarily guarantee your vendors can provide the parts on time, it makes forecasting costs difficult.”
The future is also murky for docking facilities and the communities that house them.
“The challenge in Alaska is you come into a place like Ketchikan, and you have three cruise ships in harbor, each of which are carrying 3,000 passengers,” Waterhouse says. “Suddenly the town is overrun. How do the ports in Southeast Alaska both accommodate the larger ships and provide the passengers with a meaningful experience in their part of Alaska?”
Jason Davis, president of Turnagain Marine Construction, is working to solve the question Waterhouse and others are asking.
“There’re ships coming to Alaska now that even four years ago were never contemplated to come to our market,” Davis says. “The infrastructure has to upgrade to be able to take cruise ships that are 30 to 40 percent larger than what has been coming up here traditionally.”
Turnagain Marine is currently in the process of designing a second cruise ship facility at Icy Strait Point. It also was awarded a contract to double cruise ship facility in Ward Cove near Ketchikan. The Icy Strait Point project, in particular, is benefitting the Huna Totem Corporation and the residents of the Hoonah area. Davis hopes the Ward Cove project will help rejuvenate the old mill property and create economic opportunities in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, in addition to easing congestion in the downtown area.
Although Davis notes that the new facility construction process isn’t a challenge, the fact that Turnagain Marine is entering new territory can be a tricky endeavor.
“It’s not the actual construction that’s difficult, it’s that most of these are already developed waterfronts,” he says. “Adding length or building further out into the channel is sometimes restricted by space available on the waterfront. To overcome that, there’s been some pretty progressive owners that have been developing locations that are outside the downtown districts. That spreads the tour influence out and allows for new development without overcrowding. Icy Strait Point and Ward Cove are prime examples of that. They’re going away from downtown and building a new destination.”
Architecture & Engineering Special Section + Small Business
In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.