Port Watch

Choose Your Poison

Tom Marian
Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Sometimes in the world of the seafarer you just need to accept your fate. Tempestuous seas, white squalls, vertigo-inducing fog banks, the hand of Davy Jones or the magnetic holes of the Bermuda Triangle are but a few of the challenges the most vigilant of mariner’s face. After all, it can’t always be fair winds and following seas.

That was more than evident as the shortest month of the year came to a close across coastal Texas. The vessel arrival counts were so anemic that they rivaled those of August 2017 when Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc with maritime commerce throughout the bulk of the state. Just how bad was it? 21% worse than the previous month, thanks to the persistent gloom of the late winter fog.

Sabine lead the pack of deplorables with a percentage plunge of over 31% as many a ship swung on its hook waiting for the blanket of fog to lift. Despite this month of gloom, there was a silver lining given that the port is off to a stronger start over last year by nearly 4%. Sabine had a robust run in 2018 and there is every indication that the trend will continue in 2019. Leagues to the southwest, Corpus Christi’s port welcomed 25% fewer vessels when compared to the prior month. That pronounced arrival drop was enough to pull it into negative territory on a year-to-date basis; albeit, just barely, as reflected by a 1% dip.

Continuing southwest along the lone star coast, the warmer waters lapping the shores of Brownsville held the fog at bay. The port was only off by one arrival. Yet, when one considers that February has 10% fewer days than January, Brownsville fared quite well for the month with a mere 5% decrease. That is certainly driven home by the fact that 2019 is out pacing 2018’s arrival tally by an enviable 14%. While the port of Galveston was beset by fog for the bulk of the month, the cruise ships had an uncanny ability to escape the clutches of sea clouds. Mind you, it does not hurt to be only 10 miles from the sea buoy. That said, after factoring in a monthly arrival drop of 8%, Galveston remains ahead of last year’s pace by over 17% – a very impressive start to the year.

A few short miles to the north of the wharves of Galveston, the Texas City dike welcomed 11.5% fewer deep drafts over the last month and almost 5% less year-to-date. Yet, all is not gloom and doom for our nation’s most productive railroad port since larger vessels are carrying greater tonnages to markets beyond the horizon. Freeport, on the other hand, was the only port in the state to register a monthly percentage gain after a particularly slow January. The 3% positive yield on the vessel-arrival front kept its total numbers ahead of 2018’s just shy 1%.

Houston, the country’s number one port for foreign vessel calls ,was particularly hamstrung by consecutive days of fog throughout the month. Scores of vessels populated the outer anchorage necessitating various traffic management measures to handle an ever-growing queue of vessels. The toll on shipborne commerce was telling with a 22% plunge in vessel arrivals over the last month. Not a single vessel category came close to registering a positive monthly count. Chemical tankers were particularly hard hit for the month as reflected in a 28% plummet. LPG and Tanker arrival numbers were slightly better off since their counts only fell by 19% and 20.5% respectively. It is noteworthy that while these two categories lag the first two months of 2018 by 3% and 10% respectively, their chemical cousins are outperforming last year’s numbers by a torrid 31%. In short, petrochemical exports abound.

The container vessel traffic is similarly situated to that of the chemical tankers, in that after factoring in a 17% monthly wane, it too, remains nearly 6% higher than the similar period for 2018. Vessel calls in the bulker arena were guardedly optimistic as things were relatively flat compared to last year even though its count tumbled almost 10% for the month. In essence, this category held its own on a year-to-date after enduring a rough month of fog. General cargo also continued to hang tough against last year’s figures. Its current 5.7% year-to-date climb is signaling that the chilling effect of the tariff posturing may be approaching a cycle of thaw. Car carrier arrivals fared poorly with a 20% arrival decline. This kept things 5% under last year’s early numbers but, not unlike the reality of more containers on bigger ships, a greater number of vehicles were being driven off fewer carriers.

Closer to the wave tops, oceangoing barges and inland tow traffic across the Houston Ship Channel was hard hit. Their monthly declines were quite steep at 35% and 20% respectively. This rather poor showing pulled both categories further into the red for the year.

Ultimately, if demand is to be met, it is inevitable that the supply will follow. Hence, the warmth of spring will chase the fog to more northern climes and the armada of anchored vessels will surge into the constellation of Texas ports to either bring goods to a booming Texas economy or exports to a world hungry for cheap BTUs and chemicals. Yes, indeed, the longer days and abundant sunshine across the Gulf of Mexico will fuel the flow of balmy winds into the nation’s heartland. Soon, that which was comfortable, will become wearisome and discomforting when the Gulf’s waters creep into the upper 80s. Perhaps that is perfectly fine since those temperatures would never permit fog to appear. Nonetheless, they do love to feed lows – low pressure systems that is! Hurricanes or fog? Take your pick of poisons as they both cause sailors to fret.


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