Harper Makes Shipbuiliding History

Some might say B.C. came out with the shorter end of the stick after the results of Canada’s $33 billion Shipbuilding bidding process were announced earlier this month. While Nova Scotia scored $25 billion to build snazzy warships, Vancouver’s Seaspan Yards only got $8 billion to knock together a few tugs and boats with nerdy names like “Channel Survey and Sounding Vessels,” or “Near-Shore Fishery Research Vessels.” But who really cares.  While these don’t make headlines like destroyers do, such a huge cash injection into B.C.’s ailing shipbuilding industry means a lot of jobs for tradespeople across the province – up to 4,000 over the next decade.

Premier Christy Clark tours Seaspan prior to announcement

I hate to admit it, but the Harper regime kind of got it right on this one. After Mulroney let domestic shipbuilding activity melt away post NAFTA, Harper is scoring major political points by revitalizing this proud part of our heritage, and injecting new stimulus into the  economy.  And don’t forget: the prime minister also lies awake at night fretting that Russia, Denmark, China, the U.S. (the list goes on) are cheekily sticking their flags on our arctic sea bed. 15 new frigates and a sexy icebreaker called Diefenbaker are meant to prevent that. Good thing too – those embarrassingly crappy, second-hand submarines we got from the Brits can barely float let alone do their job patrolling the “true north strong and free.”


Super Yacht? Or Super Not?

If you read my post “The Laser: the People’s Boat“, this thing is the complete opposite. While the Laser gives rise to communities of sailors young and old, this thing discourages them. At 93 metres long, “The Eos” ranks as the largest private sailing yacht in the world (beating out the Maltese Falcon mostly because of a very pointy nose). It’s valued at over US $150 million, sleeps up to 16 and has a crew of 21, or 1.3 crew per guest. (Just in case you’re worried there’s not enough ‘hired help’ to go around.)

A boat (or, “ship”) like this gives sailing a bad name. It’s just so opulent, ostentatious and, over the top it makes me gag. To make some amends, the owner ought to think of giving free rides to school kids  or using it to teach people more about the ocean. No such luck. He’s keeping it entirely to himself and its complement of  23 staff always at the ready. For shame, media billionaire Barry Diller. Your floating palace gives sailing a bad name.

English Bay’s Bulk Carriers Revealed

Ever notice that Vancouver’s English Bay skyline is constantly littered with those, squat, red-hulled ships? Or maybe not. They’re  such an omnipresent feature of our surroundings, that we pay them little heed despite their importance.  Each of these modern-day merchant ships, or “Bulk Carriers”, doggedly cross the Pacific laden with Canadian commodities. In recent years, they amount to a ceaseless conveyor belt ferrying coal, potash, grain and softwood lumber to hungry markets in China.  So hungry in fact, that softwood lumber imports to China exceeded those bound for the U.S. this spring. Exports to China were up 157 per cent by volume over the same month last year.  Each of those sticks of wood was carefully stowed in English Bay’s bulk carriers.

While their economic usefulness to Canada and B.C. is undeniable, I am more interested in how the technology of these ships have evolved into the monsters we see today. Before the advent of steel, steam-powered ships longshoremen loaded the cargo into sacks, stacked the sacks onto pallets, and put the pallets into the cargo hold with a crane.

A lot has changed since then.Today, bulkers make up 40% of the world’s merchant fleets and range in size from single-hold mini-bulkers to mammoth ore ships able to carry 400,000 tons of deadweight tons.  A number of specialized designs exist: some can unload their own cargo, some depend on port facilities for unloading, and some even package the cargo as it is loaded. Most the ships loitering outside of Stanley Park are in the “Handymax” class capable of carrying 10,000 tons. They are part of a fleet of over 6,000 similar vessels worldwide.

I’m not sure what their direct contribution to community building is other than that, as we stroll the Seawall, we all enjoy looking out at them. To me and to so many others, they consistently evoke the romance of the high seas and of exotic destinations. No amount of sheer size and technological sophistication can change that.

The Laser: the Peoples’ Boat

The editors of this fine publication have asked that I periodically pick a boat, ship, vessel – whatever – and say why it’s awesome, curious, noteworthy, etc. (I’m supposed to do this in 25 words. #Fail on that one.) Anyway, I’ve agreed, but I want to make it that I am NOT an expert of all things nautical. I just love boats and so am indulged accordingly.

