From the Praries to the Seas

Manitoba Business Journal (c. 1970?)

By Fred Wood

Gimli, located on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, about 60 miles north of Winnipeg, is a sprawling Manitoba town which has been “home” to thousands of military personnel and their families during the past quarter century.

Today, the former air base is all but deserted and spacious hangars stand empty and aging alongside their concrete taxi strips, waiting for something to happen.

Efforts are now being expended to create an industrial park at the former air crew training centre, and make things happen.  As a harbinger of this anticipated development a Winnipeg firm has taken over one of the large hangars and is presently producing a luxurious houseboat which is suitable for deep water cruising.

A Natural Combination

Gimli was also the landing place of the first Icelanders on this continent, and since Icelanders and boats traditionally go together, what could be more natural than combining the place, the expertise, the people and the Company?

Alwest Marine is doing just that. Linked with Western Tools & Industries Ltd., of Sheppard Street in Inkster Park, Winnipeg, the firm is producing a 37-ft. 6in. combination house-boat and cruiser in one of the hangars at the former Canadian Forces Base, Gimli. Selling in a range from $19,000 to $26,000, depending on optional equipment items, these luxury craft have practically everything in them that one would find in a modern home, plus high-powered perform-ance when moving from one place to another

A Romantic Story

This is one of Manitoba’s more romantic business stories. Here we are, geographically positioned in the middle of the North American continent, far from the seas, building boats especially designed for use in blue water. How did it come about?

“It was a combination of circumstances” Alwest’s Manufacturing Vice President Mr. Michael H. Evans, P.Eng., told MBJ.

“The Aluminum Company of Canada invested approximately $1.75 million to develop and launch this unique pleasure craft made of aluminum; then looked for a competent fabricator to manufacture it as part of their continuing program of developing uses for the aluminum they produce.”

“After they develop the use of their product they let someone else produce the items, in many cases. Last September, Alwest Marine concluded an agreement with Alcan to take on the production and marketing of the new craft, then called Alcan 370.”

Federal Government Involved

“At this point two departments of the Federal Government became involved. “First, through the Department of National Defense, we were able to move into the Gimli Air Base Hangar with an absolute minimum of red tape and delay.

“The Hangar lent itself to this kind of production and was just being vacated by the Air Force personnel. Last September, as the Air Force personnel moved out, we moved in, trucking in large quantities of aluminum sheet and extruded forms from Eastern Canada. This material was stored in the hangar over the winter, while arrangements were completed with the Department of Regional Economic Expansion for Federal Government assistance to help equip the plant.

“Beginning in January, the hangar was organized as a manufacturing and production area, and by the first of May, production had reached one Housecruiser every five working days.”

Issued Joint Statement

At the time the decision was made, Gordon Clement of Alcan Products Canada Ltd. and Rodmond Roblin of Alwest Marine issued a joint statement which stated in part that the design and manufacturing rights to the Alcan 370 had been sold to Alwest Marine, a division of Western Tools & Industries Ltd., of Winnipeg.

At that time, Mr. Clement, who was responsible for much of the development of the craft, is quoted as saying: “Alcan’s original aim in backing production of the 370 was to prove the advantages of aluminum as a basic houseboat material, and to help develop a segment of the market in the leisure boat field which we have been aware of for some time.”

The name of the boat was then changed from Alcan 370 to Alwest 370. The firm expects to produce 35 boats in 1971 and 70 next year. Current marketing plans call for 100 boats during the third year of production. The plant will produce year round and will employ about 30 people from the Gimli area.

Necessary to Train Them

Although the local craftsmen around Gimli know a great deal about boats and their characteristics through their previous commercial fishing activities, it was necessary to train them in the aluminum welding skills – quite a different thing from welding the regular run of metals.

“Being closely related to highly flammable magnesium, aluminum requires special skills and care in welding, including the use of an argon gas attachment which forms an envelope around the weld without which the aluminum would just burn up., ” MBJ was told, while watching the automatic welding machines work during a tour of the new boat building plant.

Work on the superstructure of the Alwest 370 requires a considerable amount of craftsmanship besides this special welding skill, as it is lined with teak hardwood panels, fitted with cabinets, cupboards and drawers, equipped with engines and generator, electrically wired, furbished with appliances, and carpeted throughout.

Can be Widely Applied

Once learned, it is expected that these skills – particularly the aluminum welding techniques, which are rare in Canada – can be put to good use manufacturing other types of boats and other products.

The firm is currently contemplating the manufacture of 20-foot runabouts and 30- to 45-foot cruisers and workboats, and could easily expand into the tank transportation field.

An unusual feature of the firm’s method of boat building is the way in which the hulls are formed of large aluminum sheets, in specially designed jigs, without employing the age-old method of applying a skin or sheath over a set of ribs and a keel.

Employed to Advantage

Under the Alcan-Alwest method, the large aluminum sheets which form the hull are welded to specially designed and fabricated keel and gunwale extrusions which, together with their integral rub rails, provide unusual rigidity, and at the same time take advantage of the lightweight characteristics of aluminum.

