Shipbuilding is a high-profile, labour-intensive industry. To establish a shipyard with its launching “ways” and highly technical planning offices and workshops requires much capital and highly skilled naval architects, engineers, electronic engineers, technicians and artisans, especially shipwrights, precision welders and heavy-current electricians. In short, shipbuilding is one of the top of the range engineering industries.

The fortunes of shipbuilding depend entirely on the fortunes of shipping. In good times, shipbuilding yards are busy with orders for several ships on their books; in times when shipping is not as profitable, few owners will commit large amounts of money to order new ships, and the shipyards suffer a lull. In such times, shipyards may cut their prices to attract orders for new ships so that their highly-skilled workforce can remain employed. (It would be difficult to replace such people.)

Once an owner has decided to build a ship, and has secured bank loans to cover the costs, he needs a naval architect to design the ship. (Some shipyards have developed standard designed for common types of ships, e.g. handysize bulkers; product tankers; containerships; tugs, etc. If the ship is to have special characteristics, a special design will be required.)

The plans and general specifications for the ship need to be approved by the classification society involved (See Grade 12 work for an explanation of the term classification society.) and the maritime safety authority in the country where the ship will be registered.

Once the design and specifications have been approved, the owner and shipyard sign the contract – the yard undertakes to build the ship to the required and approved specifications, while the owner undertakes to pay for the vessel. As soon as the formalities and legal aspects have been finished, the shipyard can begin construction. The naval architect, classification society and maritime authority monitor the construction process from start to finish. Once the ship has been completed (or completed up to a point where the ship can float and no further underwater work is necessary), a ceremony is held to name the ship and, unless she has been constructed in a drydock, to launch the ship.

Thorough sea trials of the ship are held during which her performance is checked by the builders, classification society and maritime authority. During this time, her speed, fuel consumption, stability and a range of other characteristics are monitored. If the sea trials and other stability trials are successful, the ship is handed over to the owner. Part of the contract guarantees the ship against breakdown or other malfunction, and the shipyard is obliged to put right anything that goes wrong within a specified time.


The construction of the containership Safmarine Meru at the Hyundai shipyard in Korea. Note that the ships are constructed in modules, a process that speeds up construction. Photograph : Chief Engineer Alpes


The engineroom of Safmarine Meru under construction. Photograph : Chief Engineer Alpes


Mrs Aika Karlshoej about to name and launch the tanker Torben Spirit, named after her late husband who was the founder of Teekay Tankers. Photograph : Teekay.


The Aframax tanker Torben Spirit (98422 deadweight) sliding down the “ways” as she is launched in a shipyard in Korea. Photograph : Teekay