Piloting challenges for neo-Panamax ships on the Houston Ship Canal



Captain Jonathan Samuell, eNavigation Committee Chairman, Houston Pilots Captain JJ Plunkett, Port Agent for the Houston Pilots


Many experts believe that the opening of the improved Panama Canal in December 2015 will bring ever larger container vessels to Gulf Coast ports in general, and Houston, US, in particular. The potential economic bounty that these ships could bring has prompted terminals and port authorities to plan, identify funding and invest in an infrastructure to accommodate this next generation of container ships. Likewise, the Houston Ship Pilots, as leaders in navigation safety and innovation, began planning nearly four years ago to overcome the challenges to navigational safety that the next generation of container ships will present.

Overview of Houston Ship Channel

The Port of Houston is no ordinary port. It is consistently ranked first in the US in foreign water-borne tonnage, first in US imports, first in US export tonnage, and second in the US in total tonnage; it also has the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world. While there are over 20,000 ship movements along the 83km of the Houston ship channel (HSC) every year, there are over 125,000 inland tow movements as well. The larger beam vessels generally utilise the first 43 nautical miles of the HSC. This section has a channel width of 161.5m, making the HSC a unique shipping environment that combines a narrow channel with a substantial shipping and high inland towtraffic density.

How Houston pilots handle large vessels

Presently Panamax, Aframax, and the larger Suezmax (50m-beam ship) call on the Port of Houston. Any vessel over 36.6m beam is considered a widebody vessel on the HSC and vessel length is restricted to 304.8m in length overall. To safely handle these vessels in a 24/7, two-way traffic environment, various navigational and safety guidelines are in place. These include daylight restrictions in some instances and maximum combined beam and draft limitations for ships meeting on the HSC. The Houston Pilots act as defacto harbour master or port scheduler; its 24/7 dispatch officer adjusts sailings and arrivals to prevent these widebody ships from meeting in critical areas of the 161.5m-wide main channel. As state licensed pilots, the Houston Pilots accomplish their mission of safely navigating these wide-body ships to and from their desired berths by striving to be the best trained and equipped mariners in the world.

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