Port Watch

Light silken curtain, colorless and soft,
Dreamlike floating upon a murmuring sea
What abides behind thy smoky veil?

Tom Marian Buffalo Marine Service Inc.

Thus far, in 2018, scores of vessels have been swinging on their hooks awaiting the fog to lift. Unfortunately, as soon as the visibility improves and the ships begin to move, another curtain of clouds descends over the waterway and the wait begins anew. Neptune’s veil has certainly been persistent these first two months of the new year as evidenced by a 3.4% drop in year-to-date vessel arrivals following the most recent monthly wane of over 12%. Overall, February was not kind to every port save one – Freeport.

As the only port that posted positive arrival numbers in February that was of little solace to this “little big port” of the Lone Star state since it remains 10% behind last year’s pace. Its nearby cousin – the Port of Galveston – matched January’s arrival tally in February. Better yet, in perhaps a sign of a sea change on the Gulf of Mexico oil production front, Galveston is outpacing the first 2 months of last year by nearly 12%. The third in the constellation of mid-sized ports in the vicinity of Houston – Texas City – could neither claim a monthly gain or positive year-to-date numbers as 11% fewer arrivals sailed past its signature dike over the last month resulting in 8% less arrivals year-to-date. The bad news for the port is that it has not been a beneficiary of the ever-growing export wave being fueled by the first-wave of production from the newly-built or expanded chemical facilities.

The port of Sabine has benefited somewhat from the growing activity of exports of petroleum products from the region; however, February’s 24% plunge in arrivals was a major setback for the beginning of the year. Yet, despite the abysmal showing over the last month, Sabine is still nearly 14% ahead of the prior year’s totals. While, on the opposite end of the state, things are far less sanguine. Specifically, Brownville is currently suffering the highest year-to-date vessel arrival percentage declines which currently stand at just shy 22%. In fact, February’s ship count was the lowest in well over a year reflecting a 10% monthly decrease. Heading back to the northeast, Corpus Christi’s maritime picture was not much different than that of Brownsville. After closing out 2017 on a high note, its entry into 2018 has been less than stellar given that Corpus Christi is already 11.5% behind following a 14% reduction in vessel arrivals over the last month. Granted, the port is still benefiting from the ever-increasing flow of domestic barrels into the international marketplace. Indeed, the pace of vessel traffic will certainly pick up once fog season comes to an end.

The Port of Houston has been particularly hard hit by the woes of fog throughout February. Typically, the shortest month of the year registers a decline since the preceding month has 10% more days. While this year is not an exception, the fact that the most recent monthly 11.5% dip nudged the year-to-date percentages from 5% behind 2017 to 7% behind underscores that the port has a lot of catching up to do in order to not suffer back-to-back annual declines. As in January, nearly every vessel category that moored at a Houston terminal was off – percentage-wise. Container vessels held their own and bulkers posted a healthy 16% bounce which pulled the vessel count to the same level as the first two months of 2017. Everyone else was squarely in the red.

Albeit, a few vessel categories are outpacing 2017’s arrival count. Car carriers are up 12% for the year and even general cargo which posted lackluster numbers throughout 2017 still remains 4% ahead from a year-to-date perspective even after a 13% monthly dive. LPG vessels also managed to remain in the black – year-to-date wise – after tallying a 13% deficit over the course of the last month. Even tankers squeezed out a ½ percent gain over 2017’s arrival count in spite of 12% less vessels plying the Houston Ship Channel last month. Perhaps the most shocking performance for February was the chemical tanker count which failed to reach the triple digit threshold for the first time in two years. The bottom literally fell out of this category – a 30% plunge over the last month and 2018’s arrival numbers are already 24% off of 2017’s.

Yet, paradoxically, the dozens of terminals that line the banks of the Houston Ship Channel are abuzz with activity. In some instances, they are “bursting at the seams” thirsting for all of those hulls offshore to transport their products to foreign lands. Hence, the first two months of 2018 are certainly not an accurate reflection of expectations on the waterfront.

See! The close curtain moves, the spell dissolves!
Slowly it lifts: the dazzling sunshine streams
Upon a newborn world where trade abounds
Upon the summer seas where ships make their rounds.


  • Date March 19, 2018
  • Tags 2018 March