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Captain Dwayne Slade helms the Smit Orleans (left) as it approaches the tanker New Constellation on Burrard Inlet early on a Monday Morning. Nich McElroy for Report on Business magazine

Monday starts early in the Vancouver harbour. It’s 4 a.m. on a rainy March morning when Captain Dwayne Slade arrives at the wharf of Saam Smit Towage, on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet, and goes over his marching orders for the day.

Saam Smit Towage, a subsidiary of a Dutch towing company established in 1842, is one of the major tugboat operators on the West Coast. Of its fleet of 23 tugboats, seven are busy 24 hours a day moving ships in and out of Vancouver harbour. Today, Captain Slade’s office is the Smit Orleans, a hulking, broad-shouldered, 6,700-horsepower “tractor tug” currently rated as the strongest towboat on Canada’s West Coast. Slade, who grew up working on the sea in Newfoundland, is known for his unflappable humour and seamanship skills. Both will come in handy for what’s shaping up to be a 20-hour job.

Rain scribbles down through the floodlights as he walks to the end of the wharf where the Orleans is tethered. Four other mariners are already on board, checking safety gear and brewing coffee. There’s a lot of redundancy built into their assignment today—a mate who can also drive the boat, two deckhands, an engineer to fix any mechanical issues, and two other tugs to help the Orleans with a job it could easily handle itself. But the redundancy is required by law. Slade and his crew will be escorting an oil tanker from its berth in the inner harbour to the open sea off the south end of Vancouver Island. The tanker, with its cargo of Alberta crude, will be threading tight passages and tricky currents through the sleeping city, with the three tugs creeping alongside to ensure it stays out of harm’s way. Captain Slade is in good spirits as he lights up the twin Caterpillar diesel engines and eases the Orleans away from her berth. But he’s fully aware of the seriousness of his job: “If anyone makes a mistake this morning, it could change the shipping industry in Canada.”

The oil tanker is several kilometres from the Smit wharf, anchored offshore from the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. The terminal, owned by American pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, exports crude oil that arrives via the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands. The Westridge oil terminal was built in 1953, but its operations have become increasingly controversial with the rapid growth of the city and the rise of environmental awareness. As Captain Slade approaches the anchorage, the tugboat’s searchlight fingers through the darkness and illuminates the stern of the New Constellation, a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker carrying 70,000 tonnes of crude. That’s about 25,000 times more than the estimated 2,700 litres of bunker fuel that would leak from a grain ship and foul the beaches of English Bay in April.

The three tugboat skippers exchange radio instructions as they approach the tanker. The other escorts are, like the Orleans, super-powerful tractor tugs with omni-directional twin drives that can spin a tug on a dime and push it sideways almost as quickly as it goes forward. (The Orleans’s top speed is 14 knots, about the same as a freighter.) After the other two tugboats have tethered onto the tanker, crewmen on the high stern toss down a light rope to hoist up the heavy towline from the bow of the Orleans. The tanker crewmen hook the line onto a bollard aboard the ship and Captain Slade backs away and reels in the tugboat’s winch. The 402-tonne Orleans jerks as its unstoppable force comes taut against the tanker’s immovable weight. Water pops and sizzles off the towline—lightweight, three-inch thick polyethylene with a tensile strength of 377,000 kilograms. “It’s great line,” says Slade. “It floats, so it won’t tangle in the props. And there’s no stretch to it, so if it snaps it will just fall on the water instead of taking off the deckhand’s head.”

Slade nudges the throttles up to 40% power and a torrent of black water boils out from under the tugboat’s hull. By law, oil tankers can only transit in and out of harbour during daylight, with good visibility. As the New Constellation inches slowly away from its anchorage, daylight is unveiling the misty mountains and serrated skyline of Greater Vancouver.

Vancouver is usually regarded as a cosmopolitan city that happens to have a seaport at its centre. But as the daylight comes up, it looks more like a gritty industrial seaport that happens to have a city for a back lot. The shore is lined with a never-ending procession of tank farms, gantry cranes, coal yards, grain terminals, sulphur piles and mountainous stacks of multicoloured shipping containers. Most Vancouverites are fond of their seaport, and from any high vantage point the constantly moving panorama of ships, trains, helicopters, cranes and tugs resembles every kid’s fantasy of a vast table-top toy set. But in the middle of a large city, how much industry is too much?

A chemical fire in a shipping container at the Centerm container wharf in March wafted toxic smoke through the city’s core, snarling traffic and causing an evacuation of office workers and downtown residents. And when fuel oil leaked from the brand-new bulk freighter M.V. Marathassa in early April, locals were appalled by what they viewed as a bumbling response by the Coast Guard. (The slick was spotted by recreational boaters in late afternoon, but the response team didn’t get a boom around it until dawn the following day.) Federal officials congratulated themselves on their swift and “exceptional” reaction to the spill. But locals were not impressed, pointing out that if it took half a day to contain a tiny spill in placid English Bay, close to first-response headquarters, how could anyone trust the feds to cope with a serious accident involving big winds, rough seas and the flammable contents of an entire oil tanker?

Brightcove player

These questions are especially pertinent because the seaport’s tenants and their landlord, Port Metro Vancouver, have ambitious expansion projects slated for the near future. To the dismay of environmentalists and farmers, the Port is going ahead with plans to expand Deltaport, a gigantic freight terminal south of the city. On the north shore of the Burrard Inlet, Neptune Bulk Terminals is about to double the capacity of its already-expansive coal yard. And Kinder Morgan has applied to the National Energy Board for a licence to twin its oil pipeline from Alberta to the Westridge terminal. So far, the public has not been allowed to weigh in on the project. Marc Eliesen, a former CEO of BC Hydro, recently resigned his appointment as a reviewer of the project, accusing the National Energy Board of having a “predetermined course of action to recommend approval.” If the permit is granted, pipeline volume will triple, and tanker traffic through the heart of the city may increase sevenfold. Needless to say, a tanker accident in the Vancouver harbour would be catastrophic. By current shipping standards, the New Constellation is only a medium-sized vessel. But it’s a big ship nevertheless. Standing on end, the New Constellation would be taller than the TD tower in downtownToronto.

Away from berths, tugs do more guiding than towing. A Saam Smit tug helps manoeuvre a container ship through Vancouver's inner harbour

The remarkable thing about the Vancouver seaport is that it works as well as it does, considering the volume of traffic, its proximity to a city celebrated for its natural beauty, and the maze of interests that have a stake in the port. The land is owned by Port Metro Vancouver, a federal Crown corporation whose property stretches from the American border to the north shore of the Burrard Inlet—more than 345 kilometres of shoreline. By tonnage, Port Metro Vancouver is the fourth-largest seaport in North America, and perhaps the most politically entangled, juggling relationships with several First Nations, 28 corporate tenants running terminals and 16 municipalities, as well as countless rural landowners and environmental groups. Around the clock, enormous ships from more than 100 countries cruise in and out of the harbour, loaded down with everything from wheat to cellphones to lethal chemicals.

Port Metro Vancouver is headquartered in Canada Place—a waterfront building designed to evoke a luxury cruise ship. On its high bridge is the Marine Operations Centre, a glass-enclosed, busy room stuffed with monitor screens providing real-time video from 500 cameras throughout the port. Security personnel liaise with the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Coast Guard, Transport Canada and law enforcement, while operations techs monitor interactive displays of moving vessels and anchorages. By placing a cursor over any icon on an interactive screen, an operations specialist can display the name of the vessel, its speed, tonnage, port of origin, destination and cargo.

