After more than half a century on the Sidney waterfront, Philbrook’s remains a rare full-service shipyard with a loyal clientele.

Just three short blocks in length, Harbour Road in Sidney, BC is home to several marinas, boat storage and work yards, and the occasional service provider, mechanic and parts depot. At the far end stands a cluster of buildings that is modest in appearance, business-like but neither flashy nor pretentious. This is the home of a unique business with a history of more than 50 years of service to the local marine community: Philbrook’s Shipyard.

Part of what makes Philbrook’s unique is that it remains a full-service shipyard with specialists in almost all of the marine trades, and with facilities to hold up to four large yachts at a time on its twin tandem marine ways.  Additional dock space is adjacent, allowing a number of vessels to be serviced in the water by their staff of more than 60 employees.

Canadian Yachting West had the opportunity to spend a day at Philbrook’s recently and came away impressed with their people, their work and their approach to marine service.

Traditional Shipyard

Founded in 1955 by the father–son team of Eric and Barry Philbrook, the yard started with a specialty in cabinetry and evolved into a shipyard over the years under a variety of owners. The founders sold in the late 1960s. The yard was purchased in 1987 by another father-son team, current owners Hal and Drew Irwin. Drew is now the CEO but Hal is still active and maintains a busy office in the sprawling and often crowded complex in Sidney, just 20 km north of Victoria, BC.

Philbrook’s describes itself as a traditional shipyard but its work is now almost entirely in pleasure craft, there being precious little commercial fishboat business these days. Mechanical, electrical, engine, canvas, carpentry, driveline and fiberglass – all these services are offered by the yard.

Philbrook’s benefits from a couple of not-so-obvious assets: a loyal and skilled core of senior employees, and a long list of satisfied, loyal and oft-returning customers. Many customers, if not the majority, are Americans from the boating communities of Seattle, Portland and the San Juan Islands. Many customers return annually for regular maintenance as well as special projects. The shipyard’s full-service capabilities and its long-standing reputation drive that repeat business.

“It’s a source of real pride,” says Drew Irwin, “that so many of our customers come back to us year after year, and some come quite a distance to do so.”

Indeed, the yard’s customer list includes a number of fourth-generation boaters who know exactly what they want, and who understand and appreciate getting their work done properly.

A growing segment of the customer base is made up of boaters who live in Alberta and California but keep their boats in BC waters for their annual cruising. Leaving Philbrook’s to carry out their maintenance work means their cruising time is spent enjoying the coast, not working on their boats.  

Specialists in Wood

Philbrook’s does have a special reputation in woodwork and joinery. The yard earned some of this in its wooden boat years and from the founders’ skills in cabinetry. But the Irwins have continued that tradition and today their custom woodwork clearly stands out. Evidence of this skill is the oval cabin table with an inlaid compass rose that forms the centerpiece of their boat show booth every year. The rest of the year the table is displayed proudly in the visitor reception room at the yard, reminding all visitors that custom woodwork remains a huge strength.

On our visit the carpentry shop was fabricating a compound-curved coaming out of multiple laminates of a handsome dark sapele hardwood. Destined for a 60-foot sailboat, it required multiple steps to fabricate, with multiple laminations, but it was clearly a source of pride to the team working to get the curves just exactly right.

Routine service and maintenance still makes up about 60 percent of Philbrook’s work, with special projects taking the remainder, and the occasional new-build yacht that is manufactured completely in their shop. Another new build is possible in the near future, and is welcomed by the management team.

“Our last was in ’03”, reports Irwin, “and we have another that we hope to start soon. We like new-builds for the satisfaction of a complete project – and it helps even out the workflow throughout the year.”

Maintaining a full-service capability is not easy these days, given uncertain economic times and the retirement of so many experienced marine tradesmen. Recruiting and training technical staff is always a challenge, as is keeping them busy throughout the year in a notoriously seasonal business. A new-build will help fill the order book, but the full wall of work order clipboards indicates just how busy they are, with a dozen boats throughout their yard and marina.

