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Picking up steam

New owners have ambitious plans for Thunder Bay shipyard
Shipyard 1
Algoma Central Marine’s Algolake wintered at the former Lakehead Marine & Industrial shipyard in Thunder Bay, now under the control of Heddle Marine and Fabmar Metals.

A Hamilton-based ship repair company is poised to bring a dormant Thunder Bay shipyard back to life.

Heddle Marine has entered new waters in the upper Great Lakes following its acquisition of the former Lakehead Marine and Industrial from a holding company last June.

Shaun Padulo, Heddle’s marketing and sales manager, expects activity to pick up this spring on the 42-acre site in the city’s north end.

The company is close to signing a contract to bring in marine-related work to the Shipyard Road facility for the first time since the former owners of the yard filed for bankruptcy in 2014.

“The first project that we’ve got slated is coming up fairly shortly,” said Padulo.

Through a strategic partnership with Fabmar Metals, a local Thunder Bay marine repair company, they’ve rechristened the shipyard as a start-up company, Current River Holdings.

Fabmar will move its 25 employees to the site to run the operation for Heddle, said Padulo.

Based on Heddle’s employment projections, the yard could ramp to as many as 80 employees for large projects, but Padulo conceded it wouldn’t happen overnight.

The expansive fabrication and machine shops need new equipment and energy-efficient heating,

The shops were reduced to bare bones following an auction sale of equipment in 2014, but luckily, Padulo said Fabmar president Dale Ryynanen purchased much of it and will moving it back to the site.

Heddle will augment it with more state-of-the-art machinery like CNC’s, and discussions have been held with Confederation College to offer apprenticeship opportunities for students.

The 748-by-98-foot permanent dry dock needs to be repaired and lengthened. Padulo said the extra room would allow them to change out propeller shafts on standard 730-foot Seaway vessels.

The shipyard is part of Thunder Bay’s rich marine legacy, starting out as Western Dry Dock in 1909. Over the decades and through successive ownerships, the yard launched Great Lakes freighters, naval vessels, coast guard icebreakers, and passenger steamships.

For 30 years, Heddle Marine has performed ship repair and heavy industrial fabrication on Hamilton’s waterfront where their three floating dry docks perform refit work on freighters, tugboats, coast guard patrol vessels, passenger ferries, submarines, and historic ships.

The company expanded to Atlantic Canada in 2012 where they fabricate components for ExxonMobil Canada, the lead partner in the Hebron Project, an offshore heavy oil field in the Jeanne d'Arc Basin off Newfoundland-Labrador.

Padulo said establishing a presence at the western end of the lakes just makes sense.

The clients they service in Hamilton – like Lower Lakes Towing, – also operate on Lake Superior, and could lay up their vessels for the winter in Thunder Bay.

The busiest time of year for shipyards on the Great Lakes is a three-month window from January to March.

The Seaway and Soo Locks are closed for the winter, and with ships idled, the downtime is used to make repairs and upgrades to the vessels.

The new owners want to secure work to keep the yard busy year-round, Padulo suggesting that non-marine related work in the mining, forestry and energy sectors are possibilities.

“One idea we have is looking at industrial fabrication for infrastructure projects in northwestern Ontario,” said Padulo.

There is the potential for ship scrapping work as well as designing and fabricating sectional barges that can be trucked into remote areas for infrastructure project work or mine tailing ponds.

They also intend to chase some American business, taking advantage of the exchange on the Canadian dollar and some wording within the confines of the Jones Act, a U.S. law created in 1920 to shield the American shipping industry from foreign competition.

Padulo said he’s preparing a whitepaper, in consultation with American and Canadian legal firms, to examine that further. While they might not be able to do major ship refits – like hull replacements – on U.S.-registered vessels, Padulo said they could still perform quite a bit of lesser shipboard work.

“We can do steel replacement up to a certain amount. There are variables as to how much. But the numbers that are thrown out is seven per cent of the gross registered tonnage of the vessel.”

Rather than go it alone in Thunder Bay, Padulo said geography played a huge part in their partnership with Fabmar Metals.

“We didn’t want to micro-manage things from afar,” Padulo said, but rather find a local company with an experienced crew that knew the lay of the land.

“In this business, the hardest thing is finding good people that you can rely on.”

Heddle has the same kind of arrangement on the East Coast with McKeil Marine, a major tug, barge and salvage company.

“Dale’s been doing along-side ship repairs for 30 years. He’s every bit as experienced as we are in Hamilton, it’s just that they haven’t pulled the ships out of the water.”