Watching the Waterfront

WATCHING THE WATERFRONT

Timothy Taylor

1.

It’s my central Vancouver image, which surprises people on occasion. If they’ve read my fiction, people tend to expect Stanley Park to occupy the definitive place in my imagination’s geography. But this is not so. I think of Vancouver – and I think of it often, especially when travelling – and I think of container boxes. I think of acres of jetty. I think of berths and ships sliding slowly into place under the looming cranes. I think of the port. Stanley Park may be the city’s lungs. But the Port of Vancouver is the city’s beating heart.

And I hear it beating, too. Anywhere from Seymour to Nanaimo, and roughly north of Prior.  I only have to stop myself in the middle of the day, tune out traffic and sidewalk conversation. And there it will be, both large and faint, something settling and resettling just out of view. It sounds like this: steel plates clanking, train rails and the grind of hull against old wood, the vent of steam, the scream of an ancient whistle, walkie talkie voices and the cry of gulls.

I smell it too. Rubber and creosote. The scent of metals. Salt and fish and timber. I do many things on returning home from travels abroad, but smelling the air is always one of the first orders of business. I exit the plane. I make my way up the ramp. I collect baggage at the carousel. And then I head for the sliding glass doors, knowing exactly what’s in store. I’m about to whisk free of airport and plane smells and emerge into… deep breath now, draw it in, hold it, exhale… Vancouver. Saline back scents, evergreen, pulp and fuel. Vancouver is many things when I leave. But when I return, it’s always a port city hemmed around by a coastal Douglas fir rainforest. And it announces itself by scent.

I watch the port from my office window, through Nikon binoculars. I’m interested in the whole thing, but Centerm is the main attraction for me. Here’s a confession. I have spent cumulative man-years looking through my binoculars at the on and off-loading of vessels at the inner harbour’s largest container facility. The port sprawls. It’s an animal with many heads and limbs. It’s a sulfur terminal, a coal terminal. It’s grain and gas terminal. It’s a hotbed of cruise ships, tugs, ferries, seaplanes and helicopters. But from my vantage point – near the top of the Dominion Building at Cambie and Hastings – Centerm fills the view. It’s the emblem of the port that is the emblem of this city.

I watch its mood change in different weathers and times of day. In the morning sun it sparkles. In the evening it’s bathed in mercury lights. In the fog it hunkers down, a shape, a suggestion of strength, cables looping down from under the belly of the six quay cranes: two MGM, one Fantuzzi Post Panamax, and three Super Post Panamax cranes, made by the Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Company, which can pick and drop containers from the jetty out across ships 22 containers wide. Which is wide.

In my binoculars, I can’t quite make out the men who operate these machines from their glassed-in cockpits mounted a hundred feet high among the spindling steel members. But I see them in the movement of the gigantic, robotic creatures built around them. I visualize them hunched over the twin toggle controls, staring down between their feet to the jetty below as they snatch pairs of twenty foot export containers from the yard tractors in the great, dangling jaws of the crane, then sling them upwards and outwards and across into the belly of the vessel. You need superior hand-eye coordination to do this job, I hear from those who know. Great depth perception and fine motor control. These are the elect, among longshoremen. They work four hour shifts and get paid for eight. That’s the deal. Not everybody can do this job.

65 tonnes they lift. The crane itself weights about 1600. They throughput half a million of these containers or more every year. I like these numbers. I prefer them to box scores. I like the vessel names: Westwood Sevillia, Hyundai National, Hanjin Copenhagen. If it’s Saturday, that would be the Cosco Dalian. Wednesday, look out for the APL Iris built by Mitsubish Heavy Industries in Nagasaki in 1998. She’s 272 meters long and 40 meters wide at the beam. Weighs over 60,000 tonnes, dead weight. If I really wanted to know, I could go online and find out her exact position, right now. Heading into Singapore. Leaving the Indian Ocean. I’m not the only person riveted by this massive mechanical network spider-webbing all over the globe.

