The Biggest Event This Year You Probably Never Heard About
Houston shut down half of their 52-mile long ship channel after the Intercontinental Terminals Co. flammable petrochemical tanks caught fire, which lasted for 3 days. The estimated cost of vessel delays due to the shutdown is said to have cost the industry $1B, with $500M in direct costs, and $500M in indirect costs rippling throughout the industry.
However, that was not the Gulf’s biggest shutdown this year. Not even close. Surprisingly, the biggest shutdown this year was not a result of a chemical dock explosion (of which there were many), vessel accident, or even the record long-term high water from the Mississippi River that ravaged the MidWest and nearly flooded New Orleans.
The event with the staying power that brought one of the world’s busiest ports to its knees is a three-letter word that has plagued captains since before antiquity. Fog. It is a simple word synonymous with unclear conditions. One textbook defines it as, “something that obscures and confuses a situation or someone's thought processes.”
And obscure it did. At the start of this year, the roughly 255 miles of the Lower Mississippi River deep draft ship channel and most other US Gulf Ports became blanketed in the thick clouds that hover just above the water and blindfold even the most seasoned captains.
AN UNPRECEDENTED RIVER EVENT
“In my 40 plus years on the Mississippi River, I have never seen anything like it,” says Captain Michael Bopp, President of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association. Capt. Bopp is one of a select group of experienced ship pilots that safeguard the ports along the Lower Mississippi River and the residents of the state of Louisiana by knowing when to say go, and when it’s time to stop.
“Imagine putting a wet beach towel over every window of your car at night, and trying to drive 100 miles, using only your GPS. It’s sorta like that but the risks are much higher,” explains Capt. Bopp. New Orleans typically receives over 100 days of fog per year, but this year was different due to an unusually warm winter. “This year we had over 19 fog advisories. In fact, it got so bad that for days on end, even with the sun out, the fog just never lifted. It’s really an unprecedented weather phenomenon. We had some cargo terminals completely run out of feed-stock”.
State pilots are responsible for the safety of Louisiana, both economically and environmentally and as such receive their commission directly from the governor. “This is a trillion dollar artery we’re protecting,” Capt. Bopp says. “But our pilots’ main concern is for the people on the other side of the levee, and also those on vessels traveling the same river.”
If the flood stage high river moving at 5 kts of current was the cake, the unexpected fog is now the icing.
“The fog sweeps in very quickly, so when a pilot gets on board a moving ship heading to the Gulf and you are 90 miles from the mouth of the river, that presents a problem.” Capt. Bopp explains that there are only a few anchorage spots this time of year, which is peak grain season. “Those spots are usually taken by towboats or other ships as the fog rolls in. Imagine yourself on a $200M 900 ft. ship with no brakes, loaded with $100M in jet fuel, and now you have just lost total visibility due to dense fog; the tugs can’t see you. You are on your own. This happens all the time.”
The cargo vessels that traverse the high seas stopping only to load & unload in ports like New Orleans are not what you’d call “maintained”. “A lot of these vessel crews are paid a dollar a day wages, and the ship doesn’t make money unless it’s moving and repairs are expensive. So stretching maintenance schedules becomes a sort of normal for the ships that we see.“ Capt. Bopp laughs, “Go to Algiers Point and look at one of these freighters as she makes the bend.”
He was right. Looking at the ship aiming directly at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, the 751 foot long aptly named M/V PINTO barely looked seaworthy but yet made the turn as well as the dozens of shiny American towboat & barge combinations, and at twice the speed.
THE FOG’S UNSEEN TOLL
The Crescent Pilots maintain a 99.997% safety rating, even with all the weather and high river anomalies. “I work with the best, which is good because we do about 20,000 ship movements per year,” Bopp states proudly.
The Association was put to the test when the fog took up residency for 2 months this year bringing traffic to a standstill and trapping over 100 vessels inside the river, as 100 more vessels stacked up right outside the mouth of the river.
Each cargo ship can carry up to 70,000 metric tons of grain and half a million barrels of fuel. When the product doesn't reach its destination on time, the cost to the consumer is increased due to lack of supply in the marketplace. The number of ships waiting has the power to severely impact the market. The larger loaded ships are known as "market movers" among traders for this reason.
“Before the fog lifted, the different pilot groups, tugs, Coast Guard, and industry representatives formed a plan to jumpstart the opening of the river.” The pilots developed a convoy plan to sail all of the vessels that were waiting to go to sea first, then bring a convoy of ships in before the fog set back in. This allowed the groups to sync when their pilots went on rest and maximized the movement of ships. “We moved over 100 ships in the first day. That’s more than some ports in the US do in a 3-month period. There were pilots who came in on their off time and canceled vacations just to keep things moving. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re talking billions of dollars of commerce back en route to its destination.”
This continued for weeks and to this day the river is still catching up from what those within the industry are calling, “Fog-pacalypse”.
“Every year the river throws this industry a different curveball. So if this is where you got your training, you’re batting a thousand.” Capt. Bopp continues that he’s ready for the next year’s challenges. “We’ll be here, come hell or high water; we’re a 24/7 operation.”