JEFFERSON — When Joseph Craine opened the Jefferson-based Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication, it was to re-engage the more than century-old nautical industry in Ashtabula County.
Now, after wrapping up a refit in mid-December for one of the nation’s two most beloved tourist vessels, the Niagara Falls area’s Maid of the Mist VI, operators said the local shipfitter has received a handful of subsequent contracts from the New York tourism company for a job well done. The work will add at least another month onto the Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication crew’s schedule.
“There’s not many people that do what we do — that helps, big time,” said Gee, who started the business in 2012 with his son and operations VP Justin Gee. “A company like Maid of the Mist — they value quality over price a lot of times.
“It’s still a competitive bidding process,” he said. “But the value of quality is much greater in our industry.”
Craine’s expertise is the nuts and bolts of maritime vessels, “the guy that knows every component, how to do every job,” Gee said.
Gee keeps the books balanced and the bids competitive. Often, a contract like the Maid of the Mist refit can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Gee said. Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication beat out a handful of other companies to sign the contract in mid-July.
“Through review of the bids and due diligence, it was determined that they were the best overall fit to do the work,” said Maid of the Mist spokesman Kevin Keenan, referring to the shipfitter’s collective 50 years of vessel construction and repair experience.
Though the shipfitter maintains Jefferson administrative offices and a fabrication shop along 21st Street in Ashtabula, the majority of its work is done on location, Gee said. A six-man work crew and two supervisors, one of whom is Craine himself, shipped out Nov. 10 to New York to begin the vessel’s “re-powering.”
The chilly Niagara spritz that hangs at the base of the falls dampening tourists gave the Maid its name. According to the Maid of the Mist website, the company’s first sightseeing vessel was a steamboat christened in 1846, large enough to ferry a stagecoach and its horses near the falls.
By the end of 2014, Craine and crew had rejuvenated the Maid with two new 400-horsepower Volvo Penta engines, almost identical to the previous engines but with a more eco-friendly output; a new gearset, similar to a car’s transmission, Gee said; and a new keel cooling system, similar to a car’s radiator. The crew pulled 10-hour days, six days per week, until the refit was finished on Dec. 19.
The Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication crew also upgraded the ship’s controls — moving cables that changed engine speed were replaced by a digitized, programmable console that sends low voltage signals to the new engines. The processor-based controls also allow the Maid’s operators to diagnose engine troubles in real time.
The local shipfitter has landed a steady stream of government contracts in a little more than two years of business — U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Army Corps — and embedded itself among local Great Lakes shipping companies. The company also performs regular industrial plant maintenance work from Cleveland to Erie and fabrication jobs for the federal government, as well as private and commercial entities. Gee said the locally-based crews will be on-tap for two other sizable projects awarded by Maid of the Mist Corp.
With navigation light panels and a sonar and depth sounder system to be added by the shipfitter to the Maid of the Mist VI and VII, the company will now be able to run the boats at night. The sonar and depth sounder maps out the riverbed, Gee said.
“This allows them to see what’s down there so they don’t run into anything,” Gee said. “Maybe you won’t be able to see there’s an obstacle in the water.”
Gee said the company will also look to upgrade the size of the Maid’s loading barge. The barge is a buffer between the Maid and the dock, he said. It currently has only one level, but Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication will add a second “observation” deck so passengers can board directly to the upper deck of the ship.
“It speeds up the whole operation,” he said.