The ships slide in and slide out. They are the quietest part of the terminal organism, which is how I’ve come to think about it. These are living things, I’m watching, with temperament and tendencies. When I take a boat out, which I do from time to time, and look at the ships from up close, they seem faintly sorrowful to me. Their bows swoop under the water, plummeting down. They have seen the world, these cliff-wall flanks of steel, and they’re rusting around the gunnels for their effort. While around them the shore machinery of the terminal seems unflaggingly upbeat. It teems around the ship, the boxes stacking and restacking.  When a ship comes into port, and I watch its approach, I see a restless nomad coming in meet its colorful, story-telling, land-dwelling cousin. In the cranes and the tugs, in the scurry of top-pickers and rubber-tire gantries, I see two living things in brief communion.

The ship likes being in port, I imagine. But the whole time it’s there, it’s also longing to be at sea.

2.

So I’m romantic about ships. But I come by it honestly. My wife once told me that if I weren’t a writer, she’d like to see me as a tugboat captain. Go ahead, think whatever you like here. But I know exactly what she means. The sea is the mother of all natural romances. The original destination fixation. I’ve watched friends fall for Berlin, Patagonia, Korea and Nepal. But many, many more for the sea.

Writers, especially. I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head whose lives were changed by an encounter with some vessel on some sea or other. I know an Irish poet who sailed from Antigua to Cork and discovered a whole new universe to write about. One of the members of my original Vancouver writers’ group went around Cape Horn as crew on a tall ship and still wears the earring to prove it. He bought his present sailboat, I think, in part to remain in contact with this critical memory, sleeping one night a week away from his home and wife, bobbing in Coal Harbour, communing with those same waves that continue to link him, through thousands and thousands of kilometer of heaving sea, to the site of that seminal experience.

I myself once owned a sailboat. Half a sailboat, actually. Half of a Catalina 30 Mark I – named Rigby, for Steve Martin’s character in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – which my partner (another writer) and I kept in False Creek at the Burrard Civic Marina. I’d still own her had I not caught sight of myself heading into the third ten thousand dollar incremental investment and realized my love affair was quite possibly going to drive me into bankruptcy.

Make no mistake, I loved that boat. More than that, I loved the life to which the Rigby opened access. I loved the dock. I loved the marina. I loved the smells and sounds, the sense of a city within The City that had its own cast of characters and eccentrics, its own slow-paced routines. And the love affair continued, vicariously, even after I realized I couldn’t carry it financially. Even after my generous-spirited partner bought me out (he didn’t have to). Even after I didn’t own her anymore, Rigby remained the center of almost all conversation between my friend and I. Specifically, we discussed whatever had most recently required repair. Head gasket, black water tank, VHF electronics, rigging, depth sounder. That’s about a tenth of the total list. Although, after a year or so, he stopped mentioning these items and I stopped asking about them. The Rigby hadn’t stopped requiring maintenance and new parts. It had only, by that point, revealed itself sufficiently for both of us to know that the fix-it list would be endlessly renewing. There would never be a day when it was all done, and that’s precisely why people become enraptured with boats in the first place. We don’t want the job to be finished. We want them to be as endlessly engaging, as endlessly full of potential story as the sea itself.

“Whether you get away, or whether you don’t,” the Water Rat famously instructed Mole on the matter of messing around with boats, “whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

At which point Rat ran aground. But his point was a good one and looking out over Centerm, I think of it often. The endlessness is written large here, in a physical way. Endless movement, endless flux. Endless connection to events and locations over the lip of the horizon.

I find that sense of things reassuring.

3.

Of course I have my own more specific romance, relating to the sea and to shipping. I served in the Navy as a young man. This was in the eighties, when there were no simmering conflicts to which Canadian reservists might well be sent, plucked from civilian life and shipped thousands of kilometers to somewhere dangerous. So I never had any sense of putting my life on the line, not even serving with the crew of the regular force destroyer HMCS Restigouche when it had been tasked with following around a Russian “trawler”.

Remember the Cold War? It does seem like a long time ago. But during that period, these so-called trawlers would show up just beyond the 200 mile limit fairly regularly, sprouting a forest of electronics, satellite dishes and antennae from their super-structures. Spy boats, essentially. Listening posts. We speculated amongst ourselves – we were officer candidates, the lowest of all trainees aboard – what they might actually be listening to, and decided they were probably out there watching Magnum PI or the Cosby Show. I don’t remember feeling anything war-like about the situation or hostility towards the crew of that boat, just 200 meters off our beam. Our main interaction with the Russians was to direct our semaphore training their way. My friend Mike McCluskey had the message all worked out.

