Ferguson Marine boss confident of bright future for yard as it shifts focus to frigates and small ferries

For many, Ferguson Marine shipyard is frozen in a purgatorial state, stuck building two ferries that have dragged down its reputation, demoralised workers and caused a political scandal.

But as I was guided through the yard’s sheds and pieces of serious engineering equipment, the yard is literally frozen. It’s the coldest day of the year, temperatures of -7C, and the pipes have frozen, forcing all the workforce to be sent home.

The two embattled ferries being constructed by the yard, the Glen Sannox (hull 801) and the as-yet unnamed hull 802, are almost tauntingly covered in a thick layer of frost and ice, still and silent.

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Our tour guide is yard chief executive officer David Tydeman. Appointed a year ago and in post since February, Tydeman previously ran a luxury yachts’ business building vessels worth anywhere between £1 million to £15m. A drop in the ocean compared to the likely £300m-plus bill for the two CalMac ferries.

Tydeman is clearly in his element walking through the shipyard, chatting to the stragglers of the workforce for updates, while talking through his vision for the yard’s future. Hotly contested, there are politicians who believe the yard as another SNP industrial intervention is doomed to fail, but that is not the view of Tydeman.

Yes, the negative publicity has hurt the yard, Tydeman concedes. There is audible and visible frustration about the difficulties around the two unfinished vessels, much of which stem from legacy issues of the former, Jim McColl-led ownership, as highlighted by workers when they met MSPs last month. But there is also optimism.

Central to this will be a focus on small ships and supply chain work for BAE Systems and other military construction contracts. Winning “hearts and minds” and convincing the Scottish Government to award Ferguson’s with the contract for seven smaller ‘Loch Class’ ferries will provide the yard with a “flow” of work, Tydeman says.

This will improve the yard’s competitiveness through demonstrating a strong domestic market. It will also take up only half of the yard’s capacity, leaving room for more. An agreement is already in place with BAE, which is aiming to “soak up” the yard’s spare capacity with the construction of blocks – large sections of ships – for the Type 26 frigates set to be built in Govan, just up the road.

Ferguson Marine is looking forward after the bruising impact of the contract to build hulls 801 and 802.Ferguson Marine is looking forward after the bruising impact of the contract to build hulls 801 and 802.
Ferguson Marine is looking forward after the bruising impact of the contract to build hulls 801 and 802.

Tydeman is confident that, should the yard win the small ferries contract, something “right in our comfort zone”, the facility’s future will be secure. The first vessels could be launched as soon as 2025 should the Scottish Government choose a fast track procurement process.

This, alongside the involvement on military contracts, provides a “pipeline” of future work for the yard, from which recovery is not only possible, but viable. Refurbishment work and the replacement of some equipment is required, alongside improvements to the workflow and layout of the yard.

First Marine International, a major shipbuilding consultancy, has been in to help set out how this will be achieved. The knowledge of what exactly was in that advice is tightly controlled.

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The ships which hang around the neck of the yard will sail, Tydeman says. They will be completed, they will be delivered to CMAL, and they will, however it is wished, serve island communities. When that happens is a different question. The Glen Sannox is on track to be ready for May 2023, but “we are finding surprises” along the way, says Tydeman.

These “surprises” are being used to inform the work on hull 802, due to be delivered in the first quarter of 2024. All the units – significant parts of the ship fabricated upside down under cover and then lifted onto the ship – are due to be completed by February. Outfitting the ship will be the major hurdle, but will be made easier by avoiding the mistakes made on the Glen Sannox.

Both vessels are impressive ships. The Glen Sannox is a maze of cables, wires and pipes which snake through recognisable, but far from finished sections of the ship. It is huge, with space for a gymnasium for staff and a dedicated space for children, as well as an observation deck and large seating areas.

Hull 802 is striking in its comparatively emptiness. It is, still, fundamentally a shell. Huge gaping chasms of steel are yet to be filled, and still with decks to add. The vessel’s delivery is tied inextricably to the Glen Sannox. Any issues discovered on it cascade onto hull 802, and the work hours required to finish both ships take the entire yard’s capacity.

One of the most striking parts of the tour is when Tydeman points to a list of numbers or ratios demonstrating how the ‘best in class’ shipyards operate versus Ferguson’s on the two unfinished ferries. The numbers jump upward at every step of the construction process, but do so exponentially towards the build’s completion. For Ferguson’s, those numbers are triple those of the best in class.

It is a neat and intuitive explanation as to the challenges facing the yard as it desperately, for its own sake, works to finish the vessels. It is also a damning indictment of the errors made during the McColl era, which have stacked on top of each other, resulting in yet more cost to the taxpayer and yet more delays.

For this reason, until the ferries are complete, Ferguson Marine is stuck. Frozen in place due to mistakes made under previous ownership and management, which has snowballed into inefficiency.

Decisions made under McColl to rush the construction of the ship has left workers welding brackets on around cabling and hindered the installation of pipework. The strategy employed by FMEL “doubled the man hours” required, Tydeman says. “Build strategy makes a shipyard,” he says.

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The mantra for the future of the yard is to simplify how Ferguson’s operates. It must still build ships, but requires ministers to promote confidence through a strong home market.

“It is the first time in my career that shipbuilding has been so much in demand in the UK,” Tydeman says. “If we don’t share it around and plan it strategically, we will not be efficient, and Scotland has a key part to play in that.”

The hope is that Ferguson’s will be in place to capitalise.

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