They say the sea gets into your blood; so, it would appear, does shipbuilding.
Alan Hughes has been a ship-fitter at Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards (VSY) since 1981. He is now working the final year of a career that will span 37 years by the time he clocks out in December.
His is a shipbuilding lineage. “My Grandad was in the Merchant Navy, when he came out [of the Navy] he started shipbuilding. Dad worked in the industry too, first back in the U.K., then for a short stint down in Boston before coming to Canada in 1970 and working at the Burrard Dry Dock. He ended up joining me at Seaspan from 1990 to 1997. And now my son, Colin Edwin, works here too!” Alan’s son Colin served his apprenticeship at the shipyard a few years back and is now in his fifth year as a welder at VSY.
Today, Alan is a Charge Hand in Stage of Construction 10 (SOC 10), running a crew of four. SOC 10 is where sub-assembly takes place; it is one of the first areas of the shipyard to begin building each vessel. Following the construction of the first three OFSV vessels, “it has slowed down a bit. There were more of us going when we were busy. But it will build back up again soon with the new ships,” he says with quiet confidence.
Alan’s confidence is well-founded. With the Government of Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, and Seaspan’s selection as non-combat shipbuilder, the boom and bust cycles that marked the shipbuilding industry have been smoothed.
Over the course of his career, Alan has had a front row seat to the past impact of these cycles. “We got laid off a lot in the early 80s. I started my apprenticeship as a shipwright here in ‘81. In late ’83, we finished building an icebreaker and we went from 740 employees down to 125. Then everything died for a while.” Alan well remembers the lean years that followed. He describes having just one week of work in 1985 and remembers being laid off 22 times another year – including twice in one week once.
He contrasts those years with the more recent past, “It’s really good now, going steady for just over three years. Lots of happy families! And now that we know that we have the next set of [ships] to build, we are even happier.”
Alan sees positive changes not just in relation to stable employment for families like his, but also in the investments that have been made at Seaspan based on the predictability of having a long-term strategy in place. “Working at Seaspan is totally different today. I still love it, and it’s still a great place to work, but it’s like a brand-new place. This is a very modern yard now.” He describes the work that is underway on the Offshore Fishery Vessels. “We launched one in December. I got to carry the champagne up, that was pretty cool. The second one’s bow unit went on last week, it looks pretty spectacular.”
When he reflects on his career, Alan gets nostalgic, but only for a moment. “It’s gone too fast… but it’s been a fun time! I feel pretty lucky. It felt great having my dad around when he was here. We’re both good union guys. He taught me a lot. Now my son is here and that’s even better,” he adds with a laugh.
Alan is looking forward to starting a new chapter in his life later this year. Christmas week will be his last week at the yard. “I am very excited about retirement. A little nervous, but excited. It’s time to go – all my friends and buddies that I started with are either already retired and playing golf or about to go, like me.
Is the long relationship between the Hughes family and Seaspan set to continue? All signs point to yes. Alan is optimistic that Colin Edwin will have a career as long as his own with the shipyard, and possibly be a Charge Hand some day too. And perhaps Colin Edwin’s son Aaron will one day follow in his great-grandfather, grandfather and father’s footsteps and be the fourth generation of Hughes to work at VSY. Alan is hopeful that the Hughes family’s shipbuilding blood will flow in his grandson too.