Houston Pilots Update-Commerce Club

Port Bureau News,

Piloting ships in and out of the Houston Ship Channel is a complex job that has been superbly handled by the Houston Pilots for over 100 years. Captain Clint Winegar, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots, presented a “Houston Pilots Update” to a packed house at the July Commerce Club luncheon.

The Houston Pilots Association is comprised of 90 to 95 men and women, with a “50/50 mix” of individuals with bluewater and brownwater experience. They are Coast Guard licensed master mariners, with a state commission issued by the governor of Texas to guide deep draft ships into Harris County ports. They represent a combined experience of 1,275+ years and 315,000 Houston Ship Channel transits. The Houston Pilots are governed by the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Ports of Harris County.

Winegar describes them as an experienced team with diverse backgrounds to handle Houston’s diverse commodities. “If you name a commodity, Houston has it - from gas carriers, containers, tankers, chemical tankers, and bulk carriers. We also have battleships!”

The dispatch team operates 24/7 – through holidays and hurricanes – taking approximately 500 calls per day. The team works 12-hour shifts, with three operators on duty during the day shift and two during the night. Winegar highlighted the volume of vessel traffic the Pilots move, showing a ship tracking image for a typical day that reflected a dense number of ship movements.

“This is a picture showing the traffic from the Fred Hartman Bridge to the Sam Houston Toll Bridge, and you can see the amount of traffic in this Lynchburg area,” he explained. “It's second busiest waterway in the country.” He noted that the Ship Channel currently is 530 feet wide, and that Project 11 (the deepening and widening of several important segments of the Ship Channel) will extend it out to 700 feet. “That gives us more room, especially with the containerships coming, so we maintain two-way traffic.”

Winegar detailed preparations made for the new class of larger vessels that will be calling on the port. “We started it in a bridge simulator. It's kind of like a flight simulator. We have it at San Jac College and do test runs for different ships and different situations,” he said.

The Houston Pilots also had a type of containership model built and placed in a small body of water. The model is 1/25th scale of a 13,800 TEU Neopanamax containership and represents containership dimensions of 1200 feet (equivalent to four 4 football fields) in length and 150 feet wide. It allows the Pilots to see the interactions between a vessel movement and the Ship Channel.

Different ports were visited by the Pilots to have the opportunity to board the new ships and familiarize themselves with the actual vessels. They have also invested in technology as part of the preparations. “We have the assets here ready to go when these ships come next year. Right now we're moving Post- Panamax vessels of about 8,000 TEUs. When they come next year, they're going to be in the 14,000 TEU range.”

 Among the biggest challenges the Houston Pilots encounter to keep vessels traffic moving is hazardous weather and fog. Fog season occurs December to March and is generally the chief cause for halting vessel traffic. When the difficulties of fog seasons have lifted, it is then time for the Pilots to focus on hurricane preparedness. Since pre-storm evacuations take priority on highways, the Pilots utilize a helicopter service to shuttle Pilots back and forth to reach the Pilot station or a ship. As part of hurricane preparedness training, every Pilots must go through the helicopter hoist maneuvers each year.

Reducing vessel emissions during a transit is another important priority for the Houston Pilots. “We have a duty to protect the waterway,” said Winegar. He explained that some emissions could be controlled through “dialing back the RPMS” of the engines. “It’s not a speed thing; it’s a steering thing,” he noted.

Winegar mentioned other emission-reduction measures ship-owners are considering, including greener, more efficient rudder systems and rotor sails. He also showed how digitization can create greater efficiencies in emissions by optimizing port operations.

Stressing the importance of Pilot safety in his presentation, Winegar particularly discussed safe vessel boarding. The Houston pilots have the most modern and stable pilot boat fleet in the nation and is one of three Associations that maintain a full-time station boat as part of their operations. There are currently two station boats (or bar boats) operating to enable Pilots to board ships in a safe, time-efficient manner. For a Pilot boarding a vessel, utilizing the ladder is a highly hazardous move. The Pilots urge and require proper rigging and maintenance of ladders (and gangways) to help ensure Pilot boarding safety. 

Staying involved with coastal protection plans is also a priority for the Houston Pilots. The early proposed designs for a gate system in Galveston (also known as the “Ike Dike”) did not support the need to maintain two-way traffic on the Ship Channel. The Pilots, along with the Port Bureau, initiated a study to better model vessel traffic needs for an improved or alternative design for a gate system. Another project of interest to the Pilots is the proposed construction of tunnels to mitigate flooding by the Harris County Flood Control District. “We want to help ensure we mitigate any risks from water emptying from the tunnels into the Ship Channel,” he said.

The Houston Pilots have also increased involvement and support of maritime education. They have provided scholarships through their own nonprofit, Anchor Watch, and participate with local schools. “We're talking to with the next generation trying to get excited about maritime,” said Winegar. “We have the Maritime & Logistics Youth Expo. Over 600 students participated last year.” 

Thank you to our Commerce Club sponsors:

 Annual Table sponsors:

Callan Marine • Cedar Port Industrial Park • Enterprise Products Partners  Kinder Morgan  Houston Pilots  Intercontinental Terminals Company  Moran Shipping Agencies, Inc.   Shell • Targa Resources  TGS Ceder Port Industrial Park Vopak • West Gulf Maritime Association

July Table sponsors:

Excargo Services, Inc.Energy TransferHouston Mooring CompanyPEMEXPort Houston