Tankers are top-priority vessels, and the arrowhead icon of the New Constellation is closely monitored as it tracks toward the Lions Gate Bridge with its three escorts. Once it passes under the bridge, the tanker will thread its way along designated lanes past the bulk freighters parked in English Bay, and then Vessel Traffic Services will allow other ships to carry on with their business—one of the freighters anchored in English Bay wants to move to the Lynnterm wharf on the north shore with a load of steel pipe bound for the Alberta oil patch, a bulk carrier loaded with Manitoba wheat is ready to sail from the Richardson-Pioneer terminal, and at the Neptune Bulk Terminals, a vessel loaded with Southern British Columbia coal is ready to leave for China, where it will be used to make the steel for cars and pipeline components that in turn will be shipped back to Canada.

After the New Constellation clears the area, it cruises through Georgia Strait and on to the narrow passes and tangled geography of the Gulf Islands. The ship is under its own power—the tugs’ job is more lifeguarding than towing. The Orleans catches a ride behind the tanker, bouncing along through thickening chop and blowing spray, tethered to the tanker’s stern. The load sensor on the tug indicates that the strain on the towline is hovering around seven tonnes, which for the tanker is negligible—or as Dwayne Slade puts it, “like pulling a herring off a plate.” The journey might be monotonous if not for the spectacular scenery—rumpled ocean, skating seabirds and spring sunshine lancing down through hazy cloud onto the verdant slopes of the Gulf Islands.

The old stereotype of gruff seamen doing a slapdash job aboard a grimy towboat is no longer accurate, at least not on a Saam Smit tugboat. The cavernous engine room, with its bawling Caterpillars, is freshly painted and spanking clean. The crewmen in the high, glassed-in wheelhouse are neatly dressed, curious guys with personal interests ranging from music to childhood education to mountain biking. They undergo a lengthy and demanding apprenticeship, and once they work their way up to the helm of a $10-million tugboat, their salary is equivalent to that of an airline pilot. They probably wouldn’t describe themselves as foodies, but before leaving the wharf this morning, they loaded $500 worth of groceries into the galley, and much of the day’s conversation pertains to meal planning.

A skipper is only allowed six hours on duty, so he and the mate will spell each other off at the helm, and if anyone gets drowsy, there are staterooms to take a nap. “Tugboating can be slow and dull work, but an emergency can crop up in a heartbeat,” says deckhand Bruce MacKenzie. “And it takes a lot of expertise to deal with all the potential hazards. But it’s a great job, and when Saam Smit posts a job opening they get dozens of applications.”

A good tanker escort is one in which absolutely nothing happens. If the tanker’s engine breaks down or its rudder jams, Captain Slade will crank up the tug’s power and hold the tanker in deep safe water until help arrives. Most of these safety precautions are a result of the wreck of the notorious Exxon Valdez, which spilled more than 40,000 tonnes of oil into Alaskan coastal waters in March, 1989, prompting aggressive new maritime oil transportation laws around the world. “The Valdez changed everything,” says Slade. “Now the law dictates double-hulled vessels and multiple tugboat escorts and two pilots aboard every oil tanker travelling through Canadian waters.”

The seamen on the Orleans tend to believe that oil tankers have so many backups in place that, for now at least, the system is safe—safe enough to accommodate growth. “Expansion of the port terminals would be a good thing for us mariners,” says Slade. “It would mean more jobs in British Columbia, and more trade benefits for everyone in the country. But the federal government should fund a permanent tugboat station in the Gulf Islands. If some old freighter loses power on its way through the islands, it could be on the rocks in 20 minutes, dumping a lot more fuel oil than the spill in English Bay. This country gets enormous economic benefits from our seaports, and we need to spend the money to make sure it’s done safely.”

