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Stowed Away

Freighters inject goods (mostly legal) worth $50 billion into our city
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Freighters inject goods (mostly legal) worth $50 billion into our city

Captain Dogwan Lee of the tanker Bum Shin is blowing his horn in frustration at the stevedores working at Neptune Bulk Terminals below. They’re taking their sweet time pulling the gangway back onto the North Vancouver facility, where the ship has taken on a load of tallow. Lee is eager to cross Burrard Inlet to Vanterm on the south shore, where his 148-metre-long, 12,000-tonne vessel will take on canola oil before heading back across the Pacific. His impatience is understandable: this day, like the other 64 days of his round-trip journey between South Korea and Vancouver, is costing his employer $65,000. (A larger tanker can cost as much as $110,000 daily to operate.) There’s no time to waste at Canada’s largest, busiest port, which each year trades more than $53 billion in goods and generates $6.3 billion in GDP.

Captain Lee is not actually piloting his ship. Every freighter that docks at a Vancouver terminal is directed by a British Columbia coast pilot. Today, the Bum Shin (which cost between $50 million and $80 million to build in 2003) is being guided by Captain Nick Malysh, a dapper man with a ready smile, a firm handshake, and four years of piloting under his belt. Malysh, who’s a long way from the tugs he used to be master and mate on, enjoys comparing his profession to surgery—pilots are an elite set.

Malysh is one of only 102 such pilots in British Columbia; among them, they make about 12,000 sailings per year. Ninety percent of the world’s cargo is handled by pilots.

The steering wheel on the Bum Shin is a mere 10 inches wide; on the short hop across Burrard Inlet, Malysh never touches it. Instead, he shouts from the port deck; his commands are parroted first by Captain Lee, and then by an officer at the helm. Malysh coordinates the work of the two tugboats that nuzzle the freighter, bow and stern, as well as six linesmen and the bridge crew.

Captain Neil Crysler, the vice-president of the B .C. Coast Pilots association, happens to be along for today’s harbour shift. A single earring suggests a rebel past that his tailored suit holds neatly in check. He accepts a can of pear juice from a silent cadet—the 21 crew members on the Bum Shin, mostly Koreans and Filipinos, speak limited English, and their ability to work flawlessly with Captain Malysh depends on their grasp of a few well-understood commands.

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