Over the last 5 years I have been with the BC Coast Pilots, I have had challenging assignments, but on a particular January evening I had one of my most, on an assignment to berth a ship at Cascadia. I had a senior apprentice join the assignment that night. He had been an apprentice for six months and was looking to gain required experience in Vancouver Harbour, specifically at Cascadia Grain Terminal.
We boarded the ship at an English Bay anchorage by Tymac launch at around 2030. It looked that it might get foggy in the next few hours. I discussed with the Captain that if visibility decreased, and we could not see far enough to safely get alongside the dock that we would not be able to berth on this slack water window. The Captain was in full agreement; he did not want any reduction in safety either. However, if we did not get into the berth we could be delayed for six, twelve, eighteen or more hours longer depending on traffic and tidal current slack water windows. This would cost the Port of Vancouver and the grain terminal thousands of dollars in lost time and costs for delayed trains.
Cascadia ship berth is in a tight area with shallow water hazards, just west of the Ironworks Memorial Highway Bridge in Second Narrows on the South shore of Vancouver Harbor. It is a busy area, with lots of traffic passing under the Highway Bridge and the adjacent rail bridge. Second Narrows is an area where we exercise extreme caution during all weather and current conditions. At certain times, currents run at up to seven knots, creating tremendous forces on 200 meter long ships with only a few meters under the ship for the water to move past the ship.
As we moved through English Bay, First Narrows, and Vancouver Harbour the visibility got worse. Fog was thick north of Cascadia, and East of the berth. I couldn’t see the bridges, or the north shore, however I could see the berth. The Captain and I decided to proceed, we had good working radars, three powerful tugs from SAAM Smit and Seaspan, and we could see enough to safely berth. However, with the decreased visibility, and a short current window it was decided that this was a task better suited for my apprentice to observe.
Tonight there was a tug and a tow planning to transit the bridges coming towards me. I asked the tug Captain to please hold and wait east of the bridge while I maneuvered into the berth. I needed to have a clear area to safely proceed with the poor visibility. In this case I did not have priority by law, but all mariners in the harbor try and work together to make everything work safely. I would return the favour in the future.
I turned the ship away from the dock, thereby keeping the stern and the bridge wing (where we work from) close to the dock and in view in the murky visibility. It was brightly lit, and allowed me to judge our progress throughout the approach, turn, and coming alongside.
I also used the Portable Pilot Unit that we bring onboard to give me very high position data that overlayed our ship over a chart of the area. I could take it with me on the bridge wing, and it assisted me to judge speed, ship movement, and nearby traffic. Once nearly alongside it gave me the bow speed and distance off the dock, which I could not see myself, 150 meters distant in fog that night. It also gave me real-time updates on current from a meter on the Second Narrows rail bridge south tower.
In the end it took longer than usual to berth the ship, but our apprentice participated in a very challenging assignment, and all marine traffic was able to move safely. Another cargo of grain was also able to load, destined to feed another part of the world. Canada is fortunate to have the grain, railway, and shipping facilities to feed many places in the world.
Ken has been with the BC Coast Pilots since 2013. Prior to beginning his apprenticeship on with the BCCP, Ken has worked on all three coasts of Canada and the Carribean since 1996 as a Seaman, Mate and Captain for the Canadian Coast Guard and other shipping companies. He lives in Port Moody.