A gangplank is lowered from the M.V.Ultra Bellambi for pilot Robin Stewart to go aboard. Without a pilot, ships may not enter Canadian waters

Slade recently qualified as a coast pilot, which for a tugboater is the equivalent of being called up to the big leagues. According to the shop talk in the wheelhouse, the most important qualification for an aspiring pilot is reputation. “The seafaring community is a small one and people tend to know who’s really good,” says mate Stirling Fowler, who’s manning the wheel of the Orleans (he’s also a captain in his own right). “Pilots are the elite, and before you can even apply you have to have decades of sea time and work experience.”

The British Columbia coastline is vast and complicated—a 27,000-kilometre maze of inlets, reefs, islands and channels, all of it constantly morphing with moon phases and tides. Thus the pilotage exam is exhaustive. (One of the tests involves reviewing a blank map of the coast and filling in its myriad details.) Growth at the Vancouver port will also mean more jobs for pilots, and in a busy year a senior pilot can earn more than $250,000. A private company, British Columbia Coast Pilots, provides some 105 licensed pilots to a federal agency called the Pacific Pilotage Authority, which then dispatches a pilot to take charge of any foreign vessel of over 350 tonnes. Without a pilot onboard, a ship cannot enter Canadian waters.

When a ship is inbound to Vancouver, a pilot from a station in Victoria catches a ride out to the vessel on a small boat and climbs aboard. Ocean swells surge against the hull of the ship, and the pilot has to leap from the pilot vessel onto a rope ladder. Meanwhile the ship is plowing ahead at 10 knots or so, and the ladder is swinging and banging against the hull. Captain Robin Stewart is one of the most experienced pilots on the West Coast and he says it’s a challenging feat for any of the pilots, especially those who are in their 60s or 70s. (The average age of entry into the pilot profession is 44.) “It’s the most dangerous thing a coast pilot has to do. You can’t jump onto the ladder when the swell is subsiding because the boat might surge up and knock you off the ladder. And you better hope the ladder is in good repair. You might get to the top and find out the crewman is just standing on it. A friend of mine was on a ladder that broke and he fell into the sea, tangled up in the ropes. Fortunately he was an experienced diver and was able to untangle himself, but the ship’s propeller just missed his head.”

To reduce the danger and cope with the expected increasing demands for service, the Pacific Pilotage Authority is considering transitioning to the use of helicopters for boarding incoming ships. Some pilots have training in the United States, learning how to descend by cable from a chopper. But even that can be tricky. Cruising freighters can’t stop or they lose steerage, and in a rolling sea the slippery deck is heaving up and down. “I don’t enjoy either method,” says one pilot. “So far, I think I prefer the rope ladder.” Today, Stewart has an easier assignment, boating out into Vancouver’s calm inner harbour to take charge of the M.V. Ultra Bellambi, a 200-metre bulk carrier flagged in Panama. Like most of the pilots, he projects a professional demeanour as he ascends the steep rickety gangway and steps aboard in his dress shoes and necktie. “I don’t wear a uniform because some of the crews of these foreign vessels might find that intimidating,” he says. “I want co-operation and trust from the crew. If there’s a problem with the vessel, I want them to feel comfortable telling me about it. They might be reluctant to complain to the ship’s owner for fear of repercussions. But if they report it to me, I can intervene and get the repairs done and we’re all better off.” Stewart, silver-haired and trim at 58, scrutinizes the clean three-year-old ship for any apparent problems as a crewman leads him up a narrow stairwell. Fourteen storeys above the water, the crewman ushers Stewart onto the bridge, a wide room filled with navigational gear, map tables and radar screens. Captain Raul de la Cruz, also in a necktie, steps forward and greets Stewart with a cordial handshake. “Welcome aboard, sir.”

There are 55,000 freighters like this one trading the oceans of the world. About once a week, one of them sinks in a storm, collides with another ship or hits a reef; often, there are fatalities. In his briefcase, Stewart carries specialized navigational gear like a GPS receiver that can identify his position anywhere on the planet within 40 centimetres. (“I don’t trust anyone’s equipment but my own.”) He sets up the receiver on the bridge and conveys calm instructions to the helmsman, who nudges the enormous vessel forward, slipping past other ships anchored a few hundred metres away. “I don’t give orders,” Stewart explains quietly. “I make requests. The issue of who’s actually in command of the vessel is somewhat of a grey area. But they can’t legally move without my instructions, and I’m here to protect them and their vessel, so most of them welcome my presence.”

