By Debbie Z. Harwell with Sidonie Sturrock
Every day, Houstonians drive over the bridges above the Houston Ship Channel, glancing occasionally to see the ships and their cargos, and then turn back to focus on traffic without giving much thought to how those ships got there. Each year, more than 20,000 ships and 230,000 barges carrying some 240 million tons of cargo negotiate the 56-mile long, 535-foot-wide channel to produce an estimated million Texas jobs and $56.5 billion in personal income and consumption expenditures.
But what would happen to Houston if those ships could not reach the docks? Or if ship captains attempted to navigate the winding, narrow waterway lined with petrochemical plants without knowing the water’s depth and currents, the shoals, the tides, the clearance under the bridges, or how to maneuver around passing vessels?
Houston is often called the city that built the port that built the city. The measure of success, however, should not be in the building of what has become the nation’s largest inland port but rather in the hundreds of thousands of ships the Houston Pilots have quietly and safely guided along the channel over ten decades. Steve Huttman who manages a fleet of harbor tugs along the Gulf Coast notes, “In order to bring a vessel into port, you have to have that pilot with their unique experience to bring the vessel in, with [its] handling characteristics, understanding the channel . . . The pilot’s the conductor, telling our tug master where to go and where to get ready, and what the plan of attack’s going to be.”
Pilotage is one of the world’s oldest professions and can be traced back to earliest vessels that crossed bodies of water for exploration, trade, and conquest. Houston Pilot Captain Holly Cooper explains, “A pilot’s job is local knowledge, to safely bring vessels in and out of harbor.” While that mission remains unchanged, the complexity of the job and who can become a pilot has changed dramatically.