Shipyard has been working on big boats since
World War I
photo by Vincent Aiosa
Fairhaven has been many things over the years, from a small, muddy town to the bustling, brick-red urban village it is today. But throughout its long history, Fairhaven has always been home to waterfront industries.
Nowadays, there are few remaining businesses on the Fairhaven waterfront. One such maritime business is the Fairhaven Shipyard.
Located at the end of Harris Avenue near Marine Park, the shipyard has had several names and functions throughout the years. Since purchasing the business in 2002, though, Tacoma-based Puglia Engineering has whipped the business into shipshape.
“We have to turn work away,” said general manager Rich McDaneld, adding that dock space is always an issue for the ship repair company.
The Fairhaven Shipyard now employs approximately 120 people — from welders to painters to electricians — and lands such notable contracts as retrofitting the Okeanos Explorer, a research vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is expected to be completed by the end of April. When completed, the 224-foot former Navy vessel will be NOAA’s only ship with a deep-ocean, remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a robot used to explore the sea floor.
With NOAA continuing to look at Bellingham as a possible home for its Pacific fleet, McDaneld said the move would help business some, but wouldn’t give the shipyard any clear advantages.
“We do a lot of their work anyway,” he said.
NOAA is but one of several agencies that regularly visit the shipyard. In October 2007, Fairhaven Shipyard won a $7.6 million contract, one of the larger jobs the company has received, to retrofit the 235-foot M/V Aurora for the Alaska State Ferries. The shipyard also regularly repairs Washington state ferries, Coast Guard vessels from as far away as Hawaii and numerous fishing vessels.
photo by Vincent Aiosa
Shipyard established in 1916
Shipbuilding and repair work have a long history on the Fairhaven waterfront.
Pacific-American Fisheries (PAF), which operated a salmon cannery at the current site of the ferry terminal, first opened the shipyard in 1916 to build wooden freighters for its Pacific fleet. These vessels were used to deliver canned salmon all around the Pacific as well as transport equipment to and from other PAF canneries in Alaska.
By the time PAF went belly-up in 1966, the shipyard had built freighters for the French government, tug- boats for the United States Army, and numerous passenger vessels.
The Port of Bellingham then bought the property and has leased it to several different operations over the years. Currently, Fairhaven Shipyard shares the space with All American Marine.
In 1983, the port purchased what is now one of the more dominant eye-catchers on the Fairhaven waterfront: a government surplus dry dock capable of retrieving and holding 378-foot vessels. On its first test at the shipyard, though, the dry dock malfunctioned and sank to the bottom. It was soon refloated and refitted with modern controls.
When Puglia Engineering took over operation of the shipyard, they upgraded the dry dock, McDaneld said. These days, the dry dock is lowered and raised regularly for ships needing service check-ups or exterior repairs. The process can be complicated, especially if the weather is not cooperating.
First a set of blocks must be arranged on the dry dock to fit the shape of the incoming boat. Once the blocks are in place, the dry dock is lowered into the water and the vessel is pulled in using ropes. Then the dry dock is raised to the point where it is barely touching the keel of the boat.
At this point, divers are sent down to double check that the vessel is properly aligned on the blocks before raising it completely out of the water.
Union plays important role
When a vessel comes in for a check-up, everything is analyzed, from the propellor to the electrical wiring in the ceiling. And as more technology keeps finding its way aboard modern vessels, shipyards have had to keep up with these advances.
At Fairhaven Shipyard, McDaneld is proud to offer a one-stop-shop.
“We can do the full gamut of repairs,” he said. “The only thing we are limited to is the size of our dock.”
Looking at the big picture, though, McDaneld said the business is limited by the size of its work force more than the size of its dock. Nationwide, the skilled trades are feeling a shortage of qualified workers.
“We’re always looking for more workers,” McDaneld said. “Twenty years ago, everybody wanted to be a computer guy. As the work force is getting older now, we’re having a shortage of hands-on, working-type people. Now the computer industry is saturated and there’s not enough people in the normal working force and I think that’s why you see more people in the technical colleges.”
Fairhaven Shipyard recently began working closely with Bellingham Technical College to train students in blueprint reading and other skills that come in handy at a shipyard.
One aspect of the shipyard’s workforce that makes it stand out among the other shipyards in the region is that they are all union workers. Very few shipyards these days have a union work force, said Bill Hicock, who leads the mechanical department and maintenance crew.
“They were phased out in the ’80s through the ’90s and hopefully they’re coming back,” he said.
Hicock worked at the shipyard back in the 1970s when it was called Weldit — they built modular bases on barges. He left the company after 15 years and did steel fabrication and machining for other companies in town, but found his way back to the shipyard when Puglia Engineering took over in 2002.
Being a part of the International Association of Machinists union provides employees with benefits above and beyond those at non-union yards, Hicock said.
“It’s good for young people, especially those with families” he said. “One of the huge advantages of union employment is that you have a stable retirement program and they have the power of the machinist’s union to purchase insurance. We’re not talking just a hundred people — we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people in the union.”
McDaneld agreed that being a union shipyard has kept the business afloat.
“We pay a good benefits package and we’re able to maintain a good employee base that way,” he said.
A competitive industry
Though previous companies at the shipyard have come and gone with the tides, McDaneld said he is confident that the Fairhaven Shipyard will last.
“We’re always working on something to make ourselves bigger, better and more automated,” he said.
Now that Puglia Engineering has operated the shipyard for six years, the company has proven itself to be a strong competitor in the region. Plus, by meticulously tracking the man-hours and costs of each project, they are able to give accurate and highly competitive bids for projects.
“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff we do is through the bidding process and we’ve become really good at bidding,” McDaneld said. “We track everything and we know how much it costs.”
It’s reassuring, with the success of the shipyard, to know that Fairhaven is not in danger of losing something that has long defined it: its working waterfront.