The M.V. Ultra Bellambi, moored in English Bay, awaits a load of potash. At right, Captain Raul de la Cruz and his crew on the bridge

Captain de la Cruz, from Cebu, Philippines, stands politely off to one side as Stewart supervises the starting of the engines, the raising of the anchor, and the manoeuvring of the vessel so that it gradually pivots nose-first into the flooding tide. As Stewart kicks the vessel in and out of gear, great whirls of mossy green water erupt from the stern. His assignment is to move the ship from the inner harbour to the outer anchorage on English Bay, where 17 similar freighters are waiting to be loaded with bulk cargo like grain, sulphur and potash. Because the bulkers carry relatively low-value materials, they also conduct themselves at a relatively leisurely pace, sometimes sitting at anchor for days, waiting for a load. (During the winter of 2013, Canadian grain exporters were angered by having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in parking fees for bulk carriers sitting empty for weeks at a time, waiting for the railroads to bring grain from prairie elevators.) The Bellambi, although half-loaded, must now wait in the outer harbour until a train arrives with more Saskatchewan potash. Before it fills up and leaves, the captain will top up with about $400,000 worth of bunker fuel—which, at a cruising speed of 11.6 knots, will get the vessel to its destined port of San Nicolás, Argentina, where the potash will be sold as fertilizer. “I have been all around the world, many times,” says Captain de la Cruz. “Vancouver is my favourite port. It’s very clean and well run. But it’s a difficult life, being a sea captain. It can be scary, in storms, with waves coming over the deck. And it’s lonely. Every day I miss my family.”

The confined space of the inner harbour can be busy at times, with two or three ships on the move at once, and unlike modern yachts and cruise ships, which have side-mounted thrusters to aid in tight quarters, freighters rely on seasoned pilots and tugboats to get in and out of loading bays. Some of the wharves are exposed to tricky currents, and as ships get progressively larger, the parking spots get tighter. Shortly after Stewart guides the Ultra Bellambi under the Lions Gate Bridge and out into English Bay, another vessel looms into sight—the mountainous container ship Cosco Hong Kong, owned by the China Ocean Shipping Co. (a.k.a. Cosco). In the tidal current under the bridge, Captain Stewart Broderick mans the wheelhouse of a Saam Smit tractor tug. He idles his engines as the ship silently and swiftly approaches, projecting a bulge of transparent green water off the bulb on its prow. Container ships are fast and streamlined; the onrushing behemoth is throwing even less of a wake than the little tugboat. “This guy seems to know what he’s doing,” comments Captain Broderick observing its swift approach. Angling toward the ship’s plate steel flank in what seems to be a collision course, the captain gently thumps up against the hull amidships, swivels the twin drives, and in less than a second the tug is shouldered up against the ship and speeding backwards. On the radio, the pilot aboard the Cosco Hong Kong gives a head’s-up to the other skipper aboard the tugboat, Captain John Armstrong, that he’s shifting the vessel out of gear to test its gearbox. “We don’t want any surprises in these tight quarters,” Armstrong explains.

Approaching the Centerm wharf, the Cosco Hong Kong maintains its brisk pace until it is only about 100 metres from the pier, then coasts to a stop. With the help of two other Saam Smit tugs, Captain Broderick pushes the ship against the wharf. Mooring lines are stretched to the deck, and in minutes, the big orange gantry cranes begin unloading the ship. “You rarely see container ships killing time at anchor in English Bay,” says Captain Armstrong, a veteran tugboater who is also a vice-president of Saam Smit. “They carry high-value cargo and everyone is in a hurry to get that ship unloaded and get it back to work. The crewmen don’t even have time to go for a walk and see the city. By this time tomorrow it will be loaded with containers of Canadian export products like grain or lumber and heading back to China.”

Globalization would not be reshaping the world economy so drastically and rapidly were it not for the advent of the shipping container and the vessels made to carry it. It costs only a couple of pennies to ship a cellphone across the ocean by container, and about $10 for a television that will retail in Canada for $700. Container vessels are growing ever larger, with major shipping companies like Maersk building megaships that can carry 18,000 TEU containers. (TEU is short for 20-foot equivalent units.) The newer ships are fast, clean and fuel-efficient.

Port Metro Vancouver leases property to three container terminal companies. On the Fraser River, Fraser Surrey Docks is run by a privately owned Canadian firm. In Vancouver’s inner harbour, there’s Centerm, one of 65 terminals around the world run by Dubai-based DP World; and GCT Vanterm, which is owned by the largest container business in Canada, Global Container Terminals Canada, which also operates the largest terminal of the lot at Deltaport, on a man-made peninsula south of the city.

At Deltaport, a causeway with highway and railway lines travels for five kilometres out to a vast industrial site bristling with gantry towers, stacked containers and moored vessels as large as football stadiums. GCT Deltaport receives about five ships a week, many of them new, super-efficient vessels too big to fit through the Panama Canal. (The completion of the Panama Canal Expansion Project in 2017 will enable the transit of these larger vessels.) The terminals in Vancouver harbour have almost run out of room to expand their wharves and accommodate the new generation of giant ships; Port Metro Vancouver is planning a major expansion at Deltaport. The new addition, called Roberts Bank Terminal 2, will double container traffic from roughly one million to two million TEUs per year and provide docking space for megaships. If the facility passes its environmental review, it should be in operation by the mid-2020s.

Only a few decades ago, North American seaports were compromised by organized crime, but locked containers have almost eliminated pilferage. At GCT Deltaport and other port terminals, security measures are rigid. Visitors to the port, for example, must take the shortest walking route between their vehicle and the front door of the facility’s office. When the CEO of one terminal forgot his pass at home, he wasn’t allowed through the gate even though the guards knew him. Inside the bustling operations centre at GCT Deltaport, “ship planners” work with computer software that can render a ship in cross-section, plunge deep into its hold, and reveal the origin and contents of any container by reading its bar code. The planners work with officers from the Canadian Border Services Agency, who ask for curious containers to be craned aside and opened. “You learn a lot,” says Shane Rozumiak, a GCT ship planning supervisor. “I bet most people don’t know that bananas give off radiation.”

When a ship comes in, Rozumiak and his team often work 16-hour days. “Our big growth area is Chicago and the urban Midwest,” he says. “Shippers use Vancouver as a quick route to the U.S. market. If you want to understand the economy, look at a nighttime image of the continent. Vancouver is sending containers to the clumps of light.”

Canadians like to think of themselves as residents of an autonomous nation, but increasingly, local and national politics are dictated by the global shipping network. Without foreign buyers of raw materials like softwood and oil, Canada would be a much poorer place. Shelves would go bare and the economy would grind to a stop in weeks. Most of the consumer items in a typical Canadian home arrived by container ship. If you drive an Asian automobile, it came through the port of Vancouver.

As the New Constellation approaches international waters off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a crewman casts off the towline and waves goodbye to the crew of the Orleans. In two weeks, the tanker will reach the South China Sea. The Orleans turns around, and afternoon turns to darkness as it cruises through steady rain back to port to pick up another job. In the darkened wheelhouse, a glowing computer display shows the potential customers—icons approaching Vancouver like corpuscles entering the cardio system of the country. By 9 p.m., the Orleans is 30 kilometres from Deltaport, and even at this distance the port glitters like a massive space station. The city is somewhere tucked into the darkness behind it, but for many mariners, Vancouver is the port.