Laser I in Cottage Country


For this installment, I’ve picked the trusty, feisty Laser. This dinghy is like the Mac of the sailing world. It’s no-frills, user friendly design will have you heeling close-hauled in no time. I learned to sail on this boat as a twelve-year old, mostly by myself on a little lake in Quebec.  It’s also a cheap and portable boat, ideal for creating organic sailing communities in urban centres. City dwellers can store them easily and sailing clubs can diversify their membership away from large yacht owners with a little fleet of lasers which are cheap to maintain and very durable.

Lastly, did you know it was designed in 1970 by a Canadian, Bruce Kirby?

CLJ Reviews Barney’s Version

What we read

This novel received rave reviews when it came out in 1997. To me, it is a welcome addition to the canon of Canadiana, overly populated with the dryly morose (e.g., Atwood), or the cheesy (e.g, Anne of Green Gables, Who Has Seen the Wind). While none of the fine members of CLJ could readily identify with the whiskey-swilling, cigar-puffing Barney Panofsky, everyone certainly enjoyed following his trials and tribulations in this last and funniest novel by literary icon Richler.

What we Did

The group discussed the novel over delicious pizza followed by attending the move adaptation, aptly named, well, “Barney’s Version.” To win the prize of the CLJ trophy and a mickey of pretend-Macallan whiskey, Barney’s booze of choice, people were asked to present their own “version” – some sort of autobiographical account of an event or incident in their life around for which there were conflicting interpretations, emulating Barney’s own account of the murder/accident by the lake. The stories were generally hilarious, ridiculous and improvisational. Kurt delivered a schizo tirade with an impressive southern twang, but John stole the show with his telling of a Lennoxville adventure during his Bishops days, scoring particularly high in the curmudgeon and geographically relevant (Go Quebec!) categories.

Pizza was followed by the movie at 5th Ave cinema and its delicious frozen yoghurt (!).  Amazing. The fun didn’t stop there with a splinter group heading to a 4th Ave. Hell’s Kitchen for a post mortum on the movie/book. All very good times.

What we Thought

Both the book and the movie were a big hit with the kids. There was no denying that Richler’s humour kept us engaged over 300+ pages, while Dustin Hoffman (Barney’s Dad) and Paul Giamatti (Barney) were, as usual, brilliant. No one particularly liked Barney as a character, but most agreed that this was hardly Richler’s concern when conjuring up a foul-mouthed  grump who produces second rate miniseries for a living. I think I was in the minority in complaining that the movie “Hollywoodized” / overly sanitized the book a bit. Lastly, I’m not sure this book lent itself so well to a book club only that it was thin on themes and issues, reading more like a stream of consciousness in which it was hard to get much of a foothold for discussion.

Sustainable Shipping: the Wave of the Future

Solar/Wind powered marine system

“Sustainability”, “low emissions”, “saving fuel” – these are the buzz words in global shipping circles these days. With jacked up oil prices and pressure on ports to “Green” their operations, ship owners are frantically casting about for new technologies to lower the footprint of their vessels. Basically, the key players are getting innovative  both for the good of the planet and their pocket books too. This was the dominant message coming out of the Baltic and International Maritime Council’s General Meeting held last week in Vancouver.

It was no coincidence that this old boy’s maritime club held its first North American pow wow in green champion Vancouver, whose world class port is gamely singing from the same sustainable song book. For two days,  I sat in on enthused discussion between shippers, demographers, climate change academics and ex-heads of state on how shipping is doing and and where it still needs to go to lower its footprint.   The main consensus was that the economic benefits of going green are irrefutable; the technology is almost there to make it happen; keeping pace with demand, however, is questionable.

Interestingly, shipping is the most efficient form of  transportation on the planet, accounting for over 90 per cent of global goods movement, but just 3% of transportation’s fossil fuel emissions. Local presenters from Teekay, Seaspan, Robert Allan Naval Architects, and BC Ferries championed their efforts to lower these emissions even more through innovation in hull and motor design. The importance of better trained crew to operate more sophisticated vessels and new fuel management challenges were also emphasized.

Expect more of these ships on the horizon, cutting up to 35% in fuel use.

