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Marine Exchange Keeps Tabs on L. A. Harbor : The Vessels Come and Go Under Watchful Eyes

Times Staff Writer

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, 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.”

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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 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.

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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 ranges from tugboat operators and ship-supply companies to the U.S. Customs Service, 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, down from 602 the same month in 1984. 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.

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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.

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“We found it for her.”

Information Clearinghouse

In more typical cases, the exchange is a clearinghouse for up-to-date information. Federal agencies, such as 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 run down 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.

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“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.”

Rates paid by customers vary, Boles said. But for supplying a standard daily schedule of arrivals, the exchange charges $38.50 a month. Baxter, of the Port of Long Beach, said the exchange’s record-keeping services probably cost less than if either of the two ports did it themselves.

Unlike similar services at other major ports, the Los Angeles-Long Beach exchange relies heavily on telephones and old-fashioned eyesight--rather than ships’ radio bands--to keep track of shipping traffic, Boles said.

Shipping agents, who follow the progress of their vessels by radio, are contacted daily by telephone clerks who work for the exchange. The agents provide the exchange with estimated arrival times at least a day in advance, and exchange employees compile and distribute the information.

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Spotted 12 Miles Out

Later, as those vessels near port, lookouts at the exchange begin watching for them, often using high-powered binoculars to look for vessel names or smoke-stack markings.

In some cases, lookout Charley Pettis said, ships can be identified by their profiles even when they are 12 miles out--just about at the horizon.

“We’ll read the name right off the bow of the ship and then call the appropriate agency to say it’s about half an hour out,” Pettis said.

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The telephone reports allow time for tugboat operators, harbor pilots and others to meet the ships as they enter one of the harbors, Pettis said. Often, those same clients check in with the exchange’s lookout station to find out if ships are in sight.

Since retiring from the Navy in December, Pettis has found the work similar to the countless watches he stood during 21 years in the service, he said.

Except for the telephones.

“It gets a little hectic sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the phones all go off at the same time. I just take them off the hook and answer them one at a time.”

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Direct Lines to Clients

At the lookout’s desk, a makeshift communications center, a dozen phones hang together on pieces of plywood. Direct phone lines connect the exchange to its most important clients, including the harbor departments, major tugboat operators and port security offices.

“Anything out of the order, or that doesn’t look right, we report to the harbor departments,” Boles said.

‘We’re 90 feet in the air here. It’s pretty hard to miss anything.’

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--Bob Boles,

Operations manager of the Marine Exchange


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