Tour the Houston Ship Channel by Boat


Hidden Secret

Many area residents are unaware that free boat tours of the Port of Houston are available

By Rod Evans

Like the majority of Houston area residents, my relationship with the Houston Ship Channel and the Port of Houston has largely been of the long distance variety. Sure, I’ve crossed over it probably 100 times via the 610 Loop bridge, but from that vantage point, some 135 feet over the water, the channel looks more like a full scale model than the living, breathing economic engine that it is.

Even if you’re afforded the opportunity to see the channel from ground level, the facility, with its towering cranes, massive vessels and sundry other industrial sized components, makes for an environment where it seems just wearing a hard hat does not offer nearly enough protection from the bodily harm that surely must be lurking around every corner.

But when I heard—quite to my surprise—that there’s a way to tour the channel via boat, I was immediately intrigued. When I discovered that said tour is offered free of charge, I was all over it.

The M/V Sam Houston has served as the Port of Houston’s tour boat since 1958. The 95-foot vessel is big enough to accommodate 90 passengers and features a wood paneled, air conditioned lounge with large windows, along with a spacious deck for viewing. The Sam Houston departs from the Sam Houston Pavilion for free, 90-minute tours of just a small portion of the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel, but there’s plenty to see during the relatively short trip.

A group of about 12 of us, including a couple of highly skeptical teenagers, boarded the Sam Houston on a recent Saturday afternoon not knowing fully what to expect on the tour. Touring the Ship Channel certainly isn’t like taking a picturesque journey along London’s Thames River or even a leisurely cruise around Lake Conroe. You’re not going to be awed by beautiful scenery. But you will be filled with a sense of wonder as you gaze upon ships large enough to block out the sun, buildings that look to have enough square footage to house the entire population of a small town and cranes that appear strong enough to lift heaven and Earth.

Eschewing the comfy confines of the cabin, we elect to see the sights from the deck of the Sam Houston as a tour guide points out interesting sights and offers tidbits of information over the deck speakers while we sail along with the boat’s recently installed low-emission engines purring in the background. I’m immediately struck by the sheer size of the tankers sitting at the docks and contemplate how long it must take to either load or off-load their precious cargo.

But despite the gargantuan size of the tankers, a deck hand tells us something that really throws me for a loop: the tankers we see docked in the port are actually just the ones that service the “super tankers” that are so large and displace so much water that they must anchor over 120 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico’s deeper waters. Because the average depth of the Ship Channel is 45 feet, the super tankers must wait offshore for the smaller tankers to load or off-load them. The deck hand says that some super tankers require at least 12 smaller ships to retrieve all of their cargo!

Another thought that crossed my mind is the Ship Channel and Port of Houston complex is an engineer’s playground. It required the expertise of virtually every type of engineer—structural, marine, mechanical, petroleum, etc.—to design and construct all of the public and private facilities along the banks of the channel, not to mention the actual process of dredging the waterway in the first place. And because the channel is a living entity of sorts, it requires constant maintenance by these same experts and many others in order for the channel to adapt to changes in weather, geography and the size of the vessels that call on the port.

As the Sam Houston pulled back into the dock at the pavilion, virtually every passenger exits with the same “Wasn’t that a nice way to spend 90 minutes?” look on their face and even our skeptical teenagers managed to have a good time.

The fact that the Sam Houston tours are offered free of charge only cements my belief that the excursions are one of those Houston area tourist attractions that flies under the radar. After being closed for the month of November for regularly scheduled maintenance, the Sam Houston resumes its schedule of Wednesday through Sunday tours in December at the Sam Houston Pavilion, located at 7300 Clinton Dr. (enter Gate 8). While the tour is free, reservations are required, so call ahead. Kids 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

For more information, visit or call 713-670-2416. It’s no cruise to Cozumel, but you’ll come away with a whole new appreciation of one of the world’s truly amazing industrial construction projects and a driving force in the Houston area’s economic development.


Princess Sails from Bayport

The recent four-day benefit cruise to Progreso, Mexico served as the official launch of Princess Cruises’ new service from the Port of Houston Authority’s Bayport Cruise Terminal.

The first-ever fundraising cruise, with 2,000 passengers onboard, supported “Cruising for a Cause,” which seeks to raise money for a pair of U.S. military organizations: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and Operation Homefront.

Following that initial voyