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DredgeWire Exclusive – Charleston Pilots Find Expanded Channels Safer, More Maneuverable

The 15,072 TEU CMA Brazil, the largest ship ever to call at Charleston, passes under the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in the new 52-foot channel in 2021. The bridge has an air gap between 197 and 203 feet, depending on tide stage (Photo courtesy of South Carolina Ports Authority)

Posted on January 8, 2023

By Judith Powers

Capt. John Cameron, executive director of the Charleston Branch Pilots Association, reflected on the channel improvements in Charleston Harbor following the December 5 ceremony that marked the completion of the five-year project to deepen the channels from 45 feet to 52 feet.

“Reconfiguration in three dimensions – depth, channel width and channel layout, i.e. easing of turns – has greatly improved safety and maneuverability, he told DredgeWire. “The vessels don’t have to wait for high tide, and almost every vessel can access the port at all tides,” he said.

The improved channels inside the harbor are 52 feet deep and a minimum of 500 feet wide. The entrance channel is 1000 feet wide and 54 feet deep and has been lengthened by 3 ½ miles to nearly 20 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, a separate project established a data buoy and a wave-measuring buoy near the beginning of the entrance channel that are providing real-time wave and oceanographic information that increases the safety for pilots boarding and leaving vessels.

A tidal lift of five to six feet provides even deeper access for several hours a day.

The Charleston pilots and tugboat captains played a major role in planning the channel expansion, beginning with the feasibility study conducted from 2011 to 2015, andthrough to the final planning stages, including pilots and boat operators travelling to Vicksburg, Mississippi  to test the proposed parameters on a ship simulator at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC).

“The project would not have been successful without the partnership and expertise from the harbor pilots, docking pilots and tugs,” stated Liz Crumley, corporate communications manager for the South Carolina Ports Authority.

Capt. John Cameron

Capt. Cameron has been executive director of the Charleston Pilots since 2009, after he retired from a 24-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.His final Coast Guard posting was as Captain of the Port at the Coast Guard Sector Charleston, in the Coast Guard 7th District.

The Charleston Harbor Pilots maintain four vessels and provide pilotage 24 hours a day 365 days a year. “We typically only suspend pilotage when the Coast Guard has closed the port for a tropical storm,” said Capt. Cameron.


“During the construction phase of the deepening, there was a tremendous amount of coordination to safely move ships around the dredges, and decisions made to stop dredging and move the plant, or to continue dredging and move the ship around the dredge. This happened multiple times a day,” he said.

“The system was very dynamic and included a weekly planning meeting with all the contractors, coordinating ships and dredges maneuver-by-maneuver every day for three years or more,” he said.

Now the first phases of the deepening are getting their first round of maintenance dredging, and we’re back into coordination of ship movements and dredges,” Capt. Cameron said.

There are three pilot boarding areas in the entrance channel, depending on the draft of the ships, with the closest in used for drafts of 36 feet or less, then 48 feet, and the furthest out for ships with drafts deeper than 48 feet. The areas correspond with the previous and present entrance channel beginnings.

Each ship employs a ship’s agent in port who handles all of the ship’s needs and requirements while in port, including scheduling a pilot to bring the ship in and take it back out.

The pilots board and disembark on a rope ladder dropped down the side of a ship next to the pilot boat. (Photo courtesy Charleston Pilots)

At the pre-arranged time and location to meet in the entrance channel, the pilot boards the ship via a rope ladder dropped on the most protected side of the ship relative to the wind and seas.

Once aboard the ship, the pilot is escorted to the bridge where he takes the conn – operational control of the ship — issuing heading and speed instructions to the master, who relays them to the crew. A South Carolina state statute requires pilots to direct all maneuvers in the channels and observe all maneuvers in the  turning basins, even under tug control, until the ship is docked.

“A tug can provide docking assistance to a ship either by pushing, which may or may not be with a line to the ship, or by pulling, which would require a line to the ship. In most docking and undocking maneuvers, the ship’s engine and rudder are used in concert with the tugs,” Capt. Cameron explained.

On outbound vessels, the pilot boat meets the ship at the end of the entrance channel and removes the pilot.

There are 28 locations in the harbor where vessels are berthed. The shortest run is 20 miles taking about one hour,  and longest is 44 miles, taking about 3 ½ hours.

The pilots’ jobs are aided by a network of buoys and positioning, guidance, tracking, and oceanographic sensors placed and maintained by The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other safety and scientific entities.

The Waterway Guide describes Charleston as “a heavily used ship channel with a great deal of commercial traffic day and night.” The Automatic Identification System (AIS) provides additional safety maneuvering through traffic by providing detailed information onall vessels in the vicinity. The Coast Guard mandates AIS transmitters on all commercial vessels over 65 feet.

Ships with AIS transmitters can access an on-board display showingthe nearest vessels or buoys that have AIS transmitters,which includes real time heading and speed of the vessels, as well as other critical information. Identity information for each vessel allows direct contact via the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) equipment or short email.

The entrance channel is marked by five unpaired red lighted buoys, and 16 paired red and green lighted buoys, with Buoy “2” near the beginning of the channel, and 21 and 22 in the Mount Pleasant Reach near the harbor entrance. Ships keep the red buoys to starboard when inbound and green buoys to starboard when outbound. Notices to Mariners provide information about buoys that are off station or unlit, for the benefit of all boats navigating in the vicinity of the channel.

