Friday, October 10, 2014

Ship Happens

I never considered myself a rubber necker, slowing down to ogle cars stalled alongside freeways, but I've always been a curious neighbor, speculating about the activities of those around me. Now that we live in view of shipping lanes and a Navy fuel dock, I find myself grabbing my camera and binoculars to get a better look at the ship traffic outside my window.

Thanks to the marine traffic website, I can pull up the name and type of the commercial and naval ships I see, find out their previous ports and their next. But of course, there's more I want to know. And what I've found out, I'm sharing here. Why? Well, why not? I took some great photos, and have amassed a storehouse of trivia.

Here's some of it:

On weekends, pleasure boaters set sail for Blake Island or the southern boot of Bainbridge Island, and then sail back to Seattle. There were also a number of cruise ships heading to Alaska from Seattle this summer, which is a great way to see Southeast Alaska, most of it only accessible by boat or plane.

Sailboats nearing the southern boot of Bainbridge Island. 
The Bainbridge Island ferry heading past cruise ships docked in Seattle.

Several times this summer and into September huge container ships have anchored in the water between Manchester and Blake Island, a half-mile or so dead east of our house, and barges have pulled alongside them, unloading and loading cargo in the dark of night, lights ablaze, the beep-beep of forklifts moving in reverse audible from our bedroom.

Container ship anchored near our house one afternoon.

At sunrise the next morning the ship had been unloaded, and had also spun with the tide.

I've watched an otherwise empty ship pour dirt from its hold onto a waiting barge, wondering if it's ballast, though my Internet research has revealed that ballast is usually water—and its discharge is the most common and difficult to control reason invasive species are introduced into new marine environments. I speculate the dirt is a way to keep foreign water critters out of Puget Sound, but I have no way of knowing if that's true.

Notice the barge filled with dirt near the stern, and a tug near the bow

If the dirt's not ballast, there's a market for Chinese soil somewhere in North America. I haven't been able to figure it out.

Most days dozens of industrial sized ships ply the east side of the Sound, bringing with them cheap toys, clothes, and trinkets that line the shelves of The Dollar Tree, WalMart, and Target. The ships, headed to and from port in Seattle and Tacoma, are often stacked with colorful containers, the contents of which—my research has revealed—are not usually weighed both directly before and after loading at the docks, so that when cargo is lost at sea, and it often is in rough weather, it is impossible to know the specific items and value of what has gone overboard. Additionally, containers that are insulated do not fully sink, and float just under water, becoming a hazard to other ships.

Container ship as seen from the Bremerton Ferry approaching Seattle.
We were very close, and slowed down and changed course to avoid a collision.

Currently there are no standardized regulations for international shipping, and it appears, that our ocean floors are littered with our manufactured debris, just like our freeways, riverbanks, and outer space.

Despite that, it's hard not to marvel at the sheer size and scope of our industry; the way we have circumnavigated our globe, connecting humanity to one other, if not through faith and goodwill, then through commerce.


In July, the day before my birthday, I saw a submarine—it wasn't listed on the marine traffic website—but it was unmistakable, and using my telescope, I could even see an American flag flying from the bridge (my husband wondered if they'd pop the hatch to bring the flag in before submerging).

To the west of us, inside the Hood Canal, there's a Naval nuclear submarine station, and closer by, in Bremerton, a naval shipyard. It seems that the submarine came from the shipyard, through the Sinclair Inlet from Bremerton through the Strait of Port Orchard and Rich Passage into the Sound near the Naval dock before it headed North past Seattle for points unknown.

Submarine in the Sound.

I have seen a Navy operations vessel and two different heavy lift naval vessels at the fuel dock. With a large flat expanse between the bow and stern, the lift vessels are able to partially submerge and lift smaller vessels up out of the water at sea. One, the John Glenn, was docked here nearly a month before it set sail. It's now stationed along the Columbia River east of Portland.

From our perch a half-mile away, the ships at 389 meters (a standard length it seems for tankers) seem big, especially when a Washington State Ferry (that holds 144 cars plus passengers) travels nearby to add perspective.

Navy operations vessel.

Heavy lift vessel at dock. Smoke stacks on the bow.
Black tower is the stern. Ferry traveling in the background.

Being on the water, though, even at a distance, the ships tower like behemoths, dwarfing kayakers and pleasure boaters alike.

My dear friends kayaking to nearby Blake Island with the John Glenn in the background.

The U.S.S. Constellation, or "Connie" as she's known to locals, is an aircraft carrier built in 1961 (the year I was born) that served in the Viet Nam war, and had been languishing, mothballed (like the ones in the Strait of Carquinez off I-680 for my California readers) at the Naval shipyard in Bremerton, until she was sold for scrap metal.

The recycler is getting a penny a pound to transport her to Brownsville, Texas, where she will be dismantled. In August she began her journey, slowly maneuvered by tugs from the inlet through the strait. Retired navy men and curious onlookers, lined the road to watch her progress, and she spent more than an hour in full view of our deck, where we had wine and cheese to mark the historic occasion.

The Constellation exiting the Strait of Port Orchard and Rich Passage into the Sound.
Three tugs engaged in the maneuver. Washington State Ferry to the rear.

Our happy hour view of the massive aircraft carrier.

Too wide to fit through the Panama Canal, and unable to sail under her own power since she's been decommissioned, Connie is being pulled to her destination, around the southern tip of South America and into Texas by the tug Corbin Foss. The vessels left Bremerton on August 8, and are currently sheltering in Argentina, after repairs to correct listing to port. They're now waiting for weather to clear before the journey around Cape Horn resumes.

Tugs turning Connie 180 degrees.
The Corbin Foss is pulling Connie to her destination. 

The U.S.S. Constellation led by the Corbin Foss into her new life as recycled scrap metal.

The tugs are amazing to watch. I saw a trio of them spin a heavy lift vessel 180 degrees mid-channel, then push it to the Navy fuel dock: patient, powerful, skillful, precise. It took over an hour to dock. They remind me—on days when I feel small and doubt that my contributions have any impact on the world—that commitment to purpose makes positive change possible, even when it seems imperceptible in the moment.

And the tugs are everywhere, day and night, often working two to three against the side of ship. And so I leave you with them: agents of change, harbingers of hope.

Tugs maneuvering a heavy lift vessel to the Navy fuel dock 

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