On June 24, 2016 a group of Navy League members and guests assembled in the lobby of the VTS/JHOC building at the US Coast Guard base in Seattle for a tour. We were met there by Laird (Larry) Hail (a Coast Guard retiree and member of our council) who is now the director at Vessel Traffic Service Puget Sound. He escorted us upstairs for a comprehensive and interesting briefing on overall Coast Guard operations and specifically the VTS. We were also introduced to the just arrived new Deputy Commander Sector Puget Sound Capt. Linda Sturgis.
VTS Puget Sound is one of 12 such operations in the US, and the largest. It is unique in that the work they do is shared cooperatively with Canada in the border areas between the two countries. The overall mission of VTS is to manage vessel traffic for navigation and safety. The waterway they manage is shared by many boats making hundreds of thousands of annual transits – large and small commercial, civilian, ferries, military and 14 tribal nations. Of interest is that VTS indeed “manages” by informing, recommending and giving direction. But they do not “order”. Fortunately virtually all vessels listen to what they have to say. Vessel traffic is monitored 7x24x365 by a staff of 30 USCG personnel and 20 civilian personnel who observe location, course and proximity to other vessels and, using the traffic separation scheme, to prevent problems such as groundings or collisions. They do their job well. Licensed pilots who board off Port Angeles are an important part of the operation but foreign language/not fluent in English can be a real challenge. Major problems initially encountered are not following the recommendations of TSS (Traffic Safety System) or “rules of the road”, lack of communication, failure to observe security/separation zones near military and large commercial vessels, etc. Not realized by many is that a container ship traveling at 20 knot speed will require 3 miles/10 minutes to come to a stop! Personnel assigned to VTS undergo many months of extensive class and OJT time and then must pass an oral qualification board. We are fortunate that these people are on duty.
From the briefing we visited the actual VTS to observe the process of monitoring and communication. Impressive, to say the least.
Next we went over to the Joint Harbor Operation Center and were able to observe their work…largely standing by and being ready as nothing critical was evolving at the time. This operation partners cooperatively with the US Navy, Washington State Patrol, Customs and Border Protection and various Homeland Security and local first responder agencies to coordinate their efforts when required as to situational awareness and resources. This is also a 7x24x365 operation.
Last we went down to the piers to check out the response boats used for enforcement, rescue, patrol, etc. Specifically we looked over a 29′ and a 45′ boat (unfortunately other USCG priorities precluded a boat ride in Puget Sound) but just going aboard the boats was impressive.
Lunch at the base galley followed and the tour thus concluded. Sincere thanks to Larry Hail and the USCG and also to Byron Faber for his always great work in setting up this tour. – Norman Marten