Shipbuilding in the 1970s was a big industry in the United States. Our shipyards built cargo ships for U.S. flag companies and for foreign companies. They built drilling rigs, tankers, container ships, supply boats for the offshore industry and barges and tugs for inland waterways. They also built yachts, ferries and fireboats.
When our government stopped subsidizing shipyards in the early 1980s, other countries began supporting their shipyards financially. American shipyard workers found jobs in other fields as the number of actively building shipyards was reduced by 40%.
Other factors worked against American shipbuilders. Because each shipyard built a variety of ships, there were no cost savings through increased productivity, as the work was never repetitive enough to use more efficient building methods. Our labor costs have always been higher to build ships than other countries’ costs. It’s estimated that our shipbuilders use four times as many hours as Japanese shipbuilders. By building one type of ship in each shipyard, foreign shipbuilders are able to increase productivity through technology. The costs of new technology could never be justified unless they were used regularly and American shipbuilding was too diverse to spend on technology that couldn’t be used on a regular basis. They have low cost skilled labor with a strong work ethic and newer facilities than we have.
Today there are about 124 actively building shipyards in the United States and others that could build ships but do repair work instead. Shipyards can’t rely on enough business to keep employees when they have no new orders. You need to offer stability to employees. Those still in the workforce are nearing retirement age and the pool of new, younger workers has all but disappeared. Schools that could have given high school graduates the skills shipyards need have pushed a lot of students into college entrance classes when they could have been learning useful work skills.
Capt. Harold Rudd has fond memories of the days when he and his tugboat helped the Jakobson Shipyard in Oyster Bay launch boats. They would have Capt. Rudd and his tugboat waiting as the ship slid off the ways into the water. It was his job to move his tug around to keep the new boat from hitting anything in the boat basin, getting a line on it, towing it to the finishing dock and tying it up. The newly launched boats were not finished, he explained – launching coincided with the second payment so it meant money coming in when a boat was launched.
He remembers the Oyster Bay yard’s railways used for hauling, repair work and for launching smaller vessels. The small railway was rated for 250 to 300 tons. The rails were the same as regular railroad rails but further apart. The big railway was rated for 1000 to 1100 tons and had a roller-box track. Both railway cars had rails on them so that transfer cars could be placed on them so the transfer car could move a boat off the railway, freeing it to haul another vessel.
On the east side of the yard were two launching ways for large new vessels (90’ to 125’). The launching ways were two rows of 12” x 12” timbers about 16’ apart leading out to deep water, supported by driven pilings every few feet. A wooden cradle was built under the vessel as the hull was completed, sand blasted and painted. Heavy paste soap was spread between the cradle frame and the 12” x 12”s on the ways. A few days before launching the hull and cradle were lowered down to the ways at the bow. At launching the steel plate that had been bolted from the cradle to the ways was cut to set the vessel free. Smoke from the torch cutting the steel plate loose alerted Harold in his tug that the vessel would soon slide down the way, hit the water with a splash and slow down.
What else Capt. Rudd remembers about Jakobsons was how well stocked their shops were – the blacksmith and pipe fitter shops, the saw mill, the carpentry shop, a big stockroom full of parts – marine hardware, nuts, bolts, electrical wire and fixtures. Capt. Rudd was told that 7000 man hours of plumbing went into a 95’ tugboat. A blacksmith shop made small steel parts for new vessels, mostly rudders, hatches and funnels. The sandblasting shop worked inside on many of the small parts and sent crews outside to sandblast hulls and cabin parts.
Jakobson’s got its start in Brooklyn where it was known as Jakobson and Petersen in 1895. In 1938 they moved to Oyster Bay where they had more space and were more remote, good attributes for a yard doing war work for the U.S. Navy. In Brooklyn Jakobson’s built tugs, launches, cargo ships, yawls and yachts between 1900 and 1938. In Oyster Bay, now just Jakobson’s Shipyard, they built Navy minesweepers, tugboats for the Army, rescue tugs for the Navy, yachts, ferries, fireboats, survey ships and landing craft.
Jakobson’s in Oyster Bay would build the kind of boat a customer wanted and Laurence Rockefeller wanted a fast commuter boat to get to work. He brought Sparkman & Stephens plans for the “Dauntless” – just over 65’ powered by twin Packard PT boat V-12 engines that would do 40 knots. Built to US military specs, the hull was constructed of riveted sheets of aircraft grade aluminum, an unusual boat building material at the time. As a recent lieutenant commander in the Navy, he was interested in whether aluminum would be a good material for future PT boats and was willing to try it out on his own boat. In the 1960s the Packard engines were replaced by four Detroit diesels on two shafts.
The boat was used primarily for Rockefeller’s commute from his estate in Pocantico Hills to the marina on 79th Street in Manhattan not far from his office. He would have breakfast on the boat and read the morning papers while cruising down the Hudson River. The boat had a full time captain and a full time engineer. Sold and resold, it became President Gerald Ford’s presidential yacht. Today the “Dauntless” sits half in the water, half on the beach in the Virgin Islands, a hurricane victim. A U-Tube showing pictures of the interior and the hull reflect the water damage inside but the hull looked in remarkably good condition.
The last owner of Jakobson’s Shipyard, the Moran Towing family, had planned to sell the property to a waterfront developer but it had to be cleaned up first. All the years Jakobson workers sandblasted hulls with Black Beauty grit had left tons of residue in the surrounding waters. The Department of Environmental Conservation tested and found lead levels as high as 4000 parts per million. The acceptable level is 110 parts per million.
They started the cleanup expecting to finish quickly, but their estimates were based on cleaning two feet down into the sand and they had to go down five feet to reach clean sand. There was hardened grit around the pilings that required special tools to break up. It took four years and cost $6 million. In 1997 the shipyard was bought by New York State and is now a waterfront park.
In the early 1980s the U.S. government stopped subsidizing the shipyard industry. In the late 1930s the Construction Differential Subsidy (CDS) program helped shipyards by covering up to 50% of the cost for US shipyards to build a ship instead of a foreign shipyard building it. The CDS program also meant jobs and regular employment for American shipyard workers.
The major shipbuilders today are in countries that provide subsidies and other support. For a long time politicians on both sides of the aisle have given the military less to spend on new ships, planes and equipment and to maintain what they have. This has affected the Navy shipyard and it has a backlog of restoration and maintenance that will take 19 years to clear.
China, Japan, Korea, Russia and Italy have the largest shipyards and shipbuilding companies. In Dubai Drydock World Shipyard has a permanent workforce of 10,000 and has 4000 trained workers that can be mobilized on short notice.
Reading the shipping trade papers and magazines gives you the feeling that the only way US shipyards can catch up and be competitive in the world market will be through the use of technology. Robots take no breaks, holidays, sick days, vacations, have no salary and benefit packages or 401k expectations. If the robots can be trained to sandblast, weld and paint, they seem like a real option.