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Thursday, August 22, 2002

Pilots See Long Life For Texas Chicken

By ERWIN SEBA

HOUSTON (AP) - Texas Chicken isn't for the faint of heart.

But for vessels headed in opposite directions on the Houston Ship Channel, it's the only way to pass. The trick involves water pressure. The scary part is that ships have to head right at each other for it to work.

Texas Chicken is an adaptation to the channel's narrow confines, but it isn't going to go away when the seven-year, $511 million project to widen and deepen the channel wraps up in August 2004. The pilots are having too much fun.

"We'll have more space to do it in," said Captain Paul Brown, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots.

Setting a course for a head-on collision would unnerve most mariners, but it's a beloved tactic on the 53-mile-long Houston Ship Channel, the only place in the world where Texas Chicken is used, according to Brown.

More precisely, Texas Chicken is used only on the 21-mile stretch where the channel cuts an invisible roadway through Galveston Bay. With no land on either side, the bay's the safest place to play.

In Texas Chicken, 100-foot-wide ships as long as three football fields head straight at each other down the center of the 400-foot-wide channel. At a distance of about a half-mile, the pilots signal each other as to which side they plan to pass on.

The water displaced by the bows of the ships moves them away from each other and toward the sides of the 40-foot-deep channel, then the suction of the displaced water flowing in behind the ships naturally pulls them back to the center.

Pilots say the people most frightened by Texas Chicken are the captains of deep sea ships docking at the Port of Houston for the first time.

"In the deep sea, if you see another ship coming from five miles away, you move far away to avoid any chance of hitting it," Brown said. "Blue water captains in the Houston Ship Channel for the first time will say to us, 'Captain, do you see that ship a mile out? A half-mile out?' We just say, 'Yes, sir.' Or sometimes, 'What ship?'"

Busy Thoroughfare

The Houston Ship Channel Channel leads from the Gulf Coast to the Port of Houston, the busiest petrochemical port in the United States. In 2001, 14,774 ships moved up and down the channel, an average of 41 a day going in and out of the second-busiest U.S. harbor.

The channel begins in the Gulf of Mexico, crosses Galveston Bay, runs up a portion of the San Jacinto River and down Buffalo Bayou, where land is the closest to both sides of the channel and where many of the Houston-area petrochemical refineries are located.

From the surface of Galveston Bay, one sees ships moving across a broad body of water. But that appearance is deceiving. The bay's depth averages 8 feet to 10 feet. The Ship Channel's is 40 feet and is being deepened another five.

"The Ship Channel's kind of like a roadway underwater," said Dalton Krueger, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the Houston-Galveston Navigation Channels Project.

The dredging to widen and deepen the Channel began in 1997. Ship operators, ship pilots, dredging companies, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates traffic in the channel, meet about once a month to coordinate operations.

Once the project is complete, ships will be able to come into the channel more heavily laden. That will lower shipping costs, officials involved with the project said.

"You can bring more cargo in one trip than in a ship with a lessor draft," said Tom Kornegay, executive director of the Port of Houston Authority.

The channel is being widened to make it safer. In particular, a barge lane will be created. Officials aren't yet sure whether wider-beam ships will be allowed in after the project is completed.

In addition to widening the Ship Channel, seven turns in the San Jacinto River portion of the Channel will be reduced to four, Brown said.

The material dredged up from the Ship Channel is being used to re-create Redfish Island in the bay. Redfish Island was submerged several years ago after being eroded by waves. In its recreated form, the smaller Redfish Island will serve as a bird sanctuary and provide protection for oyster beds, Krueger said.

Ship pilots are looking forward to playing Texas Chicken once the Ship Channel is widened by the planned 130 feet, Brown said.

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