Harbor Pilots across the United States face similar challenges; Ports are growing, customers demand more, traffic is increasing exponentially and ships arriving continue to get larger and larger. Despite this exponential growth and demand for larger vessels, the basic dimensions of our ship channels continue to remain the same. The expectations to move these larger vessels are placed directly on the pilots “shoulders”. The safety margin for pilots continue to shrink as the demand for larger vessels on more congested waterways continue to grow.
To increase the safety margins for these behemoths, the pilots can restrict the movements to daylight, one way traffic, place weather limitations, add additional pilots or have a tug escort. In some cases, as with the Fan Zhou 6, pilots can use all these mitigation’s to ensure a safe transit.
Our 26 mile channel is only 200’ wide and is the narrowest in the country. The Matagorda Ship Channel was constructed in the 1960’s for vessels of 30,000 deadweight. In 2016 we were bringing in vessels on a regular basis exceeding 80,000 DWT, nearly 3 times what it was designed for. We do it safely and efficiently because the port and it’s users understand the need for some of our restrictions keeping our safety margins suitable.
While the Fan Zhou 6 may not be a “large vessel” in some pilots eyes, her 120’ beam makes her the widest vessel ever brought into Point Comfort. Sitting static in the channel she occupies 60% of the channel width with her beam. For every degree we change her heading, the beam ( or swept path) increases by 10’ (or 5% of the channels width). So, holding up in a beam wind with 3 degrees of leeway makes the effective beam 150’!
What makes our port and customers stand out above others is the cooperation and understanding between them. The customers know the channel dimensions are pushed to their limits with the vessels we bring in. The port knows what our pilots are tasked with and they support us when we place restrictions. Furthermore, our customers understand our restrictions because we communicate with them. They may not always like them but they understand the need for them.
The arrival of the Fan Zhou 6 was a year in the making. Initially, the customer met with the pilots on several occasions to discuss an array of vessels, all of which were deemed too wide for our channel by the pilots. Because of the open lines of communications, and the pilots understanding the importance of their expansion project, the customer found a ship (still under construction) which could handle their cargo and be acceptable by the pilots. The M/V Fan Zhou 6.
Attached is a small video of her arrival. Captain Michael Harris and I guided her in on a beautiful day. And yes, all the restrictions were in place. 2 pilots, daylight, one way, USCG security zone, winds less than 15 knots and a tug escort.
A special shout out to Kendall Adrian for the Drone footage.