Bookshelf: The Docks

The Docks – Bill Sharpsteen

The Docks
The Docks

Given my obsession with container ships, when I found this book, I felt that I’d won some sort of lotto of readers. There were sections that were so gripping I couldn’t put it down, and others that had me putting the book aside for days on end, reading cookbooks instead.

Bill Sharpsteen is a freelance journalist and photographer, and former documentary producer. He spent time with a broad cross-section of the various players who make up the labour force and neighbouring community of the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the United States.

A significant theme that crops up repeatedly is the question of maintaining the levels of activity and business that are commercially required while balancing this frenetic activity with efforts to have as little environmental impact as possible. Diesel trucks are a cause of serious pollution with massively deleterious effects to human health, and the visual impact of the cranes at the port is the source of much unhappiness for homeowners in neighbourhoods overlooking the harbour. Electric trucks have been phased in, and large power points are being installed on the docks so that ships don’t have to run their engines (spewing diesel particulate matter into the air) while at their moorings.

Sharpsteen spent quite a bit of time with Geraldine Knatz, the executive director of the port, who retired at the end of 2013. Her job has been undoubtedly challenging, but I found it quite hard to assess whether the port authorities were mostly paying lip service to environmental improvements, or whether it is a sincere commitment to minimising the impact of the port on the surrounding neighbourhoods and the coastline it inhabits. Sharpsteen also spoke to residents of the neighbourhoods around the port, some of who have devoted years of their lives to agitating for improved treatment of the environment, and railing against the height of new cranes when they were installed. The intensity of some of these individuals was concerning.

As in The Box, the labour unions formed by the longshoremen play – of necessity – a fairly central role in this book. Technology -containerisation, automation and computers – has transformed the way in which goods are loaded, transported, and unloaded, and the hundreds-year old profession of longshoreman has undergone significant changes in the last few decades. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been at the centre of a great deal of turmoil that has accompanied these changes. Women have also gained access to many jobs that they were not previously allowed to do – this has required legal action and a great deal of struggle.

Call me cold hearted, but I was not specially gripped by the human aspects of this story. I am more interested in how the great machine functions – such as the technical details of how a ship with a draft only 30 centimetres less than the depth of the channel it’s travelling through manages to make it into the harbour without running into difficulty. I wish that Sharpsteen had spent more time with the pilots (this was one of my favourite parts of the book), the Coastguard patrollers, and some of the captains of the ships that frequent the port. I’d also have liked a better understanding of how it’s decided which container goes where, and when.

There’s a Wall Street Journal review of this book by Marc Levinson, author of The Box, here.

You can get the book here if you are in South Africa and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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