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But that experience wasn’t the source of the romance. It was merely an expression of it, just like the time I now spend at my office window looking out over Centerm. The real source of the romance is family lore, as we have two legendary sea voyages in my family, one belonging to my mother and the other to my father. I once took the time to plot these on a map, as a teenager, and determined that at around the same time in 1948, my mother and father were both on ships, on critical voyages in their respective and as-yet entirely separate lives, and that these voyages were on almost precisely opposite sides of the globe. My Canadian father aboard US navy surplus minesweeper that he’d just purchased with a partner in Subic Bay and which he was in the process of sailing 50 miles south to Manila Harbour where they had a buyer lined up.  My German mother aboard the Marco Polo, a ship chartered by the International Refugee Organization, steaming from Genoa to Guayaquil where she and her sister and mother were to be reunited, after eight years, with her Jewish father who had fled to Ecuador before the war.

Challenging journeys, each of these. That’s certain. My mother was just sixteen as she watched Europe disappear behind the Marco Polo. But when they were through the Panama Canal, she remembered later that her questions reached critical focus. The ship had just come into Baranquia, where my mother looked out with curiosity and anxiety over the water, to see what South America might offer her. She saw a broken down harbour. Shanty towns stretching up the hillside. Naked children playing in the dust. Poverty like she’d never seen before, even having survived the war in hiding. She was frightened and discouraged. A single question swamping all the others: what on earth will happen to me now?

The answer to that question, as it happened, was 20,000 kilometers away in the South China Sea. My father, 25 years of age, on the deck of his minesweeper. Things not going uniformly well, it has to be said. They’d almost lost the ship in a typhoon the night before, then been hassled by Filipino coastguard leaving (Export permit? They had no export permit. My dad showed the Petty Officer a gas receipt which he stared at without comprehension, then waved them through.) But then came the vibration problems due to barnacle build-up on the prop, and the radical reduction of speed that had necessitated. So it was that my father arrived in Manila Harbor in the middle of the night. A bad time to be there, in that tight neck of water between the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor, as the area was strewn with the wreckage of naval vessels that the Americans had scuttled there on their retreat in 1942.

This part of my father’s voyage then ended in a way that I have etched into my memory from his telling. He lay on his belly at the very stem of the ship and he stared down into the water where dark shapes could be seen. The masts of ships, superstructures ghosting up out of the deep, like a particularly lethal variety of iceberg. And as they crept forward towards the harbour lights and the safety offered there, my father called back instructions to his partner in the wheelhouse. Starboard. Port. Hard Astern! Making their way through hazards seen only at the last minute. Slowly creeping through to safety.

That’s the heart of my maritime love affair, right there. Two people, two ships, two decks, two parallel anxieties as they strain towards harbor and safety, towards each other across their respective seas.

With still a ways to go at that point, it might be noted. My father would travel an entire loop around the world heading westward – through Hong Kong, the Suez, Paris, Toronto again – before he’d find himself in Guayaquil, where on August 22nd 1953 he sat in the screened-off veranda of a house owned by a British colleague. And my mother changed everything for both of them irrevocably, two long voyages ending in a moment as she did just one simple thing.

She stepped through the door.

4.

One voyage over, that is, and the longer journey of a family just begun. My parents married in Brooklyn, and lived there and in Michigan for several years before returning to South America. Only after ten more years abroad did they decide to “settle”. Canada was chosen. Deciding which city was a process never really been described to me. But I’ve always imagined a map of Canada and my parents puzzling over it. My father had no interest in going back to his hometown of Toronto. He wanted more independence than that would have allowed. So I imagine his finger drifting westward, westward, out across those flatlands and over the Rockies, bouncing down through the Kootenays and the Coast Range, and settling finally at the end of it all: Terminal City. It was still a place, in 1964, 1965, when you could imagine whole new futures being built here, well outside the ambit of established Canadian social hierarchies.

That they left Vancouver again, eventually, doesn’t surprise to me. A refugee and the nomad are born to move. But neither is it a surprise to me that, after a decade or so in Alberta and Ontario, I returned. I knew one thing: in a vague and inarticulate way, I missed the sea.