Tall Ships in English Bay, June 7, 2011

Basically, the technology is out there to create a greener world fleet and reduce its carbon emissions by up to 20% in the next decade. But is all this will and know-how a case of too little too late? World population continues to explode creating immense pressure to churn out more ships cheaply and quickly keeping the eye of many shippers on short term necessities rather than long term environmental goals.

Almost in pseudo recognition of the dilemma in which shippers currently find themselves – forced to navigate the contradictory imperatives of growth vs. green – these two beauties sailed unannounced into English Bay last week in stark, sustainable contrast to  the diesel monsters behind them.

Historical Cycles, Pirates and the Shipping Community

[Editor's Note: pirates make up one of the most interesting communities on the planet. They have been around since the beginning of, well, communities - in fact, I would argue that piracy is the oldest trade. The article below was previously posted by Godfrey von Bismarck on the site HR Wire.ca. It is important because the story reflects that history happens in cycles. The annals of British, French, Dutch, Chinese, Arabian, Persian, and Bahamanian histories possess thousands of accounts like the one below - once again, shipping companies are hiring armed security forces to defend against pirates. This is not a new or novel thing. And Kurt Vonnegut would say, "so it goes."]

As pirates continue to prey on ships off the Somali coast, Singapore and the International Chamber of Shipping are calling for “the employment of private armed security service providers onboard ships to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.” Their proposal will go before the International Maritime Organization in early May 2011.

The ongoing piracy crisis off the Somali coast has been impacting the B.C. shipping business causing disruption to its routes and a sharp rise in costs. “Effectively, the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest and most profitable marine routes, is off limits to us,” said Samuel Tang, vice-president, chartering and operations for Fairmont Shipping (Canada) Ltd. to the Vancouver Sun. “The incidences of piracy are just too great. Piracy has forced us to decline certain charter contracts, it forces us to take longer, less-profitable routes and it’s costing us revenue every day.”

Other members of B.C.’s shipping community agree that the piracy situation is dire and argue governments could be doing more.  “Piracy is claiming innocent lives and threatening global trade every day. I don’t think governments are aware just how bad it has become,” said Stephen Brown , president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia. “Right now, more than 720 sailors are being held hostage on 34 ships in the Indian Ocean. It’s a staggering situation and it’s costing global economies up to $12 billion a year.”

Fairmont Shipping has also joined a campaign putting pressure on governments to take a firmer stance against piracy. SOS Save Our Seafarers is spearheaded by the International Transport Worker’s Federation, the Baltic and International Maritime Council, and the International Chamber of Shipping.

Bring Back the Tall Ships

I am in mourning – bereft to learn that the 2011 Victoria Tall Ships Festival has been cancelled due to “Tough economic times.” Maybe a  corporate saviour will pull the festival off its economic sandbank? It happened with English Bay’s fireworks festival a while back, didn’t it?  Why not here?

Tall ship entering Haifax harbour

So consider this a brief  plea for a nautical bailout – a eulogy of sorts to the loss of sailing ships from around the globe berthing at Victoria this summer. Hopefully someone with a few pieces of eight to rub together will be convinced that supporting Tall Ships is important, not just to ship nerds like me, but also to the broader community.

From an aesthetic standpoint alone, they are beautiful examples of craftsmanship, grace and speed.  Tall Ship festivals travel the globe with the mission to bring living pieces of history up close and personal for the ordinary landlubber to see, touch, and appreciate.

Tall ship festivals also bring an international community of sailors, ship designers, historians and antiquarians together to share ideas and knowledge – a floating conference of sorts which keeps  a veritable floating museum alive.

Here’s hoping the ships  haven’t disappeared over the horizon just yet.

What’s in a Ship?

For better or worse, most of us know little of ships. But maybe it’s not a bad idea that we try to.

Fun fact: today there are 50,000 merchant ships in the world oceans – carrying 90% of international trade.

Each of these ships is a a link in a global supply chain, vital to the world economy.

Empty freighters at the Port of Singapore during during the 2009 Financial Crisis

Strangely, the economic crisis brought, mostly out of fear, a whole new respect and acknowledgment of shipping’s importance.  In the months following Lehman Brothers’ stunning collapse, shipping languished at unprecedented levels.

