Boasting one of the region's two largest floating docks, Grand Bahama Shipyard is the strategic harbor for cruise ships and commercial vessels. David Soyka reports on a key port of call in the heart of a major tourist destination where ships dock to "take a vacation" for repairs and upgrades.
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When you think of the Bahamas, the first thing that comes to mind is tourism. You might also know that it is one of the largest container ports in the world, thanks to its geographic proximity to the eastern seaboard of the U.S. But as Carl-Gustaf Rotkirch, the CEO and chairman of Grand Bahama Shipyard Ltd., points out, “Freeport is also a growing industrial center. We have the pharmaceutical firm Pharmachem Bahamas (formerly Syntex) that’s owned by Novasep, and the BORCO oil facility(a Buckeye company). It’s an interesting place that does have an ambition to become a significant industrial hub. It’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”
The main reason why Grand Bahamas first established a beachhead in Freeport back at the turn of the century (remember when that used to mean the 19th century and not the 20th century?) was to provide a better port of call for the cruise ship industry. “Up until Grand Bahama was established, cruise ships had contracts with the U.S. Navy to dock at their shipyards throughout the eastern coast. The problem was that Navy work took precedence—if an aircraft carrier needed some maintenance, that took precedence and any work on the cruise ship had to wait. The problem for the industry was that you cannot tell customers waiting on a dock in New York that their ship won’t be ready to sail today because of an aircraft carrier. Grand Bahamas Shipyard offered the cruise ship industry a convenient location and an exclusive dedication to repair and maintenance work for cruise ships.”
In fact, as Rotkirch notes, “If you go on the Internet and Google trading route schematics, you’ll discover that the Bahamas is in the middle of the highest shipping traffic in the world.”
A Strategic Location
And Grand Bahama Shipyard is strategically located right in the middle of this traffic. Its sheltered, deep water harbor (minimum 45 foot depth for entry) in the free trade zone of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island is less than 80 miles from the Florida east coast, central to ships on Caribbean and U.S. eastern seaboard trade, as well as transatlantic ocean crossings.
Consequently, it is an ideal destination for vessels in need of general ship repair, special upgrades, refurbishments, conversions and life-extension projects. Grand Bahama Shipyard also offers full fabrication capabilities to fashion a range of deck components and living sections for cruise and merchant ships using both steel and alloy materials. Rotkirch points out that the shipyard doesn’t build ships, but rather refurbishes, outfits and maintains large seagoing craft.
The shipyard comprises three floating dry docks capable of handling large ships, up to 1,000 feet in length, with a maximum lifting capacity of close to 90,000 tons. In addition, wet berths and piers with water depths up to 60 feet can accommodate deep draft vessels. The yard houses various steel, mechanical, pipe, electrical, rigging, and maintenance shops as well as a range of warehouse and subcontractor facilities. The Grand Bahama Shipyard is certified according to Quality Assurance Management Standards of ISO 9001:2008, Health and Safety Management standards of OHSAS 18001:2007 and Environmental Management standards of ISO 14001:2004.
Safety and Quality are Key
As important as ease-of-access coupled with premium shipyard facilities and accommodations, Rotkirch says Grand Bahama Shipyard’s commitment to three core principles makes it a choice port of call. “The first is safety. We operate in a safe and secure environment and are constantly performing risk assessments to ensure whatever work we do can be done as safely as possible, for our clients, for the ship’s crew and, last but not least, our own workforce. I always emphasize to our people that it’s better to come to work in the morning and go home, maybe a little more tired but safe and sound. We owe it to every employee’s family. We have to do everything in a methodical, safe and sound way because that ensures you’ll be coming in the next morning.
Next, Rotkirch says, is maintaining and achieving the highest level of quality. “We aren’t always the least expensive, but our clients appreciate that what they are paying for is our ability to meet their highest expectations.”
Reliability is Paramount
Those high expectations, he adds, are not just the ability to meet and exceed technical specifications, but also to deliver as promised. “Reliability is paramount. Failure to deliver on time is catastrophic in the cruise industry,” Rotkirch emphasizes. “You can’t have people waiting in Ft. Lauderdale because their ship has been delayed getting out of dry dock. Part of our job is to anticipate problems or issues and plan to address them, and then schedule accordingly. Very much the same goes for the off shore industry when opening up new fields.
In the fourteen years of our operation, we’ve never had a single unanticipated delay. Ever.”
He adds, “Our success is based on our ability to meet the challenges of our clients. We have a reputation of being comfortable and competent at handling the logistics of big ship repair and maintenance. That is our most important skill and attribute. Here’s an example. Last January we were refurbishing a ship that required loading 700 containers of new material on board. All the work we did created a lot of garbage—500 skiffs of garbage, as a matter of fact. We developed a meticulous plan to manage the loading and unloading the material to the point where we had four cranes operating over a 25 day period with one lift every 12 minutes. Everything worked like clockwork because we knew exactly what had to be done at exactly what time, and we made sure it was done exactly as we expected it to be done.”
Rotkirch emphasizes that the only way you achieve such clockwork precision is the quality of your workforce. “Depending on the time of year, we employ anywhere between 500 to a 1,000 people. About half of our workers are local to the Bahamas. Since we started business here in Freeport we’ve instituted apprentice programs to train people in shipyard skills, and we’re particularly proud of our contributions to the local economy and community as a whole,” Rotkirch notes. “The other half involves specialized skills that we usually source from the Phillipines, Peru and Mexico, countries where the shipbuilding industry is in decline and people are happy to come here for the opportunity to work.”
After fourteen years in operation, the Grand Bahama Shipyard foresees smooth sailing and clear skies ahead. “We’re investing some five to ten million dollars every year to improve the shipyard,” Rotkirch says. “While cruise ships will always remain an important part of our business, we are looking to expand our business in merchant ships and off shore ships and structures, especially during the months of June to August which is typically our slowest period.”
While for many a trip to the Bahamas is a vacation, for those in commercial seafaring, a trip to the Grand Bahama Shipyard is essential to keep their business afloat.