Harland & Wolff dry dock


Duration:3 years

Cost:£7.2m (£126m today)

Country: Belfast UK

What did this project achieve?

Construct a supersize dry dock for building or mending the largest oil tankers

The Harland and Wolff dry dock in Belfast opened in 1968 after 3 years construction. The biggest dry dock of 6 in the port, it was designed for building super tankers.

A dry dock is a structure that can be drained after a ship has been floated in and rested on a platform. This allows the completion of a half finished ship or for a ship to be repaired.

In the 1960s most industrialised nations depended on oil which had to be transported around the world in super tankers. Belfast authorities were keen to secure the economic future of their port by making it a centre for super tanker construction and maintenance.

The new dry dock for Belfast was 335m long, 50m wide and 12m deep. That's the equivalent of 33 London buses or 13 blue whales laid end to end. The structure has a 200,000m³ capacity.

Although the new dock was a success in terms of construction it never brought the financial returns that were hoped for.

By the late-1960s much of the world's ship building business started to go to emerging and cheaper industrial powers such as China and South Korea. Both these nations also had ready access to steel, which Belfast always had to import.

The dry dock is still in service today but mainly for maintenance rather than ship building.

Difference the dry dock has made

Although the new dry dock did not attract as many of the major ship building contracts as was hoped, the structure has been used for repairing and fitting out ships.

Harland and Wolff have built oil tankers, though these have been of the relatively smaller Suezmax class. A Suezmax tanker has a maximum depth of 20m below the waterline when carrying a cargo of oil – this means it can navigate the Suez Canal safely.

The dry dock has provided jobs and helped boost the local economy.

How the work was done

To make sure that the money for the scheme stayed in the area, the contractor recruited locally from the large number of unemployed people then in Belfast and surrounding areas. Around 800 workers in total were hired.

Engineers chose steel sheet piles to construct the walls of the dock and to stabilise the ground before building the dock floor.

Sheet piles are long sections of steel with a vertical interlocking system. Workers fitted the piles together to create a continuous wall.

Sheet pile walls are often used to support excavations for basements and pump houses and to construct sea walls. They're designed to last a very long time.

The interlocking components - known as Peine piles - were brought in from Germany for the project. It's thought to be the first time they were used in the UK.

It took workers about a year to place all the piles. The dry dock itself was completed within 36 months.


Samson and Goliath stride across the Belfast skyline… like twin colossi. It's impossible to think of the city without them.

Fionola Meredith

Writing about Harland and Wolff. the Irish Times in 2014.

Fascinating facts

Harland and Wolff are probably best known for having built many ships for the White Star Line – including the Titanic.

Belfast's skyline is dominated by the company's twin gantry shipbuilding cranes. Called Samson and Goliath, they were built in 1974 and 1969 respectively.

The Harland and Wolff paint shop at the port is now used as a film set. Scenes for 'Game of Thrones' were shot at the site.

People who made it happen

  • Client: Harland and Wolff
  • Designers: Babtie Shaw and Morton
  • Construction engineers: Wimpey

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