Seaspan’s Victoria, BC Shipyard Celebrates 30 Years

The Disney Wonder cruise ship while under repair at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards in September 2023. Photo courtesy of Seaspan.

Back in 1994, Bill Clinton was a year into his first term as President of the United States, gasoline cost an average of $1.12 per gallon, the film Pulp Fiction first landed in movie theatres, and Michael Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley.

And there was also another momentous event that year that helped—and continues to help—shape the maritime industry on British Columbia’s West Coast: the opening of Seaspan ULC’s Victoria, British Columbia shipyard, which took place in April of that year.

In 1994, the business began with one 20-foot shipping container and five managers. The facility’s first major repair job at the time was a 750-foot containership, the Columbus California.

Today, Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyards employs about 800 people, is a major economic driver for the region, and has partnerships with government and commercial fleets in Canada and around the world.

Operating out of the Esquimalt Graving Dock, the largest solid-bottom commercial drydock on the West Coast of the Americas, Seaspan Victoria Shipyards has used their expertise to repair 477 vessels in the drydock, including Royal Canadian Navy vessels, cruise ships, ferries, foreign navy vessels and other ships over the past 30 years.

It’s also an integral part of the Royal Canadian Navy frigate and submarine maintenance programs, with its highly team providing maintenance on frigates and in-service support for submarines.

Over time, Victoria Shipyards grew into the largest ship repair company on Canada’s Pacific coast; it can drydock and repair vessels up to 100,000 DWT.

Prior to Seaspan’s takeover of the Government of Canada-owned land, there had been a similar facility on the site, Yarrows Shipyard.

“When Yarrows Shipyard went bankrupt, Malcolm Barker (Victoria Shipyards’ first GM) and five other managers set up a ship repair division of Seaspan to fill a void in the area,” Seaspan Victoria Shipyards Vice President and General Manager Tony Winter told Pacific Maritime.

“As we were building the business, we focused on four things: client relationships, quality work, timely delivery and value for money,” Barker explained. “That is how we earned our first contracts, cultivated long-term customers and developed a talented workforce.”

The federally-owned Esquimalt Graving Dock is, Winter said, the largest solid bottom commercial drydock on the West Coast of the Americas. The production site at Victoria Shipyards is on 25 acres with 610 meters (2,000 feet) of deep-water wharfage.

The shipyard offers full-service drydocking and wet berth refit services for all types of vessels, and specializes in complex repair and overhaul of warships, submarines and commercial ships. It also produces pipe spools and minor steel structures for its sister facility, Vancouver Shipyards.

Dock Master Gene Leech, left, and his son Ben at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards with the facility’s original shipping container, in April 2024. Photo courtesy of Seaspan.

Multi-Generation Workforce

There’s a handful of employees still at the shipyard who joined in the 1990s, including Dock Master Gene Leech.

“Gene is one of the dozen employees at Victoria Shipyards who are part of multiple-generations of family members working at this shipyard,” Winter said. “Gene’s son now works as a pipefitter at the shipyard, and his dad was a machinist in the yard.”

“Further, Gene’s grandfather worked on constructing the graving dock in the 1920s,” he continued.

Gene’s father, Jim Leech, also worked in the drydock as a machinist for 49 years and retired in 2001, the same year Gene was promoted to dock master.

“We feel that this is a testament to the strong marine culture in B.C. and the steady employment that a thriving shipyard provides,” Winter said of the multi-generational labor force.

Jim Leech, the father of Gene Leech. Jim worked in the drydock as a machinist for 49 years. and retired in 2001, the same year Gene was promoted to dock master. Photo courtesy of Seaspan.

“Our workforce is the heart of our business and will always be the root of our success,” Winter added. “Together, we stand on the values and culture that was built 30 years ago: we continue to focus on customer relationships, quality work, timely delivery and continuous improvement. It’s a winning formula and how we have set the gold standard in ship repair on the West Coast.”

One of Three

Victoria Shipyards is one of three facilities owned and operated by Seaspan, with the other two being the aforementioned Vancouver Shipyards and Vancouver Drydock. But each location has a different role.

Victoria Shipyards differs from its sister facilities in that it performs ship repair and conversions for the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy, and commercial customers in the Victoria area.

The facility’s currently engaged with the Canadian Government on two long-term refit and modernization projects; the Victoria In-Service Support Contract (VISSC), as a subcontractor to Babcock Canada, to modernize the Royal Canadian Navy’s current fleet of submarines, and the Halifax-Class Work Period (HCWP) to maintain and modernize Canada’s West Coast-based Halifax-class frigates.

In addition to these long-term contracts, Victoria Shipyards also completed the first large-vessel LNG conversion, on both TOTE Midnight Sun and TOTE North Star, while also regularly completing short-term maintenance and repair projects on large cruise ships and fishing vessels, among others.

Among the facility’s larger and/or most frequent clients are the Royal Canadian Navy, shipping company TOTE Maritime, Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Lines and BC Ferries.

Vancouver Drydock does similar work as Victoria Shipyards, but in Vancouver. But over at Vancouver Shipyards, Seaspan focuses on building large vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard under the country’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, a federal effort to renew the fleets of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Newbuild construction, engineering, and design for such vessels is expected to stretch out at Vancouver Drydock for the next 20-plus years, according to Seaspan.

Economic Impact

The shipyard not only provides lucrative careers for local tradespeople, but is also a big contributor to the local and regional economy. A socio-economic study produced by audit, consulting, tax, and advisory services corporation Deloitte in 2023 showed that Victoria Shipyards contributed $1.72 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product over the previous 12 years, with a total labor income of $1.27 billion and a gross output of $2.85 billion.

Additionally, over the next 12 years, Seaspan’s full shipbuilding activities under the National Shipbuilding Strategy were forecasted by Deloitte to contribute $16.5 billion to Canadian GDP, $10.6 billion to labor income, $4.3 billion to federal, provincial and municipal government revenues and sustain/create about 9,042 jobs.

Seaspan’s repair, refit and maintenance activities were forecasted to contribute $4.2 billion to Canadian GDP, $2.6 billion to labor income, $1.6 billion to federal, provincial and municipal government revenues and sustain/create about 1,896 jobs.

“As Canada’s partner under the NSS, Seaspan is transforming our shipbuilding and marine industries through innovation, partnerships and developing world-class talent,” Seaspan Shipyards CEO John McCarthy said in a statement. “The economic contributions of this work are evident locally, regionally and across the country.”

“(In 2024) alone, we will be adding hundreds of people to our team to help us deliver on our promise of ships built in Canada by Canadians,” McCarthy said. “As we continue to invest in our people, facilities and drive improvements in how we design, build, and repair ships, Seaspan will remain a significant contributor to the Canadian economy for decades to come and a preferred employer for those looking to work in the maritime industry in British Columbia.”

On the Horizon

Seaspan held a celebratory BBQ with employees at Victoria Shipyards back in April, and later extended the celebration in June during the shipyard’s annual family and friends summer celebration.

Regarding what’s on the horizon for the facility in the months and years to come, Winter said that Victoria Shipyards would continue to build on its reputation as one of the best ship repair yards in Canada and focus on delivering quality work while strengthening relationships with its customers.

“It’s a winning formula,” he said.