Gulf of Mexico
Climbing onto the Hong Kong Spirit. JOE PAPPALARDO

America's New Energy Coast

In the coastal bend of South Texas, the future of the global energy market is being constructed one epic infrastructure project at time.

The Hong Kong Spirit is a behemoth, one of the largest cargo ships in the world, and the view from her bridge suggests she’s gliding serenely across the water at the mouth of Aransas Pass. But a delicate maneuver lies just ahead. All 333 meters of this vessel— nearly 1,100 feet of cargo ship—must make a dogleg turn to stay within the confines of this narrow shipping channel.

This massive Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) has never been to into port at Ingleside, Texas, before. In fact, it hasn’t been docked anywhere on the planet in eight months. Fortunately, four professional local pilots have rendezvoused with the Spirit, clambered up a shaky 75-foot rope ladder, and installed themselves on the bridge to help steer the ship through the narrow passage. “No one in the world goes out and brings in tankers like this,” says Trip Webb, a pilot #13 in the Aransas Pilot’s Association. “Nowhere.”

Webb cries, “Captain, make sea speed.” Maximum power from the engine will help the ship fight the current. “Yes, pilot!” the Chinese captain responds, and relays the command to the bridge crew.

Once the tanker clears the turn, the pilot orders the ship to half speed as she navigates the Corpus Christi Shipping Channel. Even so, the ship displaces so much water that a swell rolls along the channel’s side. Local surfers sometimes come out to ride this curl for more than a mile. Other residents have complained about the surges, and the port is spending nearly $100,000 on a study on ways to mitigate them. But there are no “tanker surfers” or bystanders on this cold and blustery February day. Only the wind and current battered the massive vessel, making life harder for her crew.

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