Every day, like a man in a crow's nest, Bob Boles looks out an observation window seven stories above the mouth of Los Angeles Harbor, squinting toward the horizon.
A retired Navy quartermaster, he has short-cropped hair and tattoos on his arms. His tie tack is shaped like a merchant vessel. Around him are ocean maps, shipping charts, binoculars, a radar and a bank of telephones.
Every few hours, someone's ship comes in. And when it does, Boles and his men are there to log it in a permanent record and pass the information along to maritime businesses and government agencies.
"We're 90 feet in the air here," Boles says proudly, watching a freighter move into the harbor channel. "It's pretty hard to miss anything."
Harbor's Eyes and Ears
The scene is the small, broad-windowed office of the Marine Exchange, a nonprofit organization that functions as the eyes and ears of two of the West Coast's leading trade centers--Los Angeles Harbor and the Port of Long Beach.
Run by Boles, the 58-year-old operations manager, and eight other employees, the exchange occupies the roof of an aged concrete warehouse building just a few yards from Los Angeles Harbor's main channel. Since 1923, its purpose has been to keep watch on every commercial vessel entering or leaving the two rival ports: these days, about 9,000 ships a year--tankers, barges, freighters and passenger liners--hailing from nearly 60 countries.
Exchange lookouts log and tabulate information on ship sizes, docking schedules, anchorage locations, ports of origin and ports of destination.
That information is passed along to dozens of paying members who support the exchange, including the two ports, several other government agencies and a wide range of private companies that rely on the shipping trade for business. The list runs from tugboat operators and ship-supply companies to U.S. Customs, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and harbor security.
Harbor officials use the data to stay on top of shipping trends, said Elmar Baxter, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. They can see, for example, that 587 vessels called at the two ports in December, 1985, down from 602 for the same month of the previous year. They also can see that foreign cargo vessels outnumbered American cargo vessels in December by 405 to 34, and that tankers outnumbered passenger liners 96 to 32.
"If we suddenly realize there are more refrigerated ships starting to call on the West Coast, we can plan more hookups for refrigerated cargo," Baxter said. "We've had a long and satisfactory association with the Marine Exchange. . . . It relieves us of a lot of bookkeeping."
Faded log books kept by the exchange chronicle more than half a century of commerce at the two harbors, interrupted only during World War II, when the exchange temporarily ceased to operate.
Looking through one of the massive log books--about nine inches thick--one can find that on July 2, 1923, the S.S. Venezuela arrived via San Francisco at 8:15 in the morning; or that, on Nov. 30 of the same year, the S.S. Florence Olson arrived at 12:23 p.m., hailing from Dollarton, British Columbia.
"There's not many--if any--marine exchanges that can go back that far with their records," Boles said.
Once or twice a year, Boles said, there is a demand for that kind of information. He remembered a recent letter from a woman in Canada. "She wanted to know the name of a passenger ship that came here six months before I was born, for some kind of immigration problem," he said. "All she had was the date."
Boles said he simply pulled out the log book--from 59 years ago.
"We found it for her."
In more typical cases, the exchange is a clearinghouse for up-to-date information. Federal agencies like Customs and Immigration need to know exactly when ships will be docking so that inspectors can meet them on arrival, Boles said. The Pacific Maritime Assn. uses the daily logs to allocate longshoremen to arriving vessels on a first-come, first-served basis. "They call us at 7 o'clock in the morning and get a rundown of all the ships that have come in" during the night, Boles said. As the ships come in around
the clock, he said, "we log them in. We average 20 ships a day from all over the world."
Firms that supply ships with food, clothing or other commodities often rely on the exchange to know how many vessels are scheduled to come into port.
"We may have, on any given day, only one vessel we're serving . . . and the following day it might be 10 or 15," said Bruce Harmon, a radio dispatcher for San Pedro Marine Inc., which delivers engine oil to ships. "We use the Marine Exchange to program the next day's workload . . . to keep us advised of the estimated arrival times and where those ships will be anchored."