Working the dry dock: A day at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards

Electrician Jessica Lawson arrives from her Saanich home to begin work at Esquimalt Graving Dock ahead of most of her co-workers.

As a charge hand working for Seaspan Victoria Shipyards, Lawson supervises five other electricians and her day begins at 7 a.m. or earlier to get a jump. “I just need that extra half hour to get ahead of my guys,” said Lawson, 38.

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She begins with a walk around “the boat.” (It’s a quirk of slang at the Esquimalt Graving Dock that likely appals mariners. But for shipyard workers, once a vessel — regardless of its size — is parked in dry dock, it becomes a boat, not a ship.)

Last month, the “boat” was HMCS Ottawa, commissioned in 1996 and undergoing a mid-life reconditioning at the dock.

Lawson’s first check is always for safety, making sure her crew’s working area is clear and neat. Safety is a near religion at the facility. Everyone begins each week with safety meetings and every worker has the right to shut down the job over safety concerns at any time.

After her daily safety check, Lawson makes contact with the charge hands supervising other trades. She has to make sure her crew can begin without interfering with other work.

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For example:

Have the metal fabricators finished installing a new piece in the bulkhead? Have their welds been tested? Has the bare metal been primed and painted? Has insulation been installed?

Are any fitters about to install new pipe? That’s important because pipes are heavier and harder to move than electrical cable. So, in the hierarchy of ship-repair work, pipefitters usually get priority.

Now, imagine Lawson’s job and her crew, repeated over and over across a workforce consisting of 10 separate, unionized trades, including electricians, welders, steel fabricators and carpenters.

Imagine it across a workforce ranging from 800 to about 1,100, depending on the ship being reconditioned.

Finally, imagine this workforce regularly refitting, reconditioning and repairing several vessels at the same time.

They could be navy frigates or submarines, ferries or Holland America cruise ships.

Then throw in a fishing boat or two and a coast guard cutter.

And consider every ship has its own “snowflake quality.” No two are exactly the same, even when they are the same class or type.

Each is a product of its own manufacture, its own project schedule and its own shipyard.

Brody Smith, a 26-year-old welder who started working at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards while still in Grade 12, recalls the touchiest piece of work he ever performed on a ship.

It involved a double-length welding rod fashioned to reach into a small, out-of-the-way space.

Smith could only see what he was doing by deploying a mirror and looking at the reflection.

And he fashioned a good weld.

“You can be in a tank crawling around, underneath a motor in a fish boat,” said Smith. “It gets pretty cramped.”

And before a welder such as Smith even strikes a spark in any enclosed space, specially trained and equipped safety officers have to check to make sure it’s safe.

Every ship is a series of tight, enclosed spaces: rooms, tanks, bilges and crawl spaces packed with machinery.

Electro-chemical reactions between metal, water or other substances regularly render the contained airspace unbreathable or flammable.

That gives an idea of the complexity, the skill level, the organizational enormity that is undertaken every time a ship pulls into the Esquimalt Graving Dock. The words “project management” begin to take on special significance.

The graving dock can easily lay claim to being the single largest concentration of skilled and professional workers in one job site on southern Vancouver Island. Nothing else comes close to the variety and numbers of accredited, ticketed journeyman and professional workers.

A federally owned facility, the Esquimalt Graving Dock is operated by Public Works and Government Services Canada. About 40 government workers operate the cranes and pumps and dock the ships. But the work of repairing those ships is done by private companies leasing the facility.

The biggest company, with a workforce that can reach 1,100 people depending on the job, is Seaspan Victoria Shipyards.

“We have sheet-metal workers, electricians, steel fabricators, welders, joiners, mechanics and engine fitters,” said Malcolm Barker, vice-president and general manager of Seaspan Victoria Shipyards.

“And all of these work together as an integrated team,” said Barker.

The shipyard almost died in 1994. Yarrows Ltd., once the biggest shipyard operation in B.C. with more than 1,200 employees operating out of Esquimalt and the Lower Mainland, closed its doors. It was a typical corporate shutdown.

Management officials blamed unions, which had a reputation for turf wars, for being inflexible and not allowing the company to remain competitive.

Unions blamed management, saying it was not even trying to drum up new business because it wanted to kill the company to put it into receivership.

But before the end of 1994, a glimmer of hope for shipyard work in Victoria started to appear. A company then known as Vancouver Shipyards (Esquimalt) Ltd. emerged.

It was a wholly owned subsidiary of Seaspan International Ltd., a Vancouver company that had operated in Victoria until moving out in 1985.

In April 1994, as Yarrows wound down, unions and the new company announced a major employment coup.

The Labour Relations Board had certified the Boilermakers Union Local 191 as bargaining agent for Vancouver Shipyards (Esquimalt).

It had been feared that unions from the Lower Mainland might have tried to block the certification.

Instead, they all agreed to work through the Boilermakers Union as long as workers’ dues and benefit contributions went to their own unions.

Instead of building new ships, the company would concentrate on ship repair and refurbishment and operate out of the federally owned Esquimalt Graving Dock.

