Deep Thinking: High Tech on the High Seas

Technology |  2 min. read

Think of it as an artificial iceberg.  When an oil tanker is fully loaded, three-quarters of it is invisible, underwater.

So when the supertanker TAQAH was headed for the Port of Long Beach, there was a problem.  Fully loaded, the bottom of the TAQAH would be less than 10 feet from the bottom – and when you’re talking about a ship that is more than 1,000 feet long, carrying more than 300,000 tons – being a few feet from running aground is a little close for comfort.

That is, it WAS too close for comfort.

Then Andeavor and the Port of Long Beach put technology on the job.  Instead of the traditional method of matching ship to harbor:  a close look at the waves, the charts and having to leave a large guesstimated margin for error – they used PROTIDE and the “Octopus”.

PROTIDE is software that uses wave and weather data, combined with the particular characteristics of each individual ship (like its potential “pitch and roll”).  PROTIDE makes predictions; the Octopus is motion detection gear and software that looks at what is actually happening as a ship is coming into harbor and compares those results to the predicted ones.

As a ship approaches port, PROTIDE is run a few days in advance.  When the harbor pilot who brings the ship into port, boards the ship, he or she brings the Octopus along, and that’s hooked up on board to provide real time information.  That means less guessing – and a much more exact match between the water depth in a specific port, and the depth of a specific ship, with a specific cargo.

And – that marriage of high tech and high seas has been a very happy marriage indeed.  Having tested (and tested and tested) PROTIDE and the Octopus on smaller tankers coming into Long Beach – this year, all 300,000-plus tons of the TAQAH sailed successfully into the Port of Long Beach, with seven precisely- and safely-measured feet to spare.

That was the first time, by the way, in the 107-year history of the Port of Long Beach that a VLCC (“very large crude carrier”) sailed in, as deep in the water as the shipping channel actually goes – instead of having to bring in the big ships more lightly loaded to allow for that guesstimated margin of error.  And that’s not just a remarkable technological feat.  Each extra foot of draft (meaning how much deeper the ship sits in the water) for an oil tanker, means it can safely and efficiently carry more cargo, as much as 40,000 barrels of oil per each extra foot.

Being able to use the maximum capacity of the harbor – means less need for dredging (which is expensive and sometimes complicated) – and less need to unload some cargo offshore to lighten a ship before entry (which is definitely complicated and time-consuming).

As PROTIDE is refined, Andeavor and Long Beach are planning to make this SOP, Standard Operating Procedure.  And ports around the country are keeping a close eye on Long Beach, with a view toward potentially bringing this new technology to harbors nationwide.