A co-founder of the Quadrant Marine Institute technical training and development program, Philbrook’s leads its peer organizations in efforts to recruit and train the next generation of marine technicians. A lack of consistent government funding is frustrating their efforts, though. Fortunately they have been able to recruit trades-trained candidates from outside the marine industry and then train them on the job.

“Cabinetmakers on land can do great work on a boat,” Irwin explains, “as long as they don’t expect things to be plumb or square. They have to learn about compound bevels and curves.”

Twin Ways

Philbrook’s is fortunate to retain work space from the heady early days of expansion and growth. Their complex is actually made up of three major buildings, all adjacent, with twin marine ways, each with tandem carriages that can hold two fairly large vessels. This means that four yachts can be “inside” for work sheltered from the weather. A complex system of scaffolding is erected around each vessel and provides “ground-level” access and increased safety for the boatyard crews.

Adjacent buildings have grown up over the years and provide additional space for shops and offices. Nearby is a separate facility for specialized metal work, with several highly-skilled fabricators. On our visit the shop was busy fabricating a custom stainless-steel radar arch and mast. Nearby was a muffler system from a twin-engined powerboat undergoing a modification and rebuild.

Keeping the yard full and the team busy in a seasonal business calls for a constant marketing and promotion effort. In addition to a comprehensive and attractive website, Drew Irwin and his team participate in many boater-oriented events throughout the year. Major boat shows in the Pacific Northwest are always attended, as are select cruising rendezvous.

Brand Expertise

While they work on many types of boats, Philbrook’s has developed expertise with a couple of major brands. One of these is Nordhavn, a brand that is popular among long-distance cruisers in our waters. Philbrook’s has worked on a number of them and is regularly called on to do new-purchase commissioning as well as ongoing maintenance.

Likewise, the yard has developed experience with specific brands of engines and equipment. Philbrook’s is a dealer for MAN engines, as well as Detroit Diesel and Cummins, and has recently done a number of repowering projects with John Deere Marine, an organization that impresses them with their modern, well-engineered products. Northern Lights generators and Kabola furnaces are also represented.   

Marine systems are growing ever more complex, with computerization increasing in all systems, including engines and transmissions, as well as “house” systems such as heating, cooling and lighting. This puts extra pressure on Philbrook’s technical team to keep up-to-date on equipment and control systems, a challenge they relish and can devote time to in the “off-season.”

Challenges remain, however, and seasonality persists as a major one. Late winter and early spring bring a rush of work orders following a very quiet late fall and winter. Then a multi-item work list may have to get pared down to get the essential projects completed in time. Procrastination by owners leads to long days at the yard in spring months.

“We try constantly to get off-season work,” relates Irwin. “It’s a struggle to convince owners to plan ahead to commission work early so we have staff available for them in our quiet months. In June we may only have time for the highest priority tasks.”

Boaters need constant reminders, perhaps even incentives, to schedule their maintenance at the end of the cruising season, not the beginning of their next one.

Whatever their scheduling issues, boat owners should know that Philbrook’s maintains its full-service capabilities and has major facilities and marine ways to tackle almost any upgrade, refit or maintenance project.

And if you call in October you’ll be doubly welcome.

www.philbrooks.com


Story & Photos by Robert Buller

Photo Captions:

1. A dock near the yard has space for boats undergoing service and refit work.

2. Philbrook’s tandem marine ways can each hold two large yachts for service out of the weather.

3. Fine woodwork is a Philbrook’s specialty. Wooden components and trim are fabricated and finished in the woodworking shop.

4. A sailboat coaming is formed in compound curves out of exotic hardwood.

5. A dodger is laid out for custom fitting in the canvas shop.

6. The wall of clipboards in the yard office allows managers and CEO Drew Irwin (right) to track many current propjects

7. The metal fabrication shop is located near the boatyard – a stainless radar arch and mast components await installation.

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