From Icebreaker To Traffic Manager: VTS Director Keeps Commerce Flowing

By Ken Kolb 

When the container ship Dali crashed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge in March, the entire country was reminded of the importance of maintaining safe and secure passage in our nation’s harbors. Fortunately, on the Lower Mississippi River, there is an additional layer of protection to keep the areas above and below the Port of New Orleans as safe as possible.

Xiaobin Tuo
Xiaobin Tuo

The U.S. Coast Guard operates Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) in key ports and waterways in the United States. One of these VTS centers is positioned on the west bank of the Mississippi across from downtown New Orleans. It is directed by Xiaobin Tuo, and she honed her ability to prevent collisions early in her career while doing something you wouldn’t expect of a safety expert: smashing into things on the Coast Guard’s icebreaker Polar Sea.

Directing a VTS center comes with a lot of responsibility. As outlined in federal regulation 33 CFR 161, the purpose of the VTS is to “promote safe vessel movement by reducing the potential for collisions, rammings and groundings.” As seen in the dramatic footage of the accident in Baltimore harbor, a single ship can cause a devastating loss of life. The economic impact of wreckage can also last months: no deep-draft ships can make their way to or from the Port of Baltimore if its shipping lane contains any dangerous debris.

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On the Lower Mississippi River, the VTS is constantly monitoring and anticipating risk on the river. For example, the pilot on a cruise ship northbound may not know that a dozen coal barges being pushed downriver need extra space to make the tight turn at Algiers point. To pre-empt any problems, the VTS relays that information to both parties, and, if necessary, restricts that stretch of the river to one-lane traffic or calls for the vessels to make passing arrangements at a different site.

From Tuo’s perspective, her job is to spot potential hazardous situations before they occur and advise oncoming ships accordingly.

Tuo knows that pilots and captains are best situated to make instant decisions based on the information available to them. At her watch center, she tracks all ships entering and exiting her stretch of the river, paying special attention to those carrying hazardous materials. If conditions are dangerous, Tuo can and will intervene; however, she sees micromanaging vessels from afar as counterproductive. Her goal is to serve as an extension of each ship’s bridge team by providing those at the helm with the information they need to steer clear of hazards on their own.

Tuo learned the importance of gathering information and keeping lines of communication open 10 years earlier when she had a very different perspective on collisions. She was busy seeking them out. During her first assignment after receiving her commission at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Tuo served on the Polar Sea, a 399-foot icebreaker. The skills she developed shuttling scientists to and from polar bear research expeditions serve her well keeping the Lower Mississippi River safe today.

Tuo learned quickly that clearing a path in frozen waters is both an art and a science. And while “backing and ramming” tactics (it’s exactly what it sounds like) could harness the Polar Sea’s 75,000 hp. to cut through the ice with brute force, Tuo found that sometimes taking a moment to gather more information can make for safer—and faster—travel in the long run.

Before each watch on the Polar Sea, Tuo would begin by taking notes from the bow on the color of the ice below—a bluish tint meant it would be harder to crush, and therefore should be avoided. If she needed a more holistic view, a quick climb into the crow’s nest offered a new perspective to scope out potential routes. Getting her icebreaker from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time was not her only goal. Tuo also had to chart a path with other vessels in mind.

The purpose of an icebreaker is not only to get to a destination inaccessible to other ships, but also to create a navigable channel for other ships to follow. While it might have been easier for the Polar Sea to zig and zag through the softest patches of ice, such a winding route would have been useless to other ships in Tuo’s wake. By creating a straight channel, her icebreaker’s path could enable multiple ships to operate as a system: each sacrificing its preferred speed and heading so that all could travel safely.

Although Tuo’s VTS watch center today is a ways away from the Arctic Circle, Tuo’s systems approach to vessel traffic safety today owes a lot to the lessons she learned on the Polar Sea years ago. While no traffic management strategy can eliminate all risks associated with powerful ships passing in tight waterways, it is heartening to know that the Vessel Traffic Service adds an additional layer of protection for the Lower Mississippi River region.

Ken Kolb is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Furman University. He is currently writing a book about shipping.