HOUMA, La. (AP) — With oil and gas companies thirsting for more supplies on deepwater platforms and rigs, orders for new ships to truck everything from drilling mud to macaroni and cheese have climbed. That demand has one old Houma shipyard roaring back to life.
Inside a metal hangar alongside the Prospect Street Overpass in Houma, sparks flew and hammers pounded echoes off of ships' steel hulls on a recent Wednesday morning.
In the backdrop, floating on the Houma Canal at the foot of the bridge and abutment of Leevac's shipyard, sat the unfinished shell of Tidewater Marine's latest offshore supply boat.
When finished, it will be the first new ship to emerge from the 45-year-old facility since 1973.
The hustle of activity comes nine months after Covington-based Leevac purchased the yard in July from Tidewater, which operated it as a private repair shop under the name Quality Shipyards since 1992.
"We acquired the facility as part of a larger merger with Zapata," said Tidewater Executive Vice President Joe Bennett. "At one time, we had over 200 vessels operating in the Gulf of Mexico, so it made sense to have our own facility. Today, we operate maybe 10 or 12 boats."
For Leevac, the expanse of space surrounding the yard and four functional dry docks made the spot a fit at a time when dock space in south Louisiana is at a premium.
Since buying the Houma yard, Leevac has invested more than $1 million in renovations that Gaiennie said where "much needed." The number of hourly workers employed at the shipyard has more than tripled, from just 45 on July 1 to just under 200 in March. By 2016, the company plans to employ 361 hourly workers in Houma, a 700 percent increase.
To manage the yard, Leevac pulled former Bollinger Vice President Larry Vauclin out of retirement. Vauclin was yard superintendent the Quality Equipment Shipyards facility first opened in 1969.
In the world of deepwater drilling, where depths and distances are measured in 10,000s, size is everything. Leevac needed a larger assembly space to deliver the football-field-size service boats the companies like Hornbeck Offshore and Tidewater Marine demand to stay competitive.
"When we opened this shipyard (in 1969), the biggest thing we were building was 165 feet long," Vauclin said. Most service boats on order today are 270 feet or longer.
Leevac's Houma acquisition is also part of a long-term strategy to diversify its services and customer base. If and when supply boats are no longer in demand, Leevac will have the built-in capacity to service supply boats, tugs and inland vessels cheaply and quickly.
"A lot of our customers are based here, and at the same time we have a lot of resources here," Vice President Dan Gaienne said, pointing to the propellers on the back of the new Tidewater ship as an example.
Schottel Marine Propulsion delivered the thrusters, which can rotate 360 degrees to steer the ship in any direction. Schottel christened a new North American headquarters on Industrial Boulevard in Houma in October.
Gaienne spent almost as much time describing work to be done as he did hyping the newly renovated fabrication facility.
"There is still a lot of work to be done here," Gaienne said. "The whole idea here is quick turnaround; that is the game these days. We can use this space here to expand our usable slip space, which will increase our capacity and get the vessels out of traffic in the canal."
Another top priority is adding and renovating structures to bring as much of the manufacturing operation indoors as possible. Leevac has already renovated the yard's largest building, where welders cut and assemble the steel plates used on hulls.
Still, the skeleton of a wheelhouse and crews quarters sat gleaming in the sunlight as several workers pounded away.
"The idea behind purchasing this facility is that it allows us to complete assemblies that were too large for our Jennings shipyard," Gaienne said. "Eventually, all of our ships will come here for final preparations before being sent out for sea trials."
While the 15-foot depth of the Houma Navigation Canal has proven restrictive for the Port of Terrebonne, Leevac said the new space is an improvement on the basis of convenience alone.
"We have had some small problems, more with the height of the ships than with the depth," Gaienne said. "In some cases, we have to move the boat downstream of the (Prospect) bridge for final assembly."
Problems aside, Gaienne said the yard is a big boost for Leevac given the scarcity of available port space in south Louisiana.
"This gives us as many as two additional boats a year," Gaienne said. "A year ago, we were talking about having to send these boats to Lake Charles to be finished. We are happy to be here in Houma."
Information from: The Courier, http://www.houmatoday.com