Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

Looking out at English Bay one of the first things anyone would notice are the freighter ships.  There could be up to 15 at anchor at any one time (because that's how many designated spots have been marked on the chart for them to use) or there could just be one or two, but they're always out there quietly floating about, changing direction with the tides, and minding their own business. Very seldom are there any signs of life though occasionally you may also see a Customs boat tied up alongside, presumably giving the crew the same runaround they give everyone else at the border. 

English Bay Freighters photos by Junie Quiroga

From time to time one of their bright orange life boats are launched into the water and, assuming everyone inside survived the dunking, they can be seen speeding to shore to stock up on whatever provisions our fair city has to offer.

Unlike the container ships which come speeding into port and are immediately tied up at a dock for loading and unloading, the general cargo and bulk carriers seem content to meander in and patiently wait their turn.  What they are waiting for depends, of course, on what type of ship they are and what it is they are either dropping off or picking up.

The Port Authority chart below helps identify the various types of ships that come into Vancouver.  The typical turnaround time for a container ship is 12 hours and 15 hours for an automobile ship.  However the typical turnaround time for bulk carriers is at least 74 hours with unloading taking twice as long as loading.  The good news for crew members on bulk carriers is they have more opportunities to spend time ashore.

It's hard to appreciate how large these ships are unless you can get up close somehow to try and get some perspective.  Even then the reality of a ship carrying between 5,000 - 15,000 containers (which would equal a line of 5,000 - 15,000 highway trucks) is pretty overwhelming yet that's exactly what the current class of container ships is capable of handling.  The newest designs are allowing for 18,000 containers.  Last year over 2.5 million of these containers were loaded and unloaded at the various container docks in Vancouver.

Container ship

Equally impressive are the new car RORO carrier ships (Roll On Roll Off) which can carry more than 6,000 automobiles in their specially designed holds.  While these box like ships provide complete protection for their cargo they also have a reputation for being a high risk design because if the holds are not properly secured water can get in and either sink or destabilize the ship.  On the other hand the very high enclosed decks also make it virtually impossible for water to get inside. Last year 382,000 cars made it safely to Vancouver.

RORO carrier ship

There are 4 main categories of bulk carriers, Handysize and Handymax which make up 71% of all bulk carriers with Handymax carriers typically 150 - 200 metres in length, capable of carrying between 50,000 - 59,000 DWT (dead weight tons) and having five cargo holds and four cranes.  Panamax ships handle between 60,000 - 80,000 DWT but are limited by the size of the Panama canal to being only 32 metres wide and 294 metres in length. Capesize ships have a capacity in excess of 80,000 DWT but, because they are so large, they must go around either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn to travel between the oceans. Last year 80 million tons of bulk goods moved through the Port of Vancouver reflecting the insatiable demand for goods between Asia and North America.

Bulk Freighter
 The greatest hazard of bulk freighters is the continuous danger of "breaking their backs" and thus longitudinal strength is the principal architectural concern. Stresses put on the ship when it is being loaded or unloaded, cargo shifting at sea, and water getting into the hatches, can all cause a ship to break in half and sink. Corrosion is another huge contributing factor. The 1990's was a very unsafe time for bulk carriers with 99 lost between 1990 - 1997.  Most of the sinkings were sudden and quick making it impossible for the crew to escape and more than 650 sailors were lost during this period.  Since then a number of international safety regulations and design changes have come into effect.

Free fall lifeboats mounted on the stern are now mandatory for all Panamax and Capesize freighters, though there is still the hazard of riding one of these into the ocean if your seat belt isn't on properly. Double hulls, reinforcing the bulkheads and longitudinal frame, more inspections with a particular focus on corrosion and better loading procedures have all been put into place, but a large number of ships continues to be lost every year, with weather the main culprit.

Rough Seas

The bigger they are the harder they fall and when you are dealing with ships it doesn't get any bigger or more spectacular.  The amount of cargo lost and the cost is staggering, never mind the hazard to the environment if something toxic leaks into the ocean. The spectre of another Exxon Valdez 11 million gallon oil spill is something that has now entered the debate over the oil tankers quietly operating out of Vancouver.

Mazda Ship
MSC Chitra

Exxon Valdez

So next time you see one of those mighty freighters quietly sitting at anchor, and wonder where what they're up to, think for a moment about how fragile they really are and the fact there probably isn't anything nicer for a sailor to be doing than sitting in English Bay.

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