Stowed Away

October 2, 2008

Captain Dogwan Lee of the tanker Bum Shin is blowing his horn in frustration at the stevedores working at Neptune Bulk Terminals below. They’re taking their sweet time pulling the gangway back onto the North Vancouver facility, where the ship has taken on a load of tallow. Lee is eager to cross Burrard Inlet to Vanterm on the south shore, where his 148-metre-long, 12,000-tonne vessel will take on canola oil before heading back across the Pacific. His impatience is understandable: this day, like the other 64 days of his round-trip journey between South Korea and Vancouver, is costing his employer $65,000. (A larger tanker can cost as much as $110,000 daily to operate.) There’s no time to waste at Canada’s largest, busiest port, which each year trades more than $53 billion in goods and generates $6.3 billion in GDP.

Captain Lee is not actually piloting his ship. Every freighter that docks at a Vancouver terminal is directed by a British Columbia coast pilot. Today, the Bum Shin (which cost between $50 million and $80 million to build in 2003) is being guided by Captain Nick Malysh, a dapper man with a ready smile, a firm handshake, and four years of piloting under his belt. Malysh, who’s a long way from the tugs he used to be master and mate on, enjoys comparing his profession to surgery—pilots are an elite set.

Malysh is one of only 102 such pilots in British Columbia; among them, they make about 12,000 sailings per year. Ninety percent of the world’s cargo is handled by pilots.

The steering wheel on the Bum Shin is a mere 10 inches wide; on the short hop across Burrard Inlet, Malysh never touches it. Instead, he shouts from the port deck; his commands are parroted first by Captain Lee, and then by an officer at the helm. Malysh coordinates the work of the two tugboats that nuzzle the freighter, bow and stern, as well as six linesmen and the bridge crew.

Captain Neil Crysler, the vice-president of the B .C. Coast Pilots association, happens to be along for today’s harbour shift. A single earring suggests a rebel past that his tailored suit holds neatly in check. He accepts a can of pear juice from a silent cadet—the 21 crew members on the Bum Shin, mostly Koreans and Filipinos, speak limited English, and their ability to work flawlessly with Captain Malysh depends on their grasp of a few well-understood commands.

The vast majority of our port’s trade is with Japan (16,998,000 tonnes), China (16,662,000 tonnes), and South Korea (7,345,000 tonnes). From us, these countries import the basics on which our economy was—and to a great extent still is—built: wood, crops, metal. From them we import mostly finished goods—croquet sets and juicers and computers and sweatpants.

But we’re trafficking in more than material things. Port cities sell an insistent global dream, a cat’s cradle of interconnected economies and peoples. More concretely: that oil-dependent dream delivers $1.5 billion in direct wages to 30,100 Vancouverites every year.

The rise in oil prices hasn’t hurt trade (though the opening of a major new port in Prince Rupert might). “The port hasn’t slowed,” says Crysler. “It’s simply had increased costs. And that increase has been passed on to the consumer.”

Besides the wealth of cheap goods that international freighters bring to Vancouver, they sometimes carry less desirable cargo, too. Inspector Brian Pitman, of the RCMP’s Border Integrity program, says that in 2005 and 2006 some 2,000 kilograms and 5,000 litres of ingredients destined for use in meth and ecstasy labs entered the port. Eight hundred kilograms of ready-made narcotics also made their way onto our shores. So did 200,000 cartons of counterfeit and/or illegally imported cigarettes. Just this spring, 3,700 kilograms of MDP2P (an ecstasy ingredient) were seized.

“Nobody has to leave the ship,” explains Crysler. “Your buddy goes by on a speedboat, and you drop a backpack over the side.”  

Port traffic also facilitates other, less devious exchanges. Diplomatically, ships like the Bum Shin are considered a little bit of Korea (or Japan, or China) floating in Canadian waters, but crew members are sometimes allowed shore leave. “The guys want three things if they’re going on land,” says Crysler. “Shopping, beer, and girls. When the Drake, that strip bar, was closed a while ago, seamen around the world cried out.”

As Malysh brings the Bum Shin into Vanterm, Crysler has a fine view of downtown Vancouver: “There’s Yaletown, you know, and all that gleaming city. But this is still a working waterfront, a port town.”

Crysler’s hitches a ride back to Neptune Terminals with one of the tugboat guys. Once clear of the enormous tanker’s shadow, they start doing doughnuts.

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