To hear Steve Fletcher tell it, flesh and blood – not tugs and barges – are the real reasons why McKeil Marine is one of Canada’s most sought-after partners for world-class marine transportation projects. “The many amazing things we do for our clients would not be possible with- out the dedication and expertise of the many people who work here,” said the company’s President from the firm’s headquarters in Hamilton, Ontario. “Both our shore-based personnel and sailing crews are highly skilled and customer-centric.”

According to Fletcher, McKeil’s already solid manpower lineup has been boosted in recent months with the hires of several experienced and dynamic people in key positions. Two senior appointments are Bill Duffy, McKeil’s new head of fleet operations, and Olous Boag, Vice- President Operations. A former chief engineer on tugs and offshore vessels, Boag spent the past two decades in senior shore management positions, including superintendent and Director of Fleet Engineering with BC Ferries. Most recently, he was head of operations for Atlantic Towing’s fleet of coastal and harbour tugs and offshore vessels.

Lise Galli, McKeil’s new Vice-President of Human Resources, also joined the company on October 1. “Lise,” said Fletcher, “is here to help us continue to attract and retain even more experienced people for the many projects we’re already involved in and have planned.” One of the newest and biggest is the newly launched Huron Spirit, a tug-and-barge unit that was delivered this spring in an engineering-feat move, via both the Mississippi River and overland routes in sections, because it was too wide to get through the Great Lakes canal system. Representing the lion’s share of the more than $30 million that McKeil has spent on tugs and barges and other asset investments and renewals over the past

12 months, the Huron Spirit is now the biggest and most versatile vessel in the McKeil fleet, which was already the largest on the Great Lakes. It is also the company’s first self-unloading barge, a novelty that is believed to be the first of its kind on the Canadian side of the world’s largest inland lake system.

According to Fletcher, the 150-foot boom on the Huron Spirit’s barge is proving to be a boon for both the company and its customers, since the 10,000 tonnes of cargo the barge is capable of carrying can be unloaded more quickly and efficiently. “One of the benefits of a tug and barge fleet is that we can get into the shallower ports the big ships can’t,” he said. “But having [a self-unloading barge] is really an exciting new entry on the market. It creates a paradigm shift in how some aggregates are moved today on the Great Lakes.”

For Fletcher, the addition of the Huron Spirit also enhances McKeil’s already elevated standing in the niche 8,000-10,000-tonne volume range. Transporting cargo, however, is only one – and the smallest – of the two main categories of the company’s business. The other is projects: contractual jobs that take anywhere from one day to several months or years to complete, but which are always finite in nature and require much planning and expert execution. This year, for example, McKeil created a temporary docking solution to allow for the delivery of cargo and the loading of products for an Arctic-based mining project.

The company is also supplying barges to the ExxonMobil-led international consortium that is developing the Hebron offshore oil field in Newfoundland and Labrador. Located in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s, the field will be developed using a grav- ity-based structure – or GBS – that is being built at a construction site in Bull Arm.

The massive concrete rig, which is designed to withstand sea ice, icebergs, and the harsh weather conditions of the North Atlantic, is being assembled with the help of a collection of McKeil barges, which transport the massive concrete pieces and equipment. Two McKeil barges are already on site, with a dozen more being readied to go in the coming months.

Among those chartered vessels is Tobias, the largest deck barge in Canada. Built in China for McKeil on order from Holland’s Damen, the 400- foot-long, 105-foot-wide barge, which is as big as a Canadian Football League playing field and three stories high, was towed across the Atlantic and right to the job site at Bull Arm earlier this year. “It has a strong deck (and) was ordered and built specifically for the Hebron project,” said Fletcher.

Another notable recent company project was the moving in July of a stacker reclaimer from Belledune, N.B. to Port Cartier, Quebec, for a project by ArcelorMittal Canada. Fletcher called the job, which involved another 400-foot-long McKeil barge, “a Discovery Channel-sized move took up almost the entire deck of the barge, which is one of the biggest in Eastern Canada.”

Those projects, he added, are just a few of the many unique requests and challenges that McKeil’s engineers and project managers must size up and carry out on an ongoing and almost daily basis. “We pull off some truly amazing and special things,” said Fletcher. “Every job is unique, and getting them done often requires us to do things that have never been done before – by us or anyone anywhere. There’s never a dull day around here.”

In addition to having the necessary vessels, Fletcher said the key to McKeil’s success in landing projects from a wide range of clients is having qualified and dedicated employees who strive to find the safest, most reliable, and most cost-effective ways of getting things done. “Our employees have a healthy disrespect for the status quo,” said Fletcher. “They are trained and encouraged to question every aspect of the operations they are involved with and to keep looking to increase, say, rates of discharge (and) be more competitive on our pricing.”

He notably credited Blair McKeil for putting his customer-oriented stamp on the company he has led for the past 30 years, and for cre- ating a working atmosphere that enables McKeil to retain the large majority of its 200-plus employees. “It’s amazing the number of our crew members who go over the 20-year mark every year,” said Fletcher, who joined the company himself 14 years ago as Vice-President, Finance. “Being able to consistently rely on so many skilled and dedicated people is by far our greatest strength.”