“The ship spotters are alive to some of the most astonishing aspects of our time. Standing beside a docked ship, their heads thrown back to gaze at its steel turrets disappearing into the sky, they enter into a state of silent, satisfied wonder.”
Alain de Botton
I consider myself lucky to work next to a window which looks over the busy operations of Canada’s largest port and the 3rd largest on the west coast after L.A./Long Beach. Tucked up against the CP rail track one block east of Main, my “live/work” space tends to shudder violently as rail cars collide and locomotives scream tugging strings of brightly coloured 20-ton boxes in and out of the terminals. Across the track, beyond a barbed wire fenced shielding parking lot for longshoremen, are the terminals themselves – vast expanses of container docks and bulk facilities circling the inlet. The shore is punctuated by enormous orange gantry cranes, bigger than Vancouver’s biggest skyscraper. When a container ship arrives these monsters begin to dip and rise, capable of unloading over 2,000 twenty ton containers in less than a day.
Two kilometres across the water, squat blue grey bulk terminals stand out against the green sides of the North Shore mountains. Their task is to first consolidate millions of tons of prairie wheat, canola, potash, coal and pulp flowing in by rails from Northern B.C. and then pour them carefully into the holds of waiting freighters.
Shaping the logistical timetable of the port and its 5,000 longshore men is Asia’s insatiable hunger for raw materials. Everyday more than a dozen 180 metre-long freighters sit at anchor around the corner in English Bay waiting for their turn to pick up a a 50,000 ton-load and steam it in under 3 weeks across the Pacific to disgorge at Shanghai and Huangpo before chugging back for more. In the last 12 months, over 2000 ships called at the port; its facilities handlled more than 85 million tons of cargo.
Crossing the Lions Gate and Second Narrows bridges we briefly take in fantastic views of the port, but how many of us really consider what the port represents? Its rail lines, truck bays, conveyors, docks and cranes are the crowning jewels of a vast supply chain which stretches deep into North America and represents an astounding economic payoff. In round numbers, the total impacts of ongoing operations at businesses related to Port Metro Vancouver across Canada are: 129,500 jobs; $10.5 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP);$22 billion in economic output and $6.1 billion in wages.
The port’s a juggernaut, but it does it without being showy. It’s content to conceal its achievements under greying paint, rust and shabby pavement. But as I look out at its stately, almost monumental Gantry cranes, it suggest to the imagination that something big is happening here on a scale that no amount of statistics can capture.