SEWARD - Rain clouds hovered over Resurrection Bay on a mid-August morning as veteran welder John Ryan stood on a steel surface 70 feet up in the air, welding on the underside of the 800-ton Crowley Marine Service's tugboat Vigilant.
The 80-foot vessel was in the midst of a 10-day stay at Seward Ship's Drydock, at the Seward Marine Industrial Center, for maintenance on its propulsion system, piping and painting.
Ryan, a professional welder for three decades, was busy welding the Z-drive, a type of marine propulsion unit for the tug, which is operated by Crowley in Cook Inlet. Shipyard workers employed the company's 5,000-ton Syncro-Lift to lift the tug some 70 feet into the air, before bringing it to rest on a transfer cradle and blocking.
Mid-August is the calm before the storm at Seward Ship's Drydock, said DJ Whitman, vice president of the full service shipyard. Come September, the start of the busy nine-month season, employment at the shipyard can jump from 45 to 105 employees, Whitman said. The company offers shipyard services to all types and sizes of marine industry vessels.
Much emphasis is put on tourism in Seward, which has been down a bit this summer, as a major contributor to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula city, which has 2,600 residents.
"Overall everyone is feeling the economic downturn a little bit," said Laura Cluberton, public relations and programs coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce. Tourism itself "has been down, but it has not been as dramatic as maybe people were anticipating," she said.
The local economy is also diversified by commercial fishing and processing, freight for oil and gas development, an Alaska Railroad Corp. coal export facility that supports Usibelli Mine Inc. with coal exports, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, a state prison, the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Sciences, and ship services and repairs provided by Seward Ship's Drydock and Ship's Chandlery.
"A lot of time they book a year in advance," at the shipyard, said Whitman. "Tugs and barges and government contracts are the main thing. Some boats come in on Monday and leave on Friday, and generally 30 days is the maximum stay," he said. Clients range from owners of fishing boats and transportation industry vessels to the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The employment varies with the work, but the job-count goes up all the time," said Whitman. "People are still coming to the state. You've got to get goods and services here."
Although there are other repair and maintenance facilities for smaller vessels, the closest other Alaska shipyard is at Ketchikan, in southeast Alaska, which makes Seward Ship's Drydock a popular choice for vessel operators in southcentral Alaska. The facilities are approved by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping Standards.
Shipyard payroll exceeds $2 million annually, Whitman said. The company also spends some $1.5 million per year locally on goods and services, and about an equal amount elsewhere, he said. The range of services include fabrication, welding, hull and bottom systems, electrical, machine shop, hydraulics and mechanical.
Despite the presence of the state's Alaska Vocational Technical Center's Alaska Maritime Training Center at Seward, Whitman said, it is difficult to find employees with the shipyard experience when needed.
"They teach welding and electric (at the vocational center), but it's a far different animal to weld a steel building than to fix a ship," he said. "They teach industrial work, which is close, but not the same."
One of the most challenging jobs to come through the shipyard in recent years was the engineering and design involved in upgrading the state ferry Tustemena in the mid-1990s, Whitman said.
"We had to provide all the engineering and design. They (the state officials) pretty much knew what they wanted, but they didn't have details."
The shipyard also provides maintenance and repair services to an average of three Coast Guard cutters a year. This summer the shipyard deployed some 18 workers to Kodiak for dockside repair of the cutter Munro.
"We've had years when they (the workers) were all here, or all in Kodiak," Whitman said.
Seward Ship's Drydock opened for business in 1973 in response to a growing need for vessel repair services close to fishing grounds. By 1974, the demand and the increasing workload led to construction of the current home for Seward Ship's Chandlery in the city's Leirer Industrial Park, for vessels under 60 feet.
In 1979, Seward Ship's leased and rebuilt a 300-ton marine railway facility at Lowell Point, and operated that facility until 1985, when the company began drydocking and servicing vessels at the marine industrial center, utilizing the Syncro-Lift.
In 1988, Seward Ship's leased space from the city of Seward at the marine industrial center, the present site of its drydock operations.