Shortly after arriving, I got a call from my oldest childhood friend, who I hadn’t seen in 15 years. It turned out he was working in shipping, which is how I found myself involved in weekly lunches with the shipping industry crowd. I’ve always loved this kind of thing: arcane lingo, insider knowledge, the way people sound when they talk about specialized work. So I listened happily, and I wrote some shipping details into my novel Story House too, but none of this was research really. I was just enjoying it for what it was right there, sitting around a table in the Railway Club where those gatherings inevitably took place.

I learned about “twenty foot equivalent units” (TEU’s) and schedule services. About shippers versus shipping lines, break bulk versus intermodal cargo, about the Baltic Dry Index and the way insiders always refer to the physical container as “equipment”. I learned about manifests, chandlers and freight forwarders. And I learned a few of the inevitably darker truths as well. Any network that is active and global is going to attract both good and bad ideas. The container shipping system was compared by WIRED magazine to the internet itself in an article back in the late 90’s. They meant in the sense that the internet is a packet switching system, breaking information into pieces and sending it from source to destination by whatever combination of routes is most efficient. But it’s true also that along the humming, myriad lines that connect the internet’s billions of nodes, flow both the edifying and the putrid. So it goes also along the shipping lanes of international trade.

As a result, I followed the news when people started arriving in containers. And I listened to the stories about other kinds of smuggling, which everybody I spoke to understood was happening despite best efforts at prevention. I remember well the story about the container of imported toilet tanks that arrived at the terminal and left by truck. Only then it began to behave in an unusual manner. In response to cell phone calls from a mysterious client, the truck was directed from first one part of the city and then the other, from Richmond to Abbotsford to Langley and finally to a warehouse in Burnaby, where the story would have ended and been forgotten had not the rent gone unpaid. When the landlord finally showed up a month later to investigate, there was nobody there. Just a warehouse strewn with broken toilet tanks.

It took a while for the penny to drop, when I was first told that story. Broken toilet tanks. Oh, I get it. Someone had been redirecting the truck all over town to make sure it wasn’t being tailed. Once safely inside the warehouse, the toilets had been smashed to extract whatever contraband they had contained.

Stories good and stories bad. But all the while, from my office window with my binoculars, I developed a minor specialty in identifying equipment by its color. Hyundai orange. APL navy blue. Red boxes from K Line and green ones from MOL. All reefer units are grey and they sit in a special part of the yard with access to shore power. Boxes marked Triton are leased equipment belonging to no single shipping line. And if you’ve ever wondered why boxes marked HMM and Mitsui and APL might all be loaded onto the same ship, I’m happy to be able to tell you that this is because Hyundai Merchant Marine, Mitsui OSK and the American President Lines (which, despite the name, is actually Chinese) are involved in a consortium shipping arrangement called The New World Alliance.

So Centerm shaped itself, in my imagination and in front of my eyes. It evolved from a chaotic whirring mechanical contraption at the water’s edge to an organism of sophisticated design, poised at the lip of the rest of the world, where Vancouver is linked to Shanghai, to Osaka, to Hong Kong and beyond. We are linked in through this three dimensional quilt of steel boxes, endlessly stacking and restacking, coming and going.

I like this one final detail, which I didn’t appreciate fully until a Centerm tour I took last month. (It helps having insider friends.) On that tour, it was explained to me how in the yard, after scanning each container, they use a computerized combination of GPS and crane positional information to track exactly where each one is in a three dimensional grid that is never stationary, since something is always arriving or being taken away. They used to do this job by hand, before computers, which is pretty much unimaginable. Thousands of steel boxes, twenty and forty feet long.

These boxes are data, I thought then. Information of a very special kind. Each box is a project, a story, an ambition or a plan, momentarily alight on a 72 acre pier in the heart of the heart of Vancouver.

I sit at my office window with my binoculars. I watch the organism, the shore terminal and the ships to which it tends. But I watch the bigger organism too, the global organism that is always in motion, shifting invisibly over the horizon, just as it shifts in front of me.

I think of my parents, from time to time, joined before they knew they were joined. Joined by the sea.

 

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 8:33am
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