Pilots depend on rapidly updated soundings of shifting Fraser River

Bottom profiles, tidal delay and channel dredging occupy the mind of a Fraser River pilot along with the usual concerns for other traffic, wind and equipment failure. The portion of British Columbia’s Fraser River that is navigable by deep-sea vessels is a relatively short 19 miles. It extends from the buoy just off the Sandheads light at the mouth of the river up to New Westminster just below a series of two elevated bridges and one railway swing bridge through which tugs with large tows pass regularly but deep-sea ships do not.
At New Westminster, on Annacis Island near the north shore, there is a large terminal for offloading car carriers. On the south shore containerships, general cargo and log ships make regular calls at the Fraser Surrey Dock. Another ro-ro ship dock is located some miles downriver.
The Fraser River port had 1,296 ship moves in 2006, down from a high of nearly 1,600 in 2003, with nearly all of them in or out of the river, since there are few dock-to-dock moves and no regular anchorages within the river. The nine licensed Fraser River pilots handled these moves. Pilots must serve four years to gain unrestricted status, allowing them to handle all size and type of ships. At any given time there are members at all levels of authorization.
On Jan. 9, a little before the 2300 departure, a Fraser River pilot, Capt. David Marjoribanks, came onto the bridge of Star Atlantic. The ship’s Philippine captain, Nathaniel Fernando, greeted him. Already on the bridge of the 551-foot forest-products carrier were a BC coast pilot, Capt. Steve Stangroom, and an apprentice-trainee, Capt. Victor Gervais. The four captains made for a full, but not crowded bridge.
Star Atlantic was being moved from its Fraser Surrey Dock downriver 19 miles and then an additional 20 miles or so to a pulp and paper mill at Port Mellon in Howe Sound, where the ship would take on additional cargo. The coast pilots would take the conn once the ship was clear of the river. They had boarded the ship here at the dock to simplify the logistics.
Following the routine pilot and captain conference review of the working order of all the ship’s navigation and steering systems, Marjoribanks scanned the pilot information sheet that told him the 20,125-gross-ton vessel’s particulars, that full ahead to full astern took 2 minutes, 46 seconds, and that it was capable of 12 consecutive stops and starts. Ten minutes before the 2300 scheduled departure, Marjoribanks informed Victoria Vessel Traffic Management that the ship would be departing the dock for Port Mellon. He then went out onto the port bridge wing with Fernando to supervise the deck crew releasing the mooring lines. He had SMIT Marine Canada’s 3,000-hp assist tug Westminster Pride put a line up astern for safety, as the ship was already facing bow downriver in the direction of travel. He was able to use the ship’s bow thruster to move the bow off the dock and the rudder to move the stern out. Just 280 feet off the dock face, a row of piles serves as a breakwater and requires some caution in threading the ship with its 87-foot beam out into the main river channel, where he let go the tug with a “thank-you” to Capt. Brian Pollock, who has 21 years on the river.
For the river tugs that spend much of their time towing log booms and moving wood chip or gravel barges, the river has much more navigable water. Deep-sea shipping uses only the southern portion of the main arm of the river, while the North Arm is the primary route for moving logs. Other smaller branches of the river are used for log and barge storage. Above New Westminster there are many miles available to a range of tugs and barges. But the main focus of the Fraser River pilots is the channel from New Westminster down to the Gulf of Georgia.

Marjoribanks reaches the pilot boat after climbing down the side of Star Atlantic. [photo by Alan Haig-Brown]


This 19-mile-long channel also gets the detailed attention of a small boat of about 45 feet, Public Works of Canada’s MV Profiler. This vessel, with sonar booms extending out from each side, travels up and down the ship channel of the Fraser recording bottom profile data with the aide of five continuously operating GPS stations that have been set up in the greater Vancouver area. This is a joint effort of several levels of government and the private sector to ensure that the hydrographic survey data is timely and accurate. With the support of the GPS reference stations, the river bottom profiles can be accurate within a few inches horizontally.
For example, during spring freshet, the river becomes shallower due to the rapid build-up of sediment. As a result, the river can become a potential hazard to navigation. With the new GPS system, the hydrographic crew can survey a one-mile stretch of channel one day and provide the information electronically to the Canadian Coast Guard the next.
“In fact,” explains Marjoribanks, “The Fraser River pilots get electronic data in the form of S-57 chart overlays the same day within four to six hours of the survey being completed. It is these chart overlays which we put onto our laptops as a ‘most current soundings’ channel overlay.”
Marjoribanks is a convinced fan of the system. Onboard Star Atlantic he opened his Panasonic Tough-book laptop. The little machine’s 12-inch screen displayed the river chart with a 656-foot-wide ship channel. Colors indicated the most recent depth profiles from the work of MV Profiler that he had downloaded before coming to the ship. Toggling to a new page, he had a spreadsheet that showed the state of the tide at various points on the river. As the ship departed the dock it was high water slack but, he explained, we would encounter the ebb about five miles on down, since there is an approximately one-hour delay between the tide in the Gulf of Georgia and the same tidal effect reaching New Westminster.
As he gave the helmsman a course change of “225, please” to line up for the Alex Fraser suspension bridge, he explained how the Fraser River Port maintained a

Capt. Nathaniel Fernando, master of Star Atlantic, examines charts of the river on the ship’s bridge. [Alan Haig-Brown]


channel depth that would allow smaller ships to come up or down the river without any tidal assist, while larger ones like the new 988-foot, 8,500-TEU containerships have a limited window around the higher tide. But this is made more complex by the tidal delay that could allow some ships to leave New Westminster on the high water slack, but given the one-hour delay and the two-hour travel time down river, this would get them to the Sandheads nearly on the low water. To accommodate this the port has the channel dredged deeper in the upper portions to balance with the tidal advantage that can be taken downriver.

