January 25, 2023

FROM THE DAY THE BIG RED BARGE washed up on Sunset Beach in the midst of raging storms last winter, it captured a special place in the collective minds of Metro Vancouver residents.

The barge was a tourist attraction. It was called a living monument to climate change. At Christmas, someone made a Gingerbread Barge. It was mentioned as a possible contender for premier. The Vancouver Park Board even made the barge its very own custom sign reading ‘Barge Chilling Beach.’

The region’s pandemic-weary population had found a social media beacon. The barge had lost its way in the storm. It had ceded control to the elements. There it was, a usually useful and productive vessel, now stuck, immovable, inert. The barge couldn’t go anywhere even if it wanted to. The barge was us and we were the barge.

But all endlessly entertaining memes aside, the barge presented a significant problem. After weeks of study, engineers determined the 275’ long x 60’ wide x 18’ deep, 1,800-ton ship could not be re-floated. That meant a logistically difficult marine deconstruction and removal process. But who would have the experience and expertise to pull off such a complicated and cumbersome process?

Enter the BC Building Trades, namely, Pile Drivers Local 2404 and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115. Union crews began their work in late June with an expected completion date in early November.

A 180’ long x 60’ wide x 12.5’ derrick equipped with a Manitowoc 4600 series 4 crane was brought in for removal, but because the waters around the beached vessel are so shallow, much of the work was dependent on tide levels. High tide was required for the derrick to be able to operate and remove pieces of the barge.

“This is probably once in a lifetime,” said Neil Kirk, a bridgeman and general foreman with Pile Drivers 2404. “Demolition isn’t out of the ordinary for us, but definitely having a giant barge wash up on the shore and especially in such a spot where it’s very high profile in the public eye is definitely a one-off.”

Taking the barge apart meant ripping up the vessel’s concrete deck with an excavator and then lots of steel cutting. That’s where Stewart Peters and his colleagues came in.

“We’re just cutting it up with torches,” said the bridgeman and Red Seal welder with 2404. “The day goes by quick because you’re constantly busy cutting steel, lots of rigging and lots of boat work with moving the derrick.”

Using the derrick, operating engineers lifted all dismantled materials onto other barges to be taken away for recycling.

While the building trades workers are highly experienced in their field, removing one of the most meme-worthy entities in the region, piece by piece, was unique.

“We’ve always been referred to as ‘the hall that does it all’,” said Kirk. “Because we literally do, especially when it comes to the marine end of things. Heavy construction and demolition, it’s our bread and butter. It’s in our wheelhouse so definitely we’re the right guys to have onsite doing it. All the pile drivers I know are proud to say they’re 2404 and I certainly am as well.”

The job is now complete and with the famous barge fading into history, building trades unions will always have the pride of knowing they were the ones to take the call when an unyielding storm blew a massive vessel, and viral meme, ashore in Vancouver.

By Jeremy Allingham