Mound of anchor chains

Stephanie Alkier, project manager with Heddle Shipyards, Thunder Bay port, is dwarfed by massive anchor chains used to steady ships in the dry dock.

Heddle Shipyards saw an opportunity in 2016-2017 to purchase the former Port Arthur Shipyard and the St. Catharines Port Weller dry dock.

Scooping up the two assets, they added them to the growing Heddle family. The shipyard in Thunder Bay was purchased in 2017 and became part of the Heddle trajectory of growth from Hamilton, Newfoundland, Thunder Bay and then Port Weller in St. Catharines, opening what Ted Kirkpatrick, Heddle’s director of business, called a “good fit.”

“With Thunder Bay’s dock being the only Canadian shipyard at the (west) end of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, that certainly has its advantages,” Kirkpatrick said.

By establishing a developing relationship with Vancouver-based Seaspan, which provides marine-related services to the Pacific Northwest, Heddle is now manufacturing ship parts for them out of their Newfoundland and Hamilton, Ont., shipyards.

“Thunder Bay is a heck of a lot closer to Vancouver than Hamilton or Port Weller and it is also really well situated in terms of rail and road infrastructure,” Kirkpatrick said.

“In terms of a strategic location for us for fabricating parts and shipping them to the Vancouver shipyards for integration, Thunder Bay is probably in the best position to do that. Our long-term strategic goal as it relates to the manufacture of ship components, we see Thunder Bay as being really strong asset and playing a critical role in that.”

Kirkpatrick says the partnership with Seaspan is a step in the right direction. As they grow that side of the business with their Seaspan relationship, they will be building more and more smaller components and eventually larger ship modules across all of their facilities.

“And we certainly see Thunder Bay as a key piece of that fabrication strategy,” he said. “We are probably not going to be building a ship in Thunder Bay but we certainly will be building parts of ships from the shipyard.”

Kirpatrick is confident that their relationship with Seaspan has been positive, but it’s still “very much in its infancy.”

“Things are starting to ramp up and we are starting to see larger and more work packages so we just have to see how it evolves,” he said.

Acquiring the Thunder Bay dry dock was an easy move in a sense that there was virtually nothing in it.

“All of the equipment was auctioned off so it was basically just a shellk,” he said.

“There is not much there right now. There is no infrastructure there now, but the important thing with the shipyard is the infrastructure of the dry dock itself, which is still there — and it is functional.”

With nearly 70,000 square feet of fabrication machine shop space, and no machines in it, Kirkpatrick says it’s a clean slate to rebuild the infrastructure and bring in machines as they need them.

But ship repair is a cyclical industry because 70 to 80 per cent of the work happens in a two- to three-month period when ships are wintering due to the closed seaway, making it challenging through the rest of the year to try and find ways to keep the yards busy.

“We were able to put some projects in the Thunder Bay yard but not enough to mitigate that cyclicity so it kind of goes up and down,” Kirkpatrick said. “We did a three-month project last summer (2020) and we had well over 100 people that we drew from the surrounding area.”

He says this is why they have been pursuing these initiatives with Seaspan, where that type of fabrication will hopefully provide a level of stability from which they can build and maintain all the way through the year.

“That’s a difficulty we experience in all of our facilities,” he said.

In the early 1900s, the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company, later named the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Company, built and repaired many ships, including war ships, during the First and Second World Wars.

Today, the commercial ship building industry in Canada is basically non-existent.

“All the new ships that have come into service in the last 20 years have all been built overseas,” said Kirkpatrick. “The era of building Great Lakes freighters in the Great Lakes or in Canada has come and gone which is why companies like Heddle are aggressively pursuing new build activities through the National Shipbuilding Strategy.”