A View from the Shore

zim kingston container ship
Container ships such as the Zim Kingston are crucial for the transport of goods into Canada. Photo: vesselfinder.com
By on April 1, 2022
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Once again, the picture said it all—only this time it wasn’t happening on the other side of the world, but on the other side of our own country.

The photo: families strolling around the Victoria waterfront on a beautiful Sunday morning in late October were greeted with the sight of a huge ship in the near distance. Billowing clouds of thick smoke were pouring out of some containers on her deck as several tugs rushed to her rescue. While this was happening, the Canadian Coast Guard was hailing the ship, the Zim Kingston, advising the captain and crew to “abandon ship.” The fire was spreading through a number of containers that were carrying extremely hazardous materials that could actually be ignited by water.

This was yet another chapter of the story of the Zim Kingston and her crew who had literally been through the watery equivalent of “to hell and back” during the previous week. Only later, when several chaplains and union officials in Vancouver met with the crew, did the larger story emerge.

Although a dangerous storm was heading directly for the ship, they were denied access to a safe harbour—any harbour—and were required to stay at sea while the storm bore down on them. For four days the ship was tossed about the ocean like a cork in a bottle, despite the enormous combined size of the vessel itself and the cargo bolted to the deck. For four days it was impossible for the cook to make any meals, for the crew to walk upright anywhere inside, and sleeping meant tying yourself into your bunk. During the course of the storm, over 140 containers filled with goods were ripped off the deck by the violence of the storm, the contents of which were destined to be Christmas gifts at a local drug store chain. The few of those containers that didn’t sink washed up on the pristine shores of Clayoquot Sound.

For the seafarers on board, this voyage was one of the worst of their careers. They felt abandoned and brutalized (their words) after such a journey. Our chaplains and staff in Vancouver spent many hours helping these seafarers through the emotional and physical trauma they had experienced. Several investigations are underway about many aspects of this voyage, most notably why the ship was not offered safe harbour when they were directly in the path of a major storm and so close to land. The seafarers themselves want those answers.

There were some empty shelves at Christmas owing to “supply chain” issues, but few of us, I imagine, would have dreamed up the scenario of the Zim Kingston as one of the reasons why. And yet, not many days after this terrible journey, the crew of the Zim Kingston continued on with the ship, sailing her from Victoria to Nanaimo for repairs and to discharge some of her cargo, the many hundreds more containers which were not lost overboard during the storm.

To bring us all that we need, seafarers sacrifice everything, sometimes even their lives. As one of my colleagues remarked recently at the death of a young seafarer: “Water is their livelihood, but it is not their friend.” Please think of the human cost of shopping the next time you see shelves filled with products we “can’t live without.” Please remember to support the Mission to Seafarers through your prayers and your donations. On behalf of Seafarers everywhere: thank you.

  • Judith Alltree is Regional Director, Mission to Seafarers Canada. She is the recently retired Executive Director of the Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario, which includes the ports of Oshawa, Hamilton, Port Weller and Port Colborne in the diocese of Niagara.