March 2019 Commerce Club Luncheon Featuring Captain Mark Mitchem, Presiding Officer, Houston Pilots

Meeting the Challenges of Growth on the Houston Ship Channel

Captain Mark Mitchem, Houston Pilots

Captain Mark Mitchem of the Houston Pilots presented “Meeting the challenges of growth on the Houston Ship Channel” at the March 11th Commerce Club luncheon. Over 180 industry professionals were in attendance at the event hosted by the Greater Houston Port Bureau at the Houston Marriott South.

Mitchem, has been presiding officer of the Houston Pilots since 2018. The Houston Pilots was an association formed in 1921 and governed by the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Ports of Harris County. The Texas state statute requires a ship-owner to take a Pilot on-board when transiting to Harris County ports. With over 100 Pilots on the Houston Ship Channel (HSC), they have the combined ship channel experience of 1275+ years and 315,000 transits. They safely guide over 18,700 ships in the channel every year-more than the ports of Los Angeles + Long Beach + New York combined. The purpose of Pilot Safety rules is made to preserve the safety of navigation for all channel users.

In serving the port of Houston, Mitchem demonstrated how the pilots assist to make two-way ship traffic work in an undersized channel in one of the business ports in the U.S. To facilitate the growth in numbers and sizes of ships, the Pilots have created a technique known as the “Texas Chicken”. At a little over one half mile apart, two vessels meeting each other “break” or alter course away from each other towards the sides of the channel. As the bows draw abeam, each vessel then steadies their course in the channel as they become parallel to each other. Once the vessels start to clear each other, they are steered back into the center of the channel and proceeds safely on to its destination. Mitchem also addressed the additional challenges of today and in the future facing the HSC:

  • Prosperity – more docks & more traffic volume
  • Larger container and tanker vessels
  • Very protracted federal pathway for channel improvements

Currently the Houston Ship Channel is a total of 1000 feet wide with 530 feet, 45 feet deep in the center for ships and 235 feet wide on each side of the center for barges. If a ship length exceeds 1100 feet, the “Texas Chicken” maneuver no longer allows for a safe meeting of other ships due to the physical limitations of the 530 feet wide ship channel. With larger ships arriving, the safety of the ship traffic moving on the HSC is at risk and therefore would have to convert to one-way traffic. One-way ship traffic would allow for safe arrivals and departures of larger vessels; however, it would lead to large cost in delays and lost cargo opportunities with a negative effect on growth in and along the Houston Ship Channel.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) is in the fourth and last year of a $10 million “216 Study” examining whether it would be feasible to deepen and widen the channel. The Corps currently is recommending improvements and widening for small part of the Bay Reach portion through Galveston Bay (8 miles long at 650 feet wide) as part of a federal project. They are not considering the correct and complete economic impact, operational factors, and pilots’ safety rules regarding the increasingly large vessels in determining the cost-benefit ratio of the project segments.

Pointed out by Mitchem by widening the HSC to 800 feet to Morgan’s Point as the solution, the petrochemical and large container ships could transit safely, petrochemical daylight restrictions and cost delays would be relieved. ALL port stakeholders would continue to contribute to the economic engine of Texas, the region, and the U.S.

  • Date April 25, 2019
  • Tags 2019 March/April