by Mark Cardwell

Unable to get a funding commitment from the Quebec government for a $44-million expansion of its drydock, Groupe Maritime Verreault has decided to go it alone – at least for now – with a project it deems critical for the company’s future. “We’re going to do it in phases,” Richard Beaupré, President and Chief Operating Officer of group subsidiary Verreault Navigation, told Canadian Sailings in an exclusive interview from Les Méchins, the small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in eastern Quebec where the company’s operations are located.

According to Beaupré, the first phase of the project consists of a doubling in the width of the shipyard’s drydock from 27.4 to 56 metres. Two larger, hoped-for future phases will involve a widening of the dock gate and a 100-foot lengthening of the drydock itself. Work on the first phase began in early November with the taking down of the yard’s old marine railway building next to the drydock – a structure built by company founder Captain Borromée Verreault in the 1950s, and was first used to build ships. Work is expected to be completed by next summer.

“Widening the drydock will allow us to take in more and larger vessels,” said Beaupré.

He noted that the drydock will continue to receive ships during the roughly 10-month expansion phase, which is estimated to cost $12 million. “It’s not a difficult engineering feat,” Beaupré said.  “We’ll be blasting and digging rock to extend the existing wall (and) we’ll be able to recuperate some portions of it.” As a result, he added, Verreault has “a number of vessels” booked in the drydock for the coming winter months. “We’ll be quite busy, much like we’ve been throughout 2014,” said Beaupré.

He noted that the yard’s busiest months are traditionally November to April, when some 200 trades people carry out a complete range of repairs, refits, and maintenance services to tankers, freighters, ferries, lakers, cruise ships, fish and factory vessels, and offshore supply vessels.

Beaupré said the decision to expand the drydock “shows our commitment to serve our many clients when they need to be served.” That need is growing, he said, due to the recent closures of Great Lake shipyards in Port Weller and Thunder Bay. “Our position on the St. Lawrence is ideal,” added Beaupré, a former Great Lakes ship captain with N. M. Paterson & Sons and the husband of Denise Verreault, President and CEO of Groupe Maritime Verreault. “Vessels come down and offload wheat or whatever in Baie-Comeau or Port Cartier, then come here, get repaired (and) go back up the Lakes with a load of iron ore or whatever.”

Beaupré said that after the widening of the drydock is complete, two future expansion phases are on the planning books. One is the replacement of the current drydock gate, which will remain in place during the first phase of expansion work. The final and most expensive phase would be the lengthening of the drydock to 900 feet from its current 800 feet. Once completed, the three-phase expansion project would give the Verreault yard the largest drydock for commercial ships on the East Coast of North America.  

It would notably enable the yard to accommodate ships of almost any size, including the New Panamax vessels. It would also allow it to take Canadian-flagged vessels that now go to Europe to go into drydock.

“Ships are getting wider and our market is shrinking,” Verreault told Canadian Sailings in an interview earlier this year.  “We need this project to move forward or we risk getting left behind.” She claimed to have received “many letters of intent” from Canadian shipping companies to use an enlarged drydock in Les Méchins.

The letters were part of a detailed business plan that Verreault put together in 2013 with the help of international engineering and environmental consulting firm Royal Haskoning. The plan was submitted to both the provincial and federal governments in an effort to drum up financial support.

“We’ve been trying hard to get a commitment for the past couple of years,” said Beaupré. He blamed two provincial elections in Quebec that have resulted in new governments and changes in ministers and policies for stalling discussions on the project. “We couldn’t wait any longer,” Beaupré said about the decision to go it alone for the first phase, noting that Verreault has extended the drydock privately five times since the company was founded in 1956. “We decided to go in phases. That way we can move forward (and) hope for a positive outcome from discussions with government about our project down the road.”