In confines of Houston Ship Channel, pilots exhibit their shiphandling agility

Pilots Capt. Holly Cooper and Capt. Craig Newkirk confer while guiding the tanker Lotus 1 from Houston to the Gulf of Mexico. (Brian Gauvin)

The Houston Ship Channel is a remarkable waterway posing an amazing array of challenges to those guiding ships along its length.

In early May 2009, Capt. Craig Newkirk, a member of the Houston Pilots, was on the bridge of the 817-foot tanker Lotus 1 as two tugs nudged the ship off the dock and headed it down the channel for the 43-nautical-mile voyage from Houston to the Gulf of Mexico.

As Newkirk radioed commands from the bridge wing to the tugs Matthew K and Shannon, Capt. Thomas C. Pace, the Houston Pilots’ presiding officer, described to me some of the complexities of the Ship Channel. Pace had come along as my guide, so that my questions would be answered without distracting the pilots directing the ship.

The shores of the Ship Channel in the vicinity of Houston are home to one of the biggest petrochemical complexes in the world. Lotus 1 had been docked at Shell’s Deer Park oil terminal. Just across the channel, five other crude carriers were docked at the Oil Tanking Terminal, a storage facility linked to a pipeline carrying crude to the many refineries in the area (three major ones and numerous smaller ones). In addition to the oil terminals, this section of the Ship Channel is lined with fertilizer plants, break-bulk handling facilities, grain terminals and barge fleeting facilities. Further south, where the Ship Channel enters Galveston Bay, are the terminals that handle more cargo containers than any other port on the Gulf Coast.

In total, there are 266 docks along the length of the Ship Channel, handling everything from Suezmax crude carriers to pushboats and tows.

That makes for a prodigious amount of vessel traffic. Approximately 50 ships a day use the channel, along with about 300 pushboats.

The main channel is 535 feet wide and has a design depth of 45 feet. On either side is a 200-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep barge lane with a 35-foot transition zone that effectively makes the barge lanes 235 wide.

“It is so busy, tows will go around you a lot,” Pace said.

While the vessel traffic will keep a mariner focused on the task, there are also a great many historical sights. As Lotus 1 headed down the channel, which follows a generally easterly direction near Houston, the battleship USS Texas came into view on the south shore. Commissioned in 1914, the ship fought in both world wars and now serves as a historic monument. It also serves as a navigational aid used by the pilots to confirm their position in the channel.

The pilots line up on the battleship as they enter the turn that will take them past the ship, Pace said.

Newkirk and the ship’s master, Capt. Alexander Kusharov, oversee the undocking.

Another prominent military landmark rises up a short distance from the battleship, the San Jacinto Monument. This 567-foot structure, listed by the Guinness World Records as the tallest monument column in the world, marks the site of the battle of San Jacinto. Here in 1836 Texans led by Sam Houston defeated a Mexican army and won their independence.

While the battlefield tower is not in a strict sense an aid to navigation, it does remind mariners that they are approaching one of the most difficult sections, where the San Jacinto River joins the Ship Channel.

“Our main concern here is heavy rain and runoff,” Pace said.

Following heavy rains, the river can create dangerously fast currents.

“They’ve been clocked at 8 knots,” Pace said. But before the currents reach that speed, “we will suspend operations.”

The safe limit is 4 knots. Pace recalled one instance in which the area received 11 inches of rain in six hours. The Ship Channel remained closed for 18 hours after that.

There is also a ferry crossing here. Rather than complicating navigation, the presence of the ferries helps the pilots. They watch the wake of docked ferries to assess the strength of the current. On this particular day, Pace pointed to a ferry and observed, “You can see his propeller wash is straight out,” meaning little current.

Still, pilots must exert caution to maintain control as they navigate here. The current adds to a vessel’s speed over ground, so the pilots slow down, while standing ready to increase propeller revolutions to maintain steering control. “You have to leave yourself enough kick. You come through slow ahead, give the propeller a kick, and give some flow over the rudder,” he explained.

Seamercury, a 45,400-dwt tanker, prepares to leave a Houston oil terminal. On average, 50 ships a day transit the Ship Channel.

For most of the route tidal flows are not an issue. But traffic flows are, particularly towboats and barges. Learning how to navigate safely around the tows is an important part of the training apprentice pilots (called deputies by the Houston Pilots) receive.

