Sprawling along the waterfront at the foot of St. George’s Avenue, lies a vast industrial complex: the Seaspan Vancouver Drydocks. Normally, passersby may see buildings and cranes and other equipment, and in the distance, perhaps some large vessel suspended unnaturally out of the water so that its nether parts can be seen. But surely, there must be more?
It was with this question in my mind that I took the initiative to contact the Media Relations office at Seaspan and presumptuously enquired about a possible tour. I was soon rewarded with a very positive email that referred me to Mr. Benjamin Cartwright, the site’s Assistant Ship Repair Superintendent. I had a brief phone conversation with Ben and agreed to meet him at the site to get the full skinny.
Seaspan, a group of companies involved in many aspects of marine services, acquired the Drydocks in 1991. The facility has two drydocks, the larger one can accommodate vessels of a capacity up to 36,000 tonnes. The other, a dock that may actually be deployed, can lift 30,000 tonnes.
Ben Cartwright, an affable, knowledgeable gentleman met me at the gate and very graciously spent time touring me about the facility. I had come prepared with some questions and as we strolled, I learned that the drydocks are in operation year round, with typically two vessels per month. While the total personnel depends upon the current level of work, Ben told me that Seaspan had just completed projects that employed up to 277 workers, and had roughly 120 additional supporting subcontractors from the north shore. Most projects require a double or sometimes a triple work shift.
I also learned a great deal more as Ben stressed the importance of good environmental citizenship and detailed the methods by which they are able to reclaim all of the materials and water used in their processes. In another example, he related that they are required to get a special “deep burial” permit for the disposal of the marine material careened from the hulls.
(Although the marine material is benign, the stringency is there in case any anti-fouling compound has been scraped off too and is in the mix.) Recycling also applies to almost all materials used within the facilty.
Hand-in-hand with the environmental concerns, are the concerns regarding safety, and Ben explained to me how much has changed over the years as to the precautions required for specific jobs. One can imagine the extraordinarily tight compartments and cavities within and throughout the hull of a large ship. Working within these confines requires following exacting standards and safeguards.
We toured the large drydock first, and it housed a monstrous barge, but further along behind it, a good-sized tug was perched on its blocks, props freshly wrapped, but missing a rudder. We eventually caught up to the rudder in the machine shop where it was being fitted with a new shaft, itself enormous
Fabrication of needed materials is done, for the most part, on-site, with larger fabrications being provided from sister location along the shore at Pemberton, the Vancouver Shipyards.
The overall drydock process is fascinating, beginning with a custom hull profile that is used to build and position the blocks on the dock’s floor. Next, the dock is submerged and the ship brought carefully in to a pre-measured and planted guide pole. Now, the water is pumped out of the drydock’s tanks and the entire structure rises under the ship. When contact has been made, the process is stopped and divers check the ship’s position and conformity to the supporting blocks. Adjustments are made as necessary and then the remaining water is purged from the tanks and the dock fully raised above water level. Now the entire ship is accessible for repairs and maintenance.
Next door, still perched on her blocks, but almost ready to be floated again, sat the BC ferry Queen of Oak Bay, looking quite regal in a new coat of paint above, and fresh, slick anti-fouling epoxy paint below. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size. Even when you’re on the ship it’s simply not the same as seeing one literally from the bottom up.
Even the hub from the propellor assembly is so heavy that it had to be transported to Seattle to be flown out on a special plane able to deal with its size and weight in order to get it back to the Netherlands for reconditioning!
As we walked back to the security gate, Ben talked of his fondness for the work and the fact that its diversity, challenge and high expectations are very rewarding. Seaspan, I was told, is a great company for which to work.
Although my visit lasted just under an hour, it was a collage of fascinating sights, facts and experiences. Many thanks to Seaspan and in particular to Ben Cartwright for taking the time to help me pull back the curtain, get behind the scenes and bring a bit of their story to the Lower Lonsdale community.