Happy Birthday VTS – USCG’s Eye-In-The-Sky Celebrates 40 Years

by LT Stephanie Young, USCG

USCG Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Port Arthur, Texas
Evan Morrow, a supervisor at Vessel Traffic Service Port Arthur, monitors vessel traffic in the Port Arthur area. Morrow has been with the VTS since it was stood up in 2005. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner.

A dense fog bank formed several hundred yards west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The tanker Arizona Standard was inbound en route to nearby Richmond while the tanker Oregon Standard, carrying a full load of bunker fuel, was outbound steaming toward British Columbia. Both were T-2 tank ships, 504 feet in length and 10,553 gross tons.

Before the Arizona Standard made its pass under the bridge, a red navigation light was sighted on the starboard bow of the Oregon Standard, approximately 200 yards away. The master ordered a hard-left rudder and to stop all engines, but it was too late. The two vessels became locked together and 800,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the bay.

The incident resulted in two significant safety initiatives: The Bridge to Bridge Radiotelephone Act and The Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972. The latter allowed the Coast Guard the authority to maintain and operate Vessel Traffic Service, now celebrating its 40-year anniversary.

The Coast Guard began establishing Vessel Traffic Service units in critical, congested ports with the first two established in San Francisco and Seattle on Sept. 25, 1972. Today, the Coast Guard operates 12 VTS units across the United States.

Vessel Traffic Service provides active monitoring and navigational advice for vessels in confined and busy waterways. Their mission is to reduce vessel collisions and groundings in order to protect the environment from the release of petroleum and other hazardous cargos.

Seattle USCG Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Watch Station
A typical USCG Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), watch station. Photo by USCG Petty Officer Nathan Bradshaw

“We’re the eyes and ears for the captain of the port,” said Victor Zboralski, the training coordinator at Puget Sound’s Vessel Traffic Service. “We accomplish our mission by providing a measure of order and predictability on the water through active monitoring and advisory, traffic organization and navigational assistance services.”

Vessel Traffic Service watchstanders use an array of sophisticated equipment allowing them a clear picture of maritime traffic within their area of responsibility.

“We use a program called Coast Guard Vessel Traffic System which displays our area of responsibility as a chart with track icons for the different vessels we are tracking,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Gavin Shepherd, an operations specialist and watchstander at Puget Sound. “These tracks are fed by radar, Automatic Identification System or both. The track icons are accurate to the vessel’s location and display name and type of vessel, type of cargo on board, direction of movement and speed and any other pertinent information.”

“In higher traffic areas we use closed-circuit TV cameras which are fed to large screen monitors at our workstation,” added Shepherd. “All vessels participating with the VTS use a standard VHF-FM radio channel on which the operator can inform vessels of other vessel movement, navigational hazards, weather, marine events and fishing openings and can provide navigational assistance or any other information related to marine safety.”

Vessel Traffic Service Puget Sound monitors the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Rosario Strait, Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound. Watching over more than 3,500 square miles, they have the largest area of responsibility in the United States.

Puget Sound is also the nation’s only Vessel Traffic Center working cooperatively with the Canadian Coast Guard. Since 1979, they have worked directly with Tofino Marine Communications and Traffic Services and Victoria MCTS to monitor the waters. The three units cooperate via computer and dedicated telephone lines to advise each other of vessels passing between their areas of responsibility, allowing traffic to travel seamlessly in these multifaceted waterways.

“The cooperative vessel traffic service between the United States and Canada in managing vessel traffic plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest represents a hallmark of international cooperation,” said Capt. Scott Ferguson, commander of Sector Puget Sound. “Fostering a robust safety, security, and environmental protection network has quietly provided extraordinary benefits for our joint citizenry.”

In a typical year Puget Sound monitors more than 220,000 vessel transits. They assist 150 search-and-rescue cases, 200 law enforcement cases and 30 pollution cases. They’re also able to affirm their actions resulted in 55 marine accidents averted annually. Many of which involve large commercial tankers or freighters that could have devastating effects on the environment of the Pacific Northwest.

“Imagine the convenience of steering your vessel, eyes on water, and having someone to assist as you navigate possibly unfamiliar waters,” said Zboralski. The VTS provides this type of security to commercial mariners. It’s similar to air traffic control in that regard; an eye in the sky if you will.

Since the establishment of the Vessel Traffic Service 40 years ago, commercial maritime transit has become safer and more predictable. The percentage of major maritime casualties has decreased significantly in areas monitored by Coast Guard units and many accidents such as the Arizona Standard and Oregon Standard collision have been avoided. As we look forward, Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service units throughout the country will continue to keep an invariable eye on the nation’s congested ports and waterways with a mission of profound importance.

This article originally appeared in USCG Compass and was written by LT Stephanie Young.