Within two weeks of the certification announcement, the Seaspan-owned Vancouver Shipyards (Esquimalt) had opened an office at the graving dock.

It also announced its first repair contract, a four-day refit of B.C. Ferries’ Queen of Vancouver, worth $49,598.

By the following year, the company had 50 full-time employees and had hired about 600 workers.

It also had about $6 million worth of contracts signed for deep-sea vessels.

By 2013, Seaspan Victoria Shipyards was supporting an annual payroll of $78 million and a workforce ranging from 800 to 1,100.

The company was buying more than $12 million in goods and services every year from businesses in Greater Victoria.

Barker said the yard has proven itself and has years of work already lined up.

“When we deliver projects on budget and on time, with the quality of work we are doing, as good if not better than anyone else in the world, then ship owners come to us,” said Barker.

As proof, he said that after every job is finished, Seaspan Victoria Shipyards contracts idependent evaluations based on five areas: employees, quality of work, delivery time, safety and environmental practices.

Barker said the company is scoring more than 95 per cent, or 4.65 out of five. Most yards would be delighted to hit a rating close to 4.5.

Heavy stuff at Esquimalt graving dock

  • Dock size: Length: 357.5 metres, width: 38.4 metres — can be divided into two using caissons to split the space.
  • Pumps: Three centrifugal pumps are used, each discharging 227,000 litres of seawater per minute.
  • Heavy equipment: Three rail-mounted travelling cranes — a 150-tonne crane capable of lifting some vessels to land and two 30-tonne cranes; one tower crane services vessels berthed at the south jetty; three mobile, rubber-tired cranes with 30-tonne, 25-tonne and 10-tonne capacities; four- and six-tonne forklifts
  • Capacity: Three vessels can be in dry dock at the same time, with four more tied to jetties.

How the graving dock works

When a ship arrives, a complex series of manoeuvres come into play:

  • Draining: A caisson, a massive floating wall made of steel and concrete, is pushed into place by a tug. Pumps on board the caisson fill its interior with water to sink it into tight-fitting seats. By using two caissons at once, dry dock space can be divided into two enclosures.
  • Pumping: Three giant pumps, each one discharging 227,000 litres a minute located inside a pumphouse on shore, empty the dry dock section behind the seated caisson to reveal the drydock floor.
  • Setup: A dock master and crew construct and position blocks to receive the ship’s hull. Each ship block is about the size of a railway tie and is fashioned from steel and wood. With a ship designed to have its hull weight supported by water, care must be taken when transferring its weight to the blocks.
  • Plan: Each ship owner presents its docking plan, including schematic diagrams of the hull, to the ship-repair company. The plan is used to draw up precise arrangement of the blocks.
  • Refloating: With the ship blocks arranged, the drydock is reflooded. The caisson is then pumped out, refloated and removed. A system of tugs and winches then push and pull the ship into the flooded dry dock. Once the ship is floated in over the top of the blocks still sitting on the submerged floor, the caisson is floated back into position. It is then flooded and settles into its seat to seal off the dry dock.
  • Bubbles: A “bubble curtain” is installed at the entrance of the dry dock. Steel pipes discharge compressed air to create a barrier of bubbles to deter fish or seals from entering and becoming trapped when the dry dock is drained.
  • Pump out: Once the caisson is sunk and the drydock sealed off, on-shore pumps begin removing water. As the ship settles on its blocks, divers are sent below to make sure nothing gets crushed and the hull’s weight settles down evenly.
  • Time: The entire reflooding operation takes three to four hours.

Our dry dock history

  • Esquimalt has two dry docks, Naden and Esquimalt.
  • Naden was the first and, although much smaller, still operates today inside CFB Esquimalt. It was built by the governments of Great Britain, Canada and British Columbia, and opened on July 20, 1887.
  • HMS Cormorant was the first ship in Naden. Cormorant Street, near Victoria City Hall, is named for the vessel.
  • Naden replaced a facility in Chile that had been the Royal Navy’s previous Pacific refit station. But by the early
  • 20th century, Naden was no longer big enough to accommodate most ships, particularly merchant vessels. In 1905, the Royal Navy stopped using the facility.
  • In 1927, the Canadian government officially opened Esquimalt Graving Dock off Admirals Road to accommodate the maximum-sized ships already travelling through the Panama Canal, which had opened in 1914. Those ship dimensions came to be known as Panamax.
  • The Esquimalt Graving Dock has been widened and lengthened several times since completion and can handle 90 per cent of the world’s ships.
  • Perhaps the most famous vessel to be taken into the new dry dock was the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth, converted into a troop ship in February 1942. As the largest ocean liner in the world at the time, the QE would eventually be capable of carrying a full army division of 15,000 soldiers. Because the Queen Elizabeth was so large, Victoria authorities were worried she would make a tempting target for a bombing raid. Military police blocked off streets, people were warned to say little and the two daily newspapers did not mention the ship’s name. Work proceeded around the clock for
  • 13 days before she put out to sea again.
  • The Esquimalt Graving Dock has remained in continual use since 1927. Most recently, large pockets were constructed in the concrete sides of the dry dock to allow ships to extend their stabilizers for inspection and maintenance.

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