Orders for new ships ground to a halt and freight dwindled. Newspapers portrayed the scary spectacle of port’s clogged for months with empty freighters with literally no purpose but to float about.  Ship lanes were empty.

Imagine if, all of a sudden, English Bay with its half dozen resident freighters was suddenly clogged with four times that many vessels waiting for coal, logs and potash that no one was buying. It would be a potent sign of our cherished captialist system imploding on itself. And I think we’d stop and take notice.

I guess it’s hard to notice shipping’s importance. We can’t  appreciate something when it’s a largely invisible process. And, when a ship does emerge close to shore, it’s hardly nice to look at.  Most these days are squat, brutish things bearing little resemblance to their more graceful ancestors.

With the advent of steam, the sight of sailed craft has slowly disappeared from the water – replaced exclusively by steel hulls and diesel propulsion.  How sad progress can be. Still, look hard enough and there is beauty in the most ugly thing and with that comes appreciation, even respect.

Clipper Ship, the Cutty Sark, 1869

Alain de Botton taught me that, writing in his latest book about London boat watchers as they stand for hours in the drizzle,  “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.” (The Pleasures and Sorrows of work).

So, all that said I hope I make a pretty good argument for giving ye ‘ol ships a few more props. Or even a passing salute, should the spirit move you.

Surfing – Yachting for the Masses

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Rat, Wind in the Willows

B.C.'s Desolation Sound

I’m the first to admit that my yachting days a still a ways off, so in the meantime I’m more than content to mess about in more humble vessels. Vancouver’s False Creek has allowed me to try out rowing, kayaking, dragon boating, outrigger canoeing. I did the latter for a few years, but have since switched to swimming, anything to stay close to water. Love of water has connected me to a great community for whom being connected to the ocean is important. But out of all these activities, it is surfing which stands out for me as the most fun and exhilirating way to get out and play on the water. Unless you live near a good surf break, it’s certainly less accessible than other water sports, but once you try it, you’re hooked. My wife showed me how on an all inclusive vacation to Sayulita, Mexico four years ago and now whenever we go near a beach our surfboards tag along.

My top five reasons why I love surfing:

1) It’s Cheap.

Sure, you have to travel to warm, sunny places for the most part (Tofino and Nova Scotia excluded), but once you’re there it’s really cheap.  The closest place to surf from Vancouver is Tofino, half a day’s travel by car.  Once you’re there, even if you don’t own a board, you can rent all your stuff, wetsuit included, for about $60 for two days. When I was in Mexico, a nice guy just lent me his board.  In Hawaii, I’d rent for 10 dollars from the kid on the beach. So, until I getting my pimped out 40-footer (probably named after a Greek Goddess, like Penelope or Thetis ) I’m content with a rental board and a wave.

Local B.C. surfer Pete Devries

2) Connection to Place.

It’s amazing how just bobbing up and down on the calm sea with the horizon ahead and land behind makes every worry melt away. Feeling the movement of the Ocean, the wind and the warmth of the sun places you firmly in the moment.

3) Exercise.

Ever notice that all surfers are hot with, like, chiseled everything ? No? Well, they are. Always being outside and continuous use of core strength must have something to do it. But I don’t like the exercise out of vanity (which I probably am), but simply because surfing is a an enjoyable physical challenge. Battling the surf to get out far enough to catch a proper wave can leave you out of breath with aching arms. But just conquering that first barrier to make it to open water feels great all on its own.

4) Sucking at it.

I’ve rarely done a sport where being total crap means is actually part of the fun. With surfing, there’s  nothing to prove. Even in Hawaii, when I shared a wave with some real hot shots, they would  just smile benignly at this pasty, white, gangly Canadian getting tossed incessantly and say, “Narly, man. You’ll get the next one.”

5) Community.

Surfing is at once totally solitary and immensely interactive. Out on the water you’re alone, out of ear shot – even on a crowded break. Still, everyone is aware of their neighbours and respectful of each other’s space and safety. Take turns, watch out for others – all that good stuff happens in surfing. It is a simple code which surfer communities the world over abide by. We could all learn from that.

So there you have it. Until I forsake community altogether for Penelope III, my Super-Yacht with a butler, I’m content to bob about on a board, rarely catching anything, happy as a clam.

To get you inspired:

Header photo courtesy of by Mark Ziubinski