Boat building is booming once again in Port Alberni.
Canadian Alberni Engineering (CAE) and Kamma and Blake Industries (KBI) launched their last boats as separate companies on Tuesday ahead of a merger that could see a massive increase in boat engineering in the city.
Canadian Alberni Engineering, who will absorb Kamma and Blake as part of the merger, launched a new sidewinder tug from Centennial Pier on Tuesday. The tug will go to a forestry company in the northern part of Vancouver Island.
“The sidewinder tugs are designed to be very, very strong with a lot of power and a lot of manoeuverability,” said Robert English, Vice President of Operations at CAE. The sidewinder tug will be used to “gather floating logs together into those large rafts that you see being towed to mills all over the Island and even to the mainland.”
Along with the sidewinder tug, a search and rescue boat was also launched from Centennial Pier on Tuesday, Sept. 23. The boat was built by Kamma and Blake for the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue detachment in Courtenay.
The boat will replace a far older model that Courtenay’s search and rescue team currently has. The Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue detachments are volunteer run and depend on government grants to upgrade this equipment. According to Pete Tabler, Deputy Station Leader of the Port Alberni Marine Rescue Society, it took three to four years for the Courtenay search and rescue team to collect the funds necessary to purchase the $700,000 boat.
Having a search and rescue life boat is essential for search and rescue teams to be able to participate in water rescues.
“[This boat] is capable of going completely upside down and it will right itself, which keeps it safe for the crew and anybody who’s on board,” said English. The boat comes equipped with navigation tools and five-point harnesses which keep those on board firmly in place.
The two boats are only the beginning of the many vessels that CAE plans to build here.
Previously, CAE built steel hull boats while Kamma and Blake focused on aluminum hull models. With the merger the companies will be able to combine resources and staff to take on more of the market.
CAE will absorb most, if not all, of KBI’s seven employees. Kamma and Blake president Paul Blake will be joining CAE in a project management and design role, as well as taking on some of the sales from KBI’s market.
The merger will increase production and variety, which could include hovercraft and hydrographic survey vessels—projects that are only possible with the two companies combined.
“Between Paul’s [Blake’s] boat designing experience and our combined project management skills, we think we can be really competitive in designing pretty complicated boats,” said English.
English is also hoping to capture the international market, using Kamma and Blake’s reputation worldwide. That fits in well with Port Alberni’s global reputation for boat building and servicing.
“People come here for boats from all over the world,” said Coun. Rob Cole, adding that when the Tall Ships festival last came to Port Alberni, “we sold a boat to a Russian captain. We sell boats all around the world.”
Pat Deakin, the city’s economic development manager, sees increased boat building as “a source of pride for the community.”
He also sees more tangible benefits: more people coming into the city for work.
“The merger will allow the companies to go after more work and bigger jobs” that will require more employees, he said.
While CAE is hoping to increase their activity internationally, they’re also hoping to gain more projects within Canada.
“Ultimately, we would like to be competitive in the next phase of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy,” said English.
The strategy is a federal government program implemented to rebuild national navy and coast guard fleets. While the major projects are taken on by larger companies like Irving and Seaspan, English said that there are smaller projects that will be announced for the second phase, which starts in spring of next year.
These projects are specially earmarked for smaller companies like CAE.
“Between CAE and other good Canadian suppliers of electronic systems and ship design, we can put together a consortium that can compete for a fair share of the market.”
The market is worth $2 billion, so even if a tiny fraction came to Port Alberni that could mean millions in revenues.
In order to take on those projects, CAE will be constructing an industrial facility at lots A and B of the former Alberni Plywood site, next to Canal Beach. While the lease agreement between CAE and the Port Alberni Port Authority isn’t locked down yet, English believes that it will be soon.
“It’s just a matter of sitting down with the port authority for a couple of hours, getting some language in writing.
“The owners of CAE just want some reassurance in writing that interpretations of the city’s lease and the port authority’s lease doesn’t put the company in a difficult situation.”
As soon as the lease is signed, CAE plans to start site improvements at lots A and B within three months, with a 16,000 square foot industrial facility up and running within another four to six months.
“Our focus with the new building will start with new construction [including] boats and other fabrications,” including the structural steel for the new liquor store being built in the city.
CAE’s current location at Bird Street by Harbour Quay will be used for the companies’ existing customers for at least the next few years. If CAE hits its growth targets within the next three years, they will let go of the Bird Street facility and add onto the former plywood mill lot facility instead, effectively doubling its size.
For its part, the Port Authority is pleased with the increased ship building that will be taking place in the city.
“The marine industry has always been a proud part of Port Alberni,” said David McCormick, the port authority’s director of public relations and business development, adding that with what “CAE is doing now and what KBI has done historically, the two of them [coming] together is a prime example of what partnerships in Port Alberni can achieve.”