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Vessel Traffic Service Helps Mariners; Keeps Waterways Safe and Secure

If Port Arthur and the Sabine-Neches Waterway, which runs through southeast Texas near the Louisiana border, sound like a stretch of bayou backwater, think again. It encompasses four public ports. It’s America’s No. 1 foreign crude oil destination, and its four refineries produce 12 percent of the country’s gasoline, and more than 35 percent of the nation’s commercial jet fuel.

It is home to Motiva – the largest refinery in the country; the No. 1 commercial military outload port in the United States at the Port of Beaumont; and the home of more than 40 percent of the nation’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) import facilities, including the largest LNG facility in America: Sabine Pass LNG.

The Port of Port Arthur is strategically located on the inland barge shipping routes of the Intracoastal Waterway that extends from St. Marks, Fla., to Brownsville, Texas. The Sabine-Neches Ship Channel is part of that system, with channel depths to safely accommodate large petrochemical tankers and cargo ships. The Port of Port Arthur is 19 miles up the channel from the Gulf of Mexico, the Port of Orange is 35 miles up the channel, and the Port of Beaumont is 55 miles up the channel.

“We’re kind of ‘off the radar’ here,” said Mike Measells, director of Port Arthur Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) for the Coast Guard. “But we’re the fourth-largest port by total tonnage in the U.S., and the No. 1 destination for crude oil tankers.”

Vessel Traffic Management Specialist Danny Glidden monitors the VTS Port Arthur South Sector. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Port Arthur Vessel Traffic Center is located at Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit (MSU), Port Arthur, Texas. The VTS Port Arthur area of responsibility includes all waters of the Sabine-Neches Waterway to – and includes – the ports of Port Arthur, Beaumont, Orange, and Sabine Pass, Texas, out to the offshore fairway to the sea buoy, the east/west crossing offshore fairway extending 12 miles on either side of the main channel, and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from mile 260 to mile 295.

Measells said the Port Arthur VTS program was authorized in 2001 and became operational in 2006 after a $10 million build-out. Since that time, his team has compiled almost six years of transit data, which shows significant reductions in groundings, collisions, rammings, and allisions, which occur when a vessel strikes a fixed object such as a bridge piling or a moored ship.

The goal of VTS is to provide monitoring and navigational advice for vessels in particularly confined and busy ports and waterways, which are critical parts of a transportation system that handles more than $700 billion in merchandise each year.

Today, the VTS at Port Arthur is a 24/7 operation ensuring that traffic moves safely and securely.

“The safety and security roles are difficult to separate,” Measells said. “VTS’s task is to promote marine safety and security on the waterway and to minimize and mitigate waterway disruptions – whether the disruptions occur from navigation safety incidents or other threats.”

The VTS team keeps the big picture, and shares their information by broadcasting a ship and oversize tow report every 30 minutes, providing an up-to-date waterway advisory every hour and providing customary VTS traffic summaries to arriving vessels. Any vessel that requests special reports regarding the status and expected traffic ahead can get it.

“We monitor, inform, recommend, and direct the traffic on the water,” Measells said, “and we contribute to maritime domain awareness and maritime security compliance.”

VTS uses Automatic Identification System (AIS) data and other information to identify and track all vessels coming from and going into the port and adjoining waterway. AIS is a transmitter – required on all vessels 300 tons and larger by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – that transmits position, speed and course, vessel’s name, dimensions, and voyage details to AIS receivers. With AIS, the VTS watchstander knows what vessels are in the waterway and where they are going, including destination and estimated time of arrival. Vessels without AIS must call in at certain points and report their position and status.

There are many potential threats to the homeland that can come from the sea, such as the transportation and detonation of weapons of mass destruction, suicide attacks against vessels, or blocking waterways to choke off shipping. VTS and the mariners who are stakeholders can be a means to detect, deter, interdict, and defeat threats.

According to Measells, VTS supports the Coast Guard’s maritime security role by serving as the gatekeeper, as well as the monitor, observer, and recorder of the waterway. VTS accomplishes the Coast Guard’s safety mission by communicating and coordinating with vessels; providing useful navigation information; advising of channel obstructions; de-conflicting traffic; and promoting good order and predictability.

It can get busy. An average month sees 279 tanker transits; 86 cargo vessel transits; and nearly 4,000 inland tow transits, for a total of about 4,500 transits of all types. VTS issues 245 oversize tow permits and broadcasts 744 waterway advisories and 1,488 ship reports per month.

The highly experienced team includes seven watch supervisors and 17 watch operators, most of whom – like Measells – have been there since the beginning. Each watch section is comprised of a watch supervisor and five watchstanders who work in 12-hour shifts, with a watch rotation of three days on followed by three days off (they switch between days and nights every 60 days). But there are other stakeholders who are critical to the efficient and effective management of the local waterways.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...