Stalwart box braces are added inside the hull, a superstructure mounted, power installed, and the entire craft finished off with meticulous detail, inside and out, through various assembly line stages.

When completed and afloat, the boat presents an eye-arresting aspect, with its white superstructure, blue hull with red and white water line, gleaming anodized window frames and flowing lines, whether it is planing through the water at 25 mph or resting quietly at dockside.

Color-keyed Upholstery

The Alwest 370 is carpeted throughout, including the sundeck atop the spacious cabin with its ample head room and features color-keyed interior upholstery, hot and cold running water, marine head and shower, full height clothes closets, copious drawer space, a convertible dinette, panoramic windows and a wheelhouse that would thrill any skipper, besides its own electrical generating plant.

Located in their own firewalled safety compartment aft, two inboard-outboard type Volvo 170 HP engines power the boat through twin propellers. A 6,500 watt self-powered generator resides between them.

Two lighting circuits are provided – the regular 110 volt system, with ship-to-shore duplex outlets, and an alternative 12 volt system for use when the generator is not running or when dock current is not connected. Electric stove with oven, refrigerator, sleeping accommodation for six, abundant storage room and sea-worthy maneuverability make the Alwest 370 a houseboat-cruiser combination calculated to arouse pride of ownership wherever it may be.

Design Safety and Comfort

With its 11-foot 11-inch beam, 46″ transom height and high bow, railed walkways welded to the bulwarks for the full length of both sides of the well-appointed cabin, non-skid decks and collision bulkhead, nothing has been left out of its design for safety and comfort, whatever the weather.

Even the marine safety glass in the sturdy anodized aluminum window and door frames made of channels which could be used in railway passenger cars generate a sense of security not normally associated with ordinary houseboat construction.

Easy to Handle

Because aluminum is used in every possible way throughout construction, the Alwest 370 houseboat-cruiser is light in weight, weighing only 11,500 lbs fully equipped. The Vee of the hull, the keel design, the higher than normal bow and transom, and the solid bulwarks all around make it seaworthy and easy to handle regardless of the way going.

The boat has been specifically designed for “blue water cruising” and a number of them, built by Alcan prior to the change-over to Alwest, have been proving the point very satisfactorily.

In charge of production at the Gimli plant is Keith Walton, a British Naval architect who came to Canada from Vospers in England to join Alcan in Montreal prior to joining Alwest Marine and taking up residence in Gimli.

All the Comforts

“The Alcan has all the comforts of home,” he says. “It handles like a boat, not like a barge. The hull is a cruiser type V design that makes use of the torsion box principle which absorbs and funnels impact shock.

“The hull and decks are all-welded marine aluminum and the deck house is bonded, baked enamel aluminum sheet. It’s virtually maintenance free. For power, you can choose either a conventional gasoline motor or the more economical diesel engine, depending on how much cruising you intend to do.”

The new Manitoba company expects to market much of its production in the U.S.A. coastal regions, with a number of boats going to Vancouver where Western Chris Craft sales Ltd. is Alwest’s dealer, and to Ontario. Dawson’s Marina Ltd., of Keswick in the Muskoka Lakes district, is the firm’s Ontario dealer.

U.S. Rep Appointed

A United States representative was appointed recently and several dealers have been appointed in the eastern United States. Alwest Marine expects to sell 35 or 40 units in the United States during the next year. Insufficient production to this point has precluded the possibility of establishing a full marketing network in the U.S., but this condition is not expected to continue for long.

There are eight of the Alcan 370s in use in the West Indies at the moment, where they can be rented from Houseboats International. Several others, privately owned, are plying west coast waters. Six of the new type craft were in production at the time of MBJ’s visit to the Gimli factory. One of them was destined for shipment to Ontario later that week, while the one following it on the assembly line would go to New York the following week, in keeping with the present production rate of one boat per week. All six craft then in the shop were sold, with more orders and enquiries on the way.

It is fascinating to think that here on the edge of the great western prairies we are building vessels which will be used on waterways that lie hundreds or thousands of miles away, and that the men who are helping to manufacture them once depended upon our own provincial waters for their livelihood. When high mercury levels in the fish they hauled from the depths terminated their commercial fishing activities, and the Air Base upon which others depended for a living was closed, many of them wondered what the future would hold. Now, they are depending on other waters to provide the wherewithal for raising families, while they remain in familiar surroundings and an environment to which they are accustomed.

Took Men’s Foresight

Today, with the assistance of two Federal Government departments, and through the foresight and enterprise of a handful of Manitobans, who – although many miles from a natural market place, saw the possibilities of creating another major industry in their province – they are craftsmen trained to perform a particular function in a professional manner. They are craftsmen whose skills will stand them in good stead for many years to come.

Some day, boats bearing plates reading “Made in Gimli, Manitoba, Canada” might well be seen in ports all over the world, as the dreams and the plans of the designers and builders at Alwest Marine make things happen at Gimli.