From a control room inside a U.S. Coast Guard base near Ellington Airport, Alberto Hernandez and other controllers in the Vessel Traffic Service unit oversee about 280,000 marine vessel movements each year, officials said.
The scene inside the base is not unlike an air traffic control room. Controllers monitor ship movements from Houston all the way to Galveston, while others communicate with pilots and mariners on the radio as they journey along the area’s channels.
The Vessel Traffic Service is responsible for safety of marine traffic in the Houston, Galveston and Texas City ship channels, among others, said Steve Nerheim, the group’s director.
“Our sole duty is to advise mariners on what is going on, without being rear-seat drivers,” Nerheim said.
The controllers, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, use a combination of radio, video, radar and tracking equipment to monitor conditions in the channels and prevent collisions, elisions, damage, pollution and injury, said Hernandez, a watch supervisor.
The group speaks directly to whoever is piloting the vessels, whether it be members of local pilot organizations or towboat operators, among others, Hernandez said.
While the group does not typically direct traffic, it is authorized to do so when necessary, Hernandez said.
“Just like traffic on the roads and there is an accident almost every day, there is an issue on the channels every day,” Hernandez said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean an accident, but an issue.”
Controllers early Thursday, for instance, spent time advising traffic in the Bolivar Roads region near Galveston because of heavy winds in the area, Hernandez said.
The issue of who closes parts of the channel to traffic has become a matter of interest in Galveston of late because cruise lines have accused the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association of using fog as an excuse to delay vessels from coming in and out of the island’s harbor.
“The Coast Guard does not close the channel because of fog,” Hernandez said.
That decision, instead, is made by the Houston and Galveston-Texas City pilots associations, which operate independently of one another and make separate decisions, Hernandez said.
Controllers take action and notify ships when they are on course to collide with one another or other problems are imminent, Hernandez said.
The group oversees about 67 ships a day coming through the region’s channels, Hernandez said.
Of that number, the vast majority is bound for Houston — about 57 of them, Hernandez said.
Only about 10 per day are overseen by the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association, Hernandez said.
Each ship must make contact with the service at designated checkpoints along the route, Hernandez said.
Depending on where the ship is bound, that travel time can vary dramatically, Hernandez said.
A ship’s transit up the Houston Ship Channel is usually about six hours, compared to a one hour journey into the Port of Galveston, Hernandez said.