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Student sailors compete in a regatta hosted by The Kitsilano Yacht Club on Nov. 2.

Local sailors worry as tanker traffic grows

The number of ships is projected to increase steadily over the years

By Stéphane Lavoie , in City , on November 13, 2019

As Vancouver braces for increased tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet with the approval of the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline, local sailors expect increasingly risky conditions on the water.

Colm Webb, who manages the Kitsilano Yacht Club, says crossing the shipping channel, a narrow lane that runs east-west between West Vancouver and Kitsilano, already feels “like you’re crossing a railroad track.”

Webb and others say the commercial ships’ inconsistent schedules combined with their sheer speed makes sailing risky as it is. A more-than-tenfold increase in traffic would mean fewer windows for safe sailing, as well as increased risk of spills and crashes. 

According to the Port of Vancouver, it currently sees between 30 to 50 crude-oil tankers per year. The Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project could increase that to about 400 tankers annually, according to information on the port’s website.

Freighter and cruise-ship traffic will continue to grow, as well. A 2016 analysis by the port projected that the total number of vessels is expected to grow 25 per cent from the current level of 3,160 by 2026. Others forecast much higher numbers.

This will make it increasingly difficult for sailors to cross the shipping channel, especially when clubs host boat races. Recreational boats do not have right of way over commercial vessels, and sailors need at least 30 to 60 minutes to cross the channel.

Mike Bretner, rear commodore of the Hollyburn Sailing Club in West Vancouver, looks towards the shipping channel.

Sailing clubs have always hoped the authorities would allow for more ship-free windows, but that is now less likely.

They had also hoped for a chance to sail boats between the Lions Gate and Ironworkers bridges, which is prohibited for unpowered vessels. Webb thinks “there should definitely be a window” for these areas too, “even if it was an hour window every day.”

Mike Bretner of the Hollyburn Sailing Club in West Vancouver said that growth of port traffic “is sustainable here for a couple more years.” Despite well-managed traffic, strict safety regulations and radio protocols, Bretner said, Vancouver’s port is already “running at capacity.”

Mike Bretner points out the Hollyburn Sailing Club on a map.

Despite considerable measures taken by authorities to ensure the safe transit of tankers, Bretner underscored the ongoing risk of oil spills.

Webb also worries what the harbour will look like when his young daughter starts sailing.

“Will our commercial activity have a very big impact on our lifestyles? It’s a careful balance to strike,” he said.

“As citizens, we need to ensure that we’re continually holding all these government organizations to account, and putting them under pressure, not making it easy for them to find an easy way to increase operations.”

Freighters anchored in the Burrard Inlet.