(LEFT) The lighted buoy C guides traffic to the Charleston Entrance Channel. (Photo courtesy SCSPA)
(RIGHT) A red buoy marking the inbound edge of the entrance channel

Buoy C, the sea buoy, a lighted red and white Morse code “A”radar beacon whistle buoy,marks the beginning of the entrance channel at N 32 37.070’/W 79 35.490’. Its purpose is to guide vessels safely to the channel.

“The Coast Guard relocated almost all of the buoys marking the new channel edges,” said Capt. Cameron. “Each buoy has its own anchor on the sea bottom and coordinating with the Coast Guard team in marking the channels was a project in itself,” he said.


Two buoys that provide valuable data for the pilots and for ships moving in and out of Charleston Harbor were placed approximately six nautical miles southwest of the sea buoy on March 17, 2022. They are part of a system of moorings maintained by the University of North Carolina – Wilmington (UNCW) to collect and report oceanographic data on the coasts of North and South Carolina and provide hourly updates for weather and sea surface conditions.

The buoys – CHR60 and CHR60WAVE — were placed and are maintained by the UNCW Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program (CORMP)  and funded by NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing Station (IOOS) and its Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA).

Christopher LaClair is a Research Specialist for CORMP and manages the daily operations of the buoy program. Dr. Lynn Leonard has been the principal investigator for CORMP since 2004.

LaClair explained that the CHR60 (NOAA Data Buoy Center 41066)measures wind speed, wind gust, wind direction, water temperature, salinity, air temperature,  humidity, barometric pressure and GPS with two all-in-one meteorological sensors mounted on the tower. The onboard datalogger samples them every second for the first 8 minutes of the hour, then averages and processes those data to come up with its output. A Seabird Electronics SBE-16 sensor mounted one meter below the surface on the buoy frame samples for water temperature, conductivity, and salinity. An amber light mounted on the tower for visibility flashes every four seconds, and a radar reflector is mounted near the light.


(LEFT) Two meteorological sensors mounted on the tower of the CHR60 buoy measure a range of wind, air and water condition data. (Photo courtesy of SECOORA)
(RIGHT) The CHR60WAVE Sofar Spotter with four solar panels and an antenna for transmitting data. (Photo courtesy of Sofar Ocean)

The Florida Atlantic Coast Telemetry Array (FACT) and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) provided an Inovasea Systems Inc. Vemco VR2W Acoustic Receiver for installation on CHR60 in an inter-agency cooperation. This system logs the detection of tagged fish and mammal species monitored by the groups.

Moored a safe distance away to avoid entanglement of mooring lines is the CHR60WAVE buoy. It is Sofar Ocean Technologies Spotter,a solar-powered basketball-sized buoy that provides wave height, dominant wave period, mean wave direction, water temperatureand water depth data that are  helpful for knowing the tidal delay between inshore and offshore.

“The wind and wave data are especially important to the pilots for safe boarding operations,” LaClair stated.

“Both buoys transmit their GPS locations and include it with their data output. We monitor that and are alerted if the buoy leaves its watch circle,” he said.

All data from the buoys are available to the public on and the NOAA National Data Buoy Center website.

Asked if the buoys, especially the low-profile, Sofar Spotter, have any protection from vessel strikes, LaClair responded “There is always a risk that a buoy will be struck by a vessel. The site selection included some contemplation of this. Since the site was also marked by a buoy for the nearby SCDNR fishing reef, we thought vessels might already be on the lookout. Other than marker lights, there’s nothing else protecting them from being struck.”

Christopher LaClair

“There are some data buoy programs that are starting to petition the USCG to allow them to put AIS transmitters on the buoys or to have a ‘ghost transmitter’ used to identify the position of buoys. Buoys getting hit by vessels can be quite costly. Earlier this year we had a CDIP Datawell waverider buoy struck and destroyed, a $65k total loss,” said LaClair.

“The new buoys are already providing weather and sea state data for ships transiting into and out of Charleston Harbor. This is important meteorological and oceanographic information to help aid in safe and efficient marine transportation,” Tom Boyle, Director of Vessel Operations for the South Carolina Ports Authority stated soon after the installation.

The Charleston Branch Pilots Associationis a corporation regulated by the South Carolina Commissioners of Pilotage for the Lower Coastal Area, comprising members appointed by the governor. It provides pilotage for the lower South Carolina coastal area, from Charleston to the Savannah River, should a terminal be built on the river’s South Carolina bank.

The Commission also accepts applications for and selects candidates for apprenticeship.

By state statute Title 54 Chapter 15, the Commission regulates the selection, training, and licensure of apprentice pilots; the licensure and registration of pilots; license and registration fees; safe vessel movement; reports of marine casualties and other dangerous situations; discipline, including investigations and the suspension and revocation of pilot licenses; pilotage charges and fees; specific pilotage routes; and other matters affecting the safe and efficient administration of pilotage.

SECOORA is the coastal ocean observing system for the Southeast U.S., one of 11 regional coastal observing systems that comprise the NOAA-led United States Integrated Ocean Observing System (U.S. IOOS®).  IOOS is essentially the weather service for the coastal oceans and Great Lakes, providing the ability to “see” what is happening both above and below the surface and making that information readily available. IOOS includes 17 federal agencies and a national network of 11 regional observing systems.

#post-45 project, #Charleston Harbor Pilots, #Charleston entrance channel, #Charleston sea buoy, #Capt. John Cameron, #Christopher LaClair, #UNCW, #AIS system, #SECOORA, #IOOS, #NOAA Buoy Center, #CORMP, #sofar spotter

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