By Mark Cardwell

Manon Lavoie is aware that she’s a rarity in the shipbuilding business in Canada or elsewhere. But the long-time General Manager of one of the country’s busiest shipyards says she is just too busy to think about it.

“I don’t know of many women who do what I do,” said Lavoie, a naval architect who has run Ocean Industries shipyard at Isle aux Coudres, an hour’s sail Northeast of Quebec City, for the past two decades. “But gender’s not important in my position, getting the job done is.”

And that’s exactly what Lavoie has been doing of late.  In August, she attended the christening in Quebec City of the latest vessel to leave her yard and the largest dredge ever built in Eastern Canada.

The 63-metre Ocean Traverse Nord is capable of dredging at up to 30 metres in depth with an hourly pumping capacity of 5,500 cubic metres.  It is powered by two Z-Drive omni-directional propellers and two 1,000-HP motors.

The $25 million project was commissioned by the shipyard’s parent company, Ocean, for a federal dredging contract it won.

The parent has two other shipbuilding contracts currently being carried out at the yard.  One is a 25-metre tug destined for use in and around the port of Montreal that Lavoie said is 70-percent complete.  The other is a Tundra tug that will provide escort service on the St. Lawrence between Ile aux Coudres and Sept-Iles.

The orders bring to more than 30 the number of steel and aluminum ships and barges that have been built or modified at the yard, which sits cheek-and-jowl with the commercial shipping lane on the St. Lawrence River.

Thanks to two hauling slips that can accommodate ships of up to 4,000 tonnes and a 1,550 square-metre building for indoor work, the yard also offers and does year-round construction and repair services like structural work, renovation, refitting, re-motorization, wintering and inspections for ships of small to medium tonnage – everything from tugs, work boats, pilot boats and barges to passenger ships, excursion ships and high-performance vessels.

The yard also offers topside ship repair, welding, spare parts machining and mechanical work (diesel or general), and breaks decommissioned ships.

“There are always ships in the yard,” said Lavoie, who estimated that repairs, welding, machining and mechanics account, on average, for about 70 percent of the work in the yard.

She estimated the same about the percentage of shipbuilding contracts that the yard receives from Ocean, which owns and operates the largest fleet of tugs and barges in Canada, and offers a wide range of integrated marine services like harbour towing, pilot boat services, salvage, equipment rental, dredging and short- and long-distance transportation.

Now in its 40th year of operation, Ocean first ordered a series of ships from the yard in 1997 (four 25-metre tugs), the year after it acquired the business from a local shipbuilding family, the Hamels.  In 2008, the group ordered a half-dozen more ships, including three 25-metre tugs, two 36-metre tugs, and a dredge.

The orders for the three new ships were placed in 2010.

“Supporting the group is our primary mission,” said Lavoie, a native of the Charlevoix region where the yard is located.  “We’ll be busy the next two years just filling shipbuilding orders from Ocean.”

Augmenting the full slate of services that are carried out and managed on Isle aux Coudres by multidisciplinary teams of experienced marine engineers, naval architects, mechanics, welder-fitters, electricians and painters– approximately 120 full-time workers in all – is a satellite welding shop in Quebec City. That metal fabrication workshop cuts, builds and assembles complete steel modules like the ones used to build the new dredge.

According to Lavoie, it took her yard only 12 months to build the new dredge.  That is two to four months faster, she said, than shipyards are able to produce the same vessel in Spain, where it was designed.

“We’re very proud of that accomplishment,” she told Canadian Sailings in a telephone interview from the shipyard in November.  “It was a big job but we succeeded.”

The year-old contract, she added, both showcased the skills and ingenuity of her employees and underscored the limits imposed by the shipyard’s size and location.

For example, the dredge had to be built in two sections because it wouldn’t fit in the indoor workshop.  “We had to float one section while work was being done on the other, then we assembled the two sections when they were ready,” Lavoie said about the contract, which led to the hiring of some 50 new employees.  “It was complicated at times and there were some big challenges (but) it all worked out well.”

Lavoie noted, however, that the shipyard can’t take orders for longer or heavier ships than the dredge because it has no room to expand on the small but picturesque island, a popular summertime destination for tourists.

“Not being able to get bigger hasn’t stopped us from performing and being competitive,” said Lavoie, a graduate of the Institut Maritime du Québec in Rimouski and both a daughter and granddaughter of ship captains.  “And that’s not going to change.”

Lavoie said her shipyard is hoping to land some of the many federal shipbuilding contracts for smaller vessels that are not part of last year’s NSPS contracts.

“We intend to bid on those contracts,” she said.  “We have all the necessary expertise and installations.”