Sea Change

Posted By: Tom Marian Port Bureau News, Newest Edition, Port Watch,

The Battle of Lepanto, National Maritime Museum

The string of Turkish victories on both land and sea over the past century had struck fear across Christian Europe. Knowing that the Sultan’s ultimate quest was to invade the Vatican, Pius V implored Spain and Venice to set aside their differences and form a Holy League to prevent the Ottoman Empire from controlling the entire Mediterranean. Thus, the largest fleet ever assembled by the west set sail in September 1571 to break the Ottoman’s siege at Cyprus – a strategic linchpin to maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On October 6, 1571, Admiral Don John of Austria decreed his men to take up their rosaries and pray for victory against the larger and dreaded Ottoman fleet sailing from the Gulf of Lepanto. Meanwhile, Admiral Ali Pasha aboard his flagship Sultana had received word from his spies across the Aegean and Ionian Seas that the infidels under the Holy League banner were sailing in his direction. Confident that his force of 67,000 sailors and janissaries on nearly 300 rowing galleys would forever rid the Mediterranean of its unworthy foe, the Ottoman fleet with the wind at its back, furiously rowed towards its quarry on the morning of October 7th.  Thus, the stage was set for the largest maritime battle in pre-modern history.

After Mass was held throughout the Holy Alliance’s armada, Admiral Don John’s flag ship -Real - took command of the center as the Venetians covered his left flank and the Genoese his right. Initially, the Holy League’s formation was threatened with an envelopment by the Ottoman’s crescent moon formation. That is, until the wind suddenly reversed so that the Holy League was favored with a strong stern breeze. At noon, the respective flag ships rammed one another as both admirals sough to personally vanquish their despised adversary. The intensity of the fighting was unparalleled and ferocious with one continuous line of galleys locked in a death struggle. Finally, Admiral Ali Pasha’s head was raised on a pike aboard his defeated flag ship. Panic spread throughout the Ottoman fleet as its Christian galley slaves were freed and ruthlessly slaughtered their former captors. By sunset, the sea belonged to the Christians who had lost only 7500 men and 15 galleys compared to the Ottoman’s loss of 230 ships and 25,000 combatants.

2024 dawned with positive changes in nearly every Texas port. The final month of the year saw 2% more vessel arrivals on both a month-over-month and year-over-year basis. Unfortunately, the opposite was true for the brownwater fleet given that December witnessed the fewest daily movements through the Houston Ship Channel; both the year and month were off by 1%.

Ironically, the smallest port, Brownsville, ended the year with the biggest percentage gain of 13%. Bulkers and ocean-going tows posted impressive double-digit gains for the year signaling that goods were freely moving across the border. On the opposite end of the state, Sabine’s final quarter of the year was second to none culminating in its highest vessel arrival count ever in December. Bulkers, integrated tug/barge vessels, and LPG vessels all registered highs for the year logging double-digit percentage increases. Chemical tankers, in particular, were up a torrid 32% for the year. Conversely, the port’s most frequent visitor – tankers – trailed 2022’s arrival count by 7%.

Volleying back to the west, the Port of Corpus Christi failed to match Sabine’s pace, ending the year a mere 1% below that of the prior year. The port’s energy plays - comprised of tankers, LNG and LPG - suffered year-over-year wanes; the sole exception being chemical tankers. These darlings of the petrochemical trade eclipsed 2022’s numbers by 18% - the only major vessel category to chalk up a gain in Corpus Christi.

Heading east, once again, Freeport joined Sabine with its best quarterly performance for the year yielding a 1% year-over-year rise. The port’s most robust vessel category – chemical tankers – lagged 2022’s count by 9%; however, its next two largest categories – LPG and LNG – outshined 2022’s arrivals by 7% and a jaw-dropping 82%. Container vessels also enjoyed a healthy year with a 30% jump. Ultimately, the port’s final monthly increase of 9% ensured it would remain in positive territory for the year to the tune of 3%. Likewise, the nearby Port of Galveston remained ahead of 2022’s total arrivals by 5%; thanks to its burgeoning cruise ship business which surpassed last year’s tally by 12%. Tankers also added to the port’s largesse with a greater volume of traffic calling upon Texas International Terminal.

Several leagues to the north, Texas City’s tanker arrivals could not match that of last year dipping by 9%. All major vessel types were left in the wake of 2022’s figures save that of chemical tankers which rebounded by 7% over the last year. The continued decline of the tanker count – the most recent being 9% – reflects an ever-greater reliance on pipelines into the port’s refineries.

Houston’s chemical tanker arrivals are the envy of the country at just shy 2000 for the year. More impressive is the fact that this ship type is slowly gaining on the tanker count after the former’s 9% climb and latter’s 5% descent. Nevertheless, with most categories ending the year in the red, Houston closed 2023’s books with a mere 1% fewer arrivals. Container, car carriers and LPG ships managed to hold their own by crossing the annual finish line 10%, 14% and 10% ahead of 2022’s close. Bulkers and general cargo fell off dramatically for the year reflecting project caution attributable to higher interest rates and a recession that failed to materialize. It appears that a port that dominates a city, located in a county with one of the largest increases in population, produces an environment that relishes consumption rather than rejecting it.

The Holy League’s victory at Lepanto was a psychological watershed for western Europe. Whether attributable to divine intervention or technological prowess, the kingdoms of the west had the ability to defeat the Ottomans and arrest their hegemonic desires. Within decades, the likes of Spain, England, Portugal, and the Netherlands would usher in and dominate the age of sail until, eventually, Brittania ruled the seas. Yet, as the sail was eclipsed by steel and coal by oil, the powers that ruled the seas would fall prey to the sound of war drums on a regular basis. Today, once again, ideological and religious differences have created another tinderbox not far removed from the waters where Admiral Ali Pasha’s once-feared galleys roamed.

About the Author

Tom Marian is the General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Port Bureau Board of Directors.