Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



Farewell, Spirit of Columbus

A prominent feature of the Quebec City skyline is about to disappear, towed away, actually.

For the past two years, the Port of Quebec has been dominated by a gargantuan structure called The Spirit of Columbus, a deep sea drilling platform, 40-storeys high, that's being converted for oil production off the Brazilian coast.

In the next few days, the rig, one of the largest in the world, will be disengaged from its Quebec City mooring, towed upriver to the deeper water of the port at Sept Iles, mounted on a submersible transport ship and towed off to the oil fields of the Campos Basin, where it will pump as much as 180,000 barrels of black gold a day.

The departure of the rig will leave a gaping hole in the port city's profile and a major vacuum in the order book of Davie Industries, the troubled company which won the US$200 million contract to convert the platform from a drilling to a production role.

When the 1000-plus workers, most of them highly skilled, wave bye-bye to the behemoth at the dock, they will also be kissing off full-time jobs for the foreseeable future.

That the project ever reached the final stages of completion is somewhat of a miracle.

Work was halted on the rig on three separate occasions as the various players involved in the struggle to save or dismember the Davie shipbuilding company, scrambled to find financing to keep workers and suppliers paid. At one point, the Port of Quebec seized the rig to force Davie to come up with the cash for outstanding bills.

One of the most staggering aspects of the Spirit of Columbus project, aside from the obvious engineering virtuosity, is that financing for the job was not in place until the end of July, a month from when the work was scheduled to wrap. That was when the federal government, through the Export Development Corporation, came to the rescue with US$67 million to tide over Petromec, the Brazilian oil company that had rewarded the contract to Davie.

The Spirit of Columbus episode is merely the latest chapter in the sorry saga of the Davie shipyard of Levis-Lauzon, once one of the country's major marine industries and the largest non-government employer in the Quebec City region.

Kept alive largely by government contracts over the past several decades, Davie has yet to find a new, self-sustaining role in a radically transformed shipbuilding world.

The company's difficulty finding new customers has been compounded by ownership woes, with the last proprietor, Dominion Bridge, which took Davie off the Quebec government's hands for $1 and subsidies in 1996, nearly dragging the shipyard under when it went bankrupt last year. The tangle of creditors Dominion's default left has yet to be sorted out, although a meeting is slated for next month to try and resolve the mess.

In the meantime, there is some cause for hope for the Davie works.

The prospective new owners, Syntek, of Virginia, back by New York-based Trans National Venture Capital, appear to have the wherewithal to line up some orders for the shipyard. The directors of Syntek, for example, read like the Who's Who of the U.S. Navy engineering establishment, plus a couple political shakers, including former president Ronald Reagan's national security advisor John Poindexter.

The new owners have their sites on a potential contract for three frigates for the Chilean navy, an area in which Davie has considerable experience, having recently worked on a series of new frigates for Canada's navy.

The Spirit of Columbus project, while a fiasco from the corporate point of view, was an engineering triumph, capping Davie's mounting expertise in the deep-sea-rig business - Spirit was the 13th rig project for Davie. (The company lost a shot at a billion dollar contract for four rigs last year because of the Dominion Bridge imbroglio.)

A new christening is planned for the Spirit of Columbus on August 31, to give the rig a new name for its new mission. For Davie and its workers, the departure of the platform, despite the immediate uncertainty it brings, may mean that the company's ship eventually will come in as a viable marine industry.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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