Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The chaos theory in action

Wandering through a shipbuilding yard one is immediately struck by the sheer complexity of human endeavour that goes into creating ocean-going leviathans. The craft of building a ship must surely rank as one of Mankind’s finest achievements, for it marshals the resources of vast industrial operations and the efforts of thousands of individuals. For months on end, those shipwrights will toil to assemble the myriad of pieces that eventually come together as a vessel, an artifact that will then leave its birthplace and venture to the farthest corners of the globe.

In industrial terms, Ulsan, in southeastern Korea, is the Detroit of shipbuilding, home to the Hyundai Corporation’s yards (the same family-run enterprise that produces cars and trucks nearby). Sprawling over several kilometres of shoreline by the East Sea, Hyundai has three separate facilities encompassing dozens of dry docks and hundreds of fabrication sheds. Their shipwrights craft everything from supertankers and container ships to offshore oilrigs, building the vessels in a piecemeal fashion that appears chaotic when viewed up close.

Of course there is a master plan afoot here in the Ulsan yards, the evolution of thousands of years of shipbuilding. Koreans themselves have a long history of crafting ocean-going ship – over four centuries ago they built the first ironclad vessels – but they have taken a page from Western mass production and perfected the system. They pre-fabricate the sections of a vessel and then move them to dry docks for final assembly, something easier said than done.

To move the sections, the yards utilize huge multi-wheeled platforms called transporters, each the size of a tennis court. These transporters meander around with blocks of hull sitting on their backs, the steel sections visually seeming to float about the ground. Cranes known as “Goliaths” then heft the blocks into the dry docks where they’re welded into place and becoming the hull. As a vessel nears completion, it is floated out to a wharf and the final elements are added, the result of perhaps a year of labour and anywhere from $50-150 million (US) of financial investment.

But beyond the industrial might presented at Ulsan’s yards, what I found most fascinating was the human involvement in shipbuilding. Though hardly evocative in their aesthetic characters, the vessels crafted here are a point of undeniable pride among the shipwrights whom I met. One told me of how he looked upon each vessel like a family member, an entity he would never forget. Another ran his hand across the burnished side of a propeller blade with all the care of an artist caressing a new piece of sculpture.

Yet for all the effort these individuals put into crafting their creations, there is one key difference from other workers building other things. While a steelworker can point to skyscraper and tell his or her grandchildren that “I helped build that”, a shipwright is left with nothing but memories once the job is done. Rarely, if ever, do vessels return to Ulsan, meaning that after months of hard labour, each Korean worker must say a private farewell to their handiwork before it heads over the horizon to begin its Sisyphean journeys coursing through the oceans and seas of our planet.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An upcoming reading from Ocean Titans

For anyone in the Toronto area this coming weekend, I invite you to join me as I read excerpts from my recent book, Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship. It all takes place as part of Doors Open Toronto, an annual event in which various buildings of architectural, historical and cultural note around the city welcome visitors to explore the sites.

I'll be reading at Metropolitan United Church, one of the largest and grandest cathedrals in the country. The event begins at 1:00pm this Saturday, May 27, after which I'll take questions from the audience. Copies of the book will also be available for purchase. Metropolitan United Church is located at 56 Queen Street East in downtown Toronto, at the northwest corner of Queen and Church streets. The nearest subway stop is Queen, on the Yonge line.

I look forward to seeing everyone this weekend and, as always, hearing your comments.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A true mariner's scribblings

In the course of my work, I'm endlessly trolling through the web in search of ideas, information and impetus to continue my work. Recently I came across the website and blog of a British mariner, Ieuan Dolby, an engineer working out of Taiwan. Dolby writes with all the piss and vinegar of one who has experienced far more than most of us ever will and I heartily recommend anyone interested in seafaring to check his sites out. Wander on over to and check it out.

More posts shortly...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Requiem for merchant mariner warriors

Their tests are tempests and the sea that drowns.
They are my country’s line, her great art done
By strong brains laboring on the thought unwon.
- John Masefield, “Ships”

This past weekend saw the annual celebration known as Battle of the Atlantic Sunday, a day reserved to commemorate those men and women who fought, and were lost at sea, during the Second World War. It is an event heavily overshadowed by November’s Remembrance Day, but an important one nonetheless. Though we often think of uniform-clad sailors, soldiers and airmen as being on the knife’s edge of war, the Battle of the Atlantic inflicted a great toll on civilians: merchant mariners struggling to feed the war effort.

HMCS Sackville, Canada's naval memorial

The price paid by merchant mariners of all nations in the last two World Wars was atrocious. There really is no other way to describe what these mostly unarmed men endured feeding the war effort. To be a merchant mariner in either war meant you were far more likely to die than if you were serving in uniform on a naval vessel. To give you an idea of the dangers, consider that 534 Allied merchant ships were sunk in the Second World War just from enemy mines. That works out to about one in ten ships lost, because over 5000 cargo vessels were sunk in that war. In the Atlantic Ocean alone, 50000 civilian mariners died between 1939 and 1945; they died of horrible burns caused by explosions, gunned to death as they clung to flotsam or drowned alone in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

However, for their heroic service in helping to defeat the enemy many merchant mariners found that once the war had ended they were treated as second-class veterans, denied pensions and other benefits accorded to their naval brethren. In Canada, it took until 1998 before these men received official government recognition and compensation. And little has changed. When it comes to war, the role of mariners remains as invaluable to governments today as it has throughout history, but their contributions continue to be overshadowed by others. Rarely has a conflict been waged without the support of sailors manning cargo vessels, whether it be the Trojan Wars, Napoleon’s conquests, the Korean Conflict or the struggle to remove Saddam Hussein.

I’ve had the pleasure – if that’s the proper word – to cross the North Atlantic during some of it’s most vile of moods, firsthand encounters with a tempestuous entity that always left me shaken. But that was on some of the most modern of vessels to be found, in peacetime. I can barely fathom the ordeal it must have been to cross that ocean in primitive tin cans, while also facing the prospects of an enemy intent on killing you.

In a Greenwich dry dock beside the Thames River lies the majestic ship Cutty Sark, a memorial to the age of sail and the toils of ordinary seafarers. And at one end of the dry dock lies a small tablet bearing the words of the English poet laureate John Mansfield. They are the last two lines from his epic poem “Ships”, an apt honorific to anyone who endured the Battle of the Atlantic in whatever vessel flying whatever flag.

Chiseled into the wall, it simply reads: “They mark our passage as a race of men – Earth will not see such ships as those again.”

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Springtime view

Well, for anyone who's been wandering through this site, I must apologize for my recent absence. As often happens, I've been stuck with my head down doing research on some new projects, all of which have kept me from posting anything of late. I do promise to rectify this shortly and give you some more material to ponder. The craft of writing is not an easy endeavour, though many blogs (most?) are full of rambling thoughts and ill-conceived posts. I'm trying to give this site some more energy, so when I'm busy I often feel it's better to keep my mouth shut rather than blather.

In the meantime, you can check out a recent interview with me online at the Penguin Books Canada site. Click on the Penguin link below my profile (on the top right) and you can either read it or, if you have a media player installed on your computer, listen to it.

Soon I'll be taking you into the shipbuilding yards of South Korea, and down into the bowels of a vessel to meet the engineers who toil unseen.