It’s the cruise ships that get the most attention in the Port of Galveston.
They’re big. They’re white. They have loud horns. They ferry vacationers to far-off tropical destinations for rest and relaxation.
And from their docking position near The Strand in downtown Galveston, they can be very hard to miss.
And, sure, after the cruise ships, there are other marvels of engineering, like 100-foot tall Swedish research vessels that seek out oil, months at time, in the Gulf of Mexico, and, more recently, the world’s largest pipe-laying vessel, a 1,300-foot behemoth that looks more like a floating construction site than a boat.
But just down Harborside Drive, among the concrete companies and parking lots, are the remnants of an industry that has been around — technically — longer than those who sailed boats: the people who build them.
Bludworth Marine LLC manages four dry dock repair facilities in the area: two of them in Galveston. Their facilities aren’t much, a pair of double-wide trailers, and, in the company’s site inside the perimeter of the port, a group of open-air sheds that are strewn with tools and spare boat parts.
“I think the industry has been doing fairly well for the past several years,” said Richard Bludworth, the owner of the repair yard. “There was a slump in 2009 and 2010. And it started getting better in ’11 and ’12.”
Repairs are a laborious — and sometimes treacherous — job, with sporadic hours and requiring a large variety of skills. At the facilities in Galveston, a large part of Bludworth’s work involves repairs and graving — the process of burning off accretions and then tarring the hull — on boats and barges.
“A lot of it is steel replacement, machinery repairs, and then all of the other systems that you find on a ship, air conditioning and propulsion,” Bludworth said.
His Galveston facilities can repair up to 30 vessels a year.
On a visit in February, the workers at Bludworth’s facility were just finishing repairs on a quartet of barges owned by a company that contracts with the U.S. military. Despite a fresh coat of paint, the spots where new metal had been welded on were still visible.
The company’s employees, most of them local and subject to the times when there is a job to be done, strode about the tops of the barges, checking for weak spots. The safety rail that had been previously installed was gone, leaving the hard-hat clad group careful to mind the footing.
Some 50 feet down, the bottom of the dry dock is caked with mud, and the sides of the decades-old facility show the wear that seawater takes on metal structures. That’s what repair shops like his fix, said Bludworth, and despite the rust and roughness, the place still fills and empties just like it should.
New technology has changed some things about the business as new technology has required new certifications and regulations, Bludworth said, but the main challenges of the business have stood the test of time.
“Here’s the bottom line: you’re still down in a dirty, greasy hole welding rusty pipe,” Bludworth said.
The barges would soon be floated out — it takes the dry docks about four hours to fill — and a new group of vessels would be brought in, ready to be made seaworthy again.