Once lined by clay bluffs and plagued with fallen trees, when Buffalo Bayou was dredged out in the early 1900s to officially form the Houston Ship Channel, it was a key moment in this city’s fortunes, granting Houstonians access to Galveston Bay. Today the banks are lined with docks for various commodities, from bulk oil to cars from overseas to containers.

Despite its humble origins, the Houston Ship Channel was the lifeblood that gave justification to building the city of Houston, the decision that turned this small backwater town into an industrial hub almost overnight. From there the Port of Houston took off, expanding out and out, and increasing Houston’s fortunes with it.

Over 100 years later, the Port of Houston is a sprawling 50-mile-long complex that ranks as the top U.S. port by volume moved each annually. Millions of tons of goods are transported in and out of the port each year, items that we use in our daily lives. With this great feat comes an extensive web of human beings from all walks of life and all corners of the globe working around the clock to keep the flow of commerce going in this magnificent, complex system of enormous ships, people, docks, and waterways. What follows is a glimpse of this world that exists, unobserved, so close to our own: The Port of Houston.

ABOVE: The M/V Bulk Costa Rica approaches Fred Hartman bridge in Baytown. With a load of dry cement from Turkey, she will be in port for a few weeks to discharge this cargo, one of the slowest maritime industry operations. The evolution of bulk cargo to containerization took most port calls from weeks to a matter of hours, but not all commodities fit standard containers. Ships of all types and sizes from all over the globe call the Port of Houston for her incredible diversity.

MV San Francisca, capable of carrying 8,700 containers, approaches her berth at Bayport Container Terminal 21 in November 2020. The crew trades between the Far East, transiting the Panama Canal to the US Gulf and East coasts. They will call at eight ports during this roundtrip, never allowed to go ashore during their four- to eight-month contracts because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Image: John Dunaway

Sailors count on one another day-in and day-out to get the work done. As Covid restrictions have relaxed for some crews, captains still make the final decision on whether they will allow crewmembers to go ashore while in port for fear of bringing the disease aboard and jeopardizing the ship.

Image: John Dunaway

LEFT: Known for its petrochemical complex, the Port of Houston also loads huge quantities of bulk grain for ports across the globe. This mixed load of lentils, soybeans, and corn meal was discharged across 4 ports in West Africa, each of the more than 40,000 bags moved by hand by teams of two.

RIGHT: The captain of the M/T Hakata Princess showed how crew morale can be kept high even during Covid by building strong camaraderie for their situation: A good galley staff that serves cuisine close to home, and reliable internet for contacting family halfway across the globe, left this crew in higher spirits.

Image: John Dunaway

Ships cannot call on overnight delivery of items once they leave port. Thus, repurposing equipment and materials keeps crewmembers busy throughout the ship’s voyage. A sailor chips away rust from old handrails so that they can get new coats of paint to weather the salt environment for more trips around the globe.

Image: John Dunaway

LPG, crude oil, and petrochemicals can all be loaded and discharged at this terminal from ships both coming and going to points across the globe. Just as one job ends, another is awaiting the boatmen scurrying across the channel in their handy line boats.

Image: John Dunaway

LEFT: Captain Jon Blomquist, of the Houston Pilots, ascends the pilot ladder to begin an inbound transit. As the world ground to a halt last spring, ships continued moving goods across the globe and thus pilots remained in action to bring them into the Port of Houston and sail them back offshore for their next voyage. 

RIGHT: An able-bodied seaman from India mans the helm of MT Hakata Princess during her inbound transit in January 2021. She was to load a cargo of gasoline, bound for Peru. Her next voyage was still unknown to crew, typical of life in the charter market.

Image: John Dunaway

This handy-sized chemical tanker traverses the Port of Houston at night as operations cease only during periods of dense fog or because of safety-related matters.

Image: John Dunaway

LEFT: After 14 months aboard this ship, more than six months past his normally scheduled relief, in January 2021 this Indian mariner was more than ready to be going home. A relief crewmember was arriving later that day so that he could finally fly home to his family. While much of the world felt anxiety of lockdowns and restricted leisure, seafarers were being denied the right to return home for months on end. 

RIGHT: Lyondell basin, with Pasadena on the south bank and Channelview on the north, has a full house in June 2020. General cargo ships on the lower left discharge endless quantities of pipe and steel. In the lower right, a ship loads bulk-grain while chemicals are loaded aboard a small tanker and barges in the basin.

Image: John Dunaway

Boatmen arrive at every dock for ship dockings and undockings to pass the ship’s lines ashore. Anywhere from 10 to 18 lines will be sent ashore to hold a vessel along a berth for their stay. These boatmen drive by car and boat up and down the Houston Ship Channel around the clock to keep the operation moving.

Image: John Dunaway

Daily life aboard ship is not all grit and grime. Small swimming pools offer relief to sailors when they are not on duty and the weather cooperates. Pumps in the engine room will fill these pools up with ocean water, making this the closest many sailors will ever get to swimming in the ocean these days. Not all ships have a pool, so it’s a luxury when available. Some crew members construct makeshift options when a regular pool isn’t available.

Image: John Dunaway

Basketball aboard ship is the favorite sport across all nationalities. With little room to run and pursue other activities, a well-guarded section of the ship with hoops and enough space to keep the ball from ending up “in the drink” enables sailors to pass many hours of free time and build camaraderie.

Image: John Dunaway

LEFT: A surfer takes advantage of an incoming storm on the jetties at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel. Rock jetties form the barriers for entrance channels to ports up and down the Texas coast. Long plagued since the days of sail by heavy silting of the sandy bottom, these structures form a funnel allowing water to flow in and out to keep deeper water accessible for larger ships. 

RIGHT: As sunset approaches, the crew of this tanker stands by to board the pilot boat for the tanker’s trip into the Port of Houston.

Image: John Dunaway

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