The apprentice pilots all take a ship-tow interaction course at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s training center in Paducah, Ky. That training includes the hydraulics of setting up a tow for a turn or meeting. Pilots learn to be able to think like a towboat captain to better understand how to coexist with towboats safely.

“One of our ex-pilots teaches that,” Pace said.

The challenges posed by towboat traffic became evident as Lotus I approached the Fred Hartman Bridge, which spans the Ship Channel just south of the junction with the San Jacinto River. A southbound vessel must steer to port as the channel curves under the bridge. As Newkirk piloted the ship through the turn, he spotted a northbound towboat under the bridge making a wide turn and veering toward the center of the channel.

After the vessels had safely passed by each other, Newkirk explained that he had been forced to take the ship closer to the edge of the channel than he would have liked.

“I was further over than I wanted to be, about 50 feet,” Newkirk said.

Pace estimated that the towboat and its two barges — two empties breasted up — were about 80 feet wide. He surmised that the empty barges riding high were difficult to control in the wind.

“His problem was they were completely empty. He didn’t do a very good job,” Pace said of the towboat.

The underlying problem, Pace believes, is the industrywide shortage of trained towing crews. “There are a lot of new guys running around. You’ve got to keep an eye on them to see how they are doing,” he said.

The towboat under the bridge would not be the only vessel to cause concern for Newkirk on this day. Before long a commercial launch streaked past to port and then ducked under the tanker’s bow.

“There’s a little guy. I can’t see him,” Newkirk complained.

Lotus 1 aproaches the Fred Hartman Bridge, just south of the San Jacinto River.

Within a few moments the boat reappeared ahead of the ship to starboard and continued blithely on.

“That little knucklehead went right by us,” Pace said.

The Houston Pilots currently number 91: 78 pilots and 13 deputies. In recent years, the pilots have been taking on four to six deputies, although 2009, with no new deputies, was an exception. The training program takes three years to complete and requires 1,000 transits.

The pilots work on a schedule of 14 days on followed by 14 days off. In a 24-hour period they generally work for 12 hours and rest for 12. As a group, the pilots average about 50 jobs a day. An individual pilot typically does 16 to 18 jobs over the 14 days he or she is on duty.

Morgan’s Point marked a number of transitions on this voyage. It is the point where the narrow and winding upper portion of the Ship Channel enters the broad waters of Galveston Bay, which stretches for four miles to either side. This is also the point at which the relief pilot takes over. Newkirk had extra reason to be happy to turn the conn over to Capt. Holly Cooper. Since he was on the last day of his 14-day stint, this was his last job before going home.

As Cooper took over, she called for full ahead and the ship was soon slicing across the white-capped bay at 11 knots. Before long she got to exhibit her skill by executing the maneuver known as Texas Chicken.

The pilot steers right at an oncoming ship and then turns to starboard at the last moment, using hydraulic forces between the ships and channel bank to take the ships safely around and past each other.

Cooper explained that when Lotus I was about .6 miles from the ship bearing down on her, she would order a course change of about 3° or 4° to starboard.

“The ship pushes away and the bank pushes away,” she said. The moving water and the pressure keep the vessels apart and parallel. “You really don’t need rudder to get back in the center of the channel. The vessels will seek deep water. It’s kind of like dancing.”

To the uninitiated, the maneuver is a tad hair-raising. But to the Houston Pilots, it is routine. “It’s always worked here,” Cooper said.

Cooper, a 1982 graduate of Texas Maritime Academy, entered the two-year pilot training program in 1994, along with another female trainee, Sherri Hickman. Voted in as full members at the same time, they became the first female pilots in Houston. Cooper was designated pilot No. 151. That means she became the 151st member of an organization that today has had a total of 200 members in its history.

Initially she encountered a great deal of surprise when mariners would hear her voice over the radio and realize that she was a woman. After a while, she began to tire of that response. “I just told them, they’re all women in Houston.”

She has long since proved herself, but still she is proud of one accomplishment no male pilot can match: she continued to work for over seven months while pregnant. “I did it pregnant. It can’t be that difficult,” she said wryly.

Guiding ships through the Houston Ship Channel is not the only kind of piloting she does. She and her husband own three airplanes. The flying, she said, is “strictly for pleasure. I don’t get enough stress from the job.”

That perhaps sums up the essence of what it takes to be a Houston Pilot: making Texas Chicken look easy. •

By Professional Mariner Staff