SEATTLE – The shipyard that boasts the largest dry dock in Puget Sound, which services Washington state ferries, is looking to expand.

A dry dock is like a floating elevator that lifts ships up out of the water for repairs. The dry dock at Vigor Industrial’s shipyard on Harbor Island offers a space 560 feet long by 95 feet wide, but one in that size range is no longer considered enough.

Like a quasi-submarine, a dry dock partially sinks, allowing a vessel to be floated in, then raised up as water is pumped out, so the bottom and things like propellers, propeller shafts, and valves can be exposed, inspected, and worked on.

Once known as Todd Shipyard, Vigor both builds vessels and repairs them. Currently, the yard is constructing the third and fourth Olympic class 144 car capacity boats for Washington state’s ferry system. As it is, the fourth ferry is the final new boat on order. Further orders from the state will depend on an upcoming strategic plan review, which could set a course for future ferry construction.

Even when the newest boat is delivered, the overall ferry fleet is relatively old. It was flagged last week by Results Washington, an initiative by Governor Jay Inslee, which studies state performance. A report on the state’s infrastructure found that 10.9 percent of the Washington ferry systems are outdated.

While WSF is striving to get its ferries to last 60 years, systems aboard the boats such as propulsion, electrical, plumbing, and others are often past their intended lifecycles. A ferry will see several rebuilds and system upgrades in its life cycle.

“The Yakima has a backlog of $20.5 million (in system upgrades),” said Matt Von Ruden, director of vessels for Washington State Ferries, referring to one of a class of “super ferries” built in 1967.

Some super ferries are slated for replacement by the new Olympic class boats. Yet the Yakima isn’t alone. Von Ruden says there are $269 million worth of deferred maintenance and upgrades within the ferry fleet.

Vigor Industrial is looking to expand by adding another, even larger dock.

“We can use another dry dock, and we are actively in the market,” said Adam Beck, Vigor’s executive vice president for ship repair.

But he says shortfalls in the state’s ferry maintenance budget are a problem.

“We work very closely with the state, and we schedule our dry docks along with their vessels,” Beck said. “And to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a repair period where we’re not able to accommodate. It does take some coordination.”

That said, the big dry dock is booked. Beck says he has space for several months starting in July, but fully expects that gap won’t stay open for long.

“Utilization on that dry dock is pretty near 100 percent,” Beck said. “Between ferries, the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, some of our large fishing trawlers, it’s in high demand.”

Vigor says the dock is actually owned by the Navy but operated under a long-term lease by the shipyard.

The dry dock was busy Monday working on a big Navy ship. A slightly smaller dock to the west has a six month Coast Guard job. If one of the state’s five largest ferries, the 188 car Jumbo and 202 car Mark II Jumbo, needed the bigger dry dock after striking a large log in the water or some other incident, fitting it into the larger dock’s schedule would be a problem.

And Von Ruden says it’s not just with the largest dock, nor just with limits on Vigor’s capacity.

“It may be a week to do the work, but it could be five or six weeks to wait for a dry dock,” Von Ruden said.

Juggling seems to get the job done, but both Beck and Von Ruden point to a case when work on a large Coast Guard ice breaker was taking longer than expected. The dock was lowered, the ice breaker floated out, and tied up elsewhere in the shipyard. Then Vigor went to work on a previously scheduled job for Washington State Ferries. When that work was complete and the ferry left, the ice breaker returned, which Von Ruden said raised costs.

Vigor says it’s actively looking for an additional, even larger dry dock. But finding a suitable one is far from easy.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a ‘Dry Dock Depot’ if you will,” said Beck. “We’re looking internationally. There are a few folks who specialize in brokering used dry docks, and we’re working with them to find a suitable dry dock. The challenge is finding one to meet your needs that’s the right size and the right capacity for a reasonable price.”

Having one built is not out of the question. A used dock, says Beck, can run more than $25 million to $30 million, and a new dock $50 million.

Beck says his company made a bid on one just a few weeks ago that didn’t pan out. His company is looking to buy a 105-foot wide dock in the 600-foot long range and a second medium-sized dry dock for the company’s Tacoma shipyard.

“Our goal is the summer of ’18 at the latest to have another dry dock here on Harbor Island and another dry dock in Tacoma,” he said.

“More dry dock capacity would lower our preservation costs,” said Von Ruden.

Von Ruden says he struggles to find the money to increase fleet maintenance, which could save the budget in the long run and lead to fewer surprises when ferries are on the dry dock and workers begin opening them up for inspection.

“And that growth work,” Von Ruden said, “Even when you’re in dry dock, is really disruptive.”