On this night in January, there was little other ship traffic on the river. A car carrier had departed from Fraser Wharves downriver, and a containership would follow from New Westminster an hour later. A few hours earlier, wind and snow flurries had blanketed the river. Now a high-pressure zone had pushed them out, leaving the air crystal clear and cold.
All of this calm, clear beauty contrasted with the previous night, when gale force winds had lashed the coast.
Pollock, captain of the tug Westminster Pride, had told of the challenges the night before of handing off a gravel barge to the Seattle-based tug Westrac at the mouth of the river. Stangroom, the B.C. coast pilot, had described boarding a ship that was dragging anchor in Vancouver Harbor and barely managing to avoid a departing containership that was having difficulty making a turn off the dock in the high winds.
The current calm and the lack of other ship traffic combined with the relatively shallow 23-foot draft of Star Atlantic to make this a comfortable voyage for the pilot. But he still maintained a relatively slow half-speed of 8.6 knots over the bottom to

MV Profiler, at the government dock on Annacis Island, is a 45-foot vessel that regularly gathers survey dad along a 19-mile section of the Fraser River. With the aid of five GPS stations in the Vancouver area, the boat is able to capture readings accurate to within a few inches horizontally. [Alan Haig-Brown]

guard against excessive wash, since the river had a number of barges moored alongside as well as wharves for pleasure and commercial fishing boats. The pleasant night also allowed him time to explain a bit more about the complexity of the river-bottom profile.

“In winter time the river flows at 600 to 1,000 cubic meters per second and has less variation in depth,” he explained, “but in the spring and summer when snow melt upriver causes freshets and flows up to 9,000 cubic meters per second, the depths can change by more than a meter in just a day or two, due to the rapid silt deposits. It is during those times that the timely, accurate, up-to-date sounding information is most critical, and why the electronic charting tools are so important.”
As we moved downriver opposite Finn Slough, where a narrow island protects a little community of houseboats and moorings, the dredge Fraser Titan was working the night shift deepening the channel. When large ships move through this part of the channel, the displacement of water in the slough can cause poorly tied boats to break their moorings. This slough, like others in the river estuary, is a vitally important habitat for migrating salmon and wild fowl. A major focus for the river pilots is to safeguard these marshlands.
Still farther down, the river broadens and slows as it meets the stronger tidal surge from the Gulf of Georgia. This causes a rapid release of silt in an area known as the Steveston Cut. Dredging aims to keep this stretch of the ship channel at 31 feet, 9 inches of depth on a zero tide. At the same tide level, a 31-foot, 2-inch dredged depth is maintained at the Sandheads where the river channel begins. With almost daily tides of 10 to 13 feet, this provides a window each day that allows for up to 38-foot draft ships to enter the river on the tide while maintaining a 4-foot safety factor. Farther up, where the tidal assist is lessened, the dredged depths are maintained to accommodate the 38-foot draft ships with a minimum of a 3-foot safety factor and a diminishing tidal assist.
When he came onto the bridge of Star Atlantic, Marjoribanks had plugged his laptop into the ship’s pilot plug for its AIS. Now as he neared the Sandheads at the river mouth, he zoomed the screen on his laptop out so that the traffic outside the river showed on his screen. Coast pilot Stangroom and Gervais, the apprentice pilot, surveyed the traffic in the Gulf of Georgia revealed by the AIS, while Marjoribanks contacted his pilot launch based at the fishing port of Steveston near the mouth of the river.


The forest products carrier Star Istind making its way upriver under the conn of a Fraser River pilot passes under the Alex Fraser bridge. Nine licensed Fraser River pilots handle the traffic on a route notable for its changing bottom profile. [photo by Alan Haig-Brown]


From Steveston, located on the southwest corner of the delta Lulu Island, a jetty extends in a long curve 4.5 miles out to the Sandheads light. The jetty, built to aid larger ships brought to the northwest coast as a result of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, acts as a training wall to maintain river current to help scour the channel bottom.

The official boundary between the Fraser River pilotage area and the B.C. coast pilotage is a mile off the Sandheads light. As the pilot boat from Steveston approached the ship’s port side, Marjoribanks noted with satisfaction that on this calm night there was no need to change course to form a lee for the pilot boat. He also recalled once having spent several minutes hanging on the ladder waiting for an opportune moment to step onto the pilot boat that was rising and falling on the big swells alongside.

Handing off the conn to the coast pilots, he made his way down to the moonlit ship’s icy deck and on down the pilot ladder to the deck of his launch. It was 0045 on Jan. 10, one hour and 45 minutes after the ship’s departure from the Fraser Surrey Dock. One more river trip was completed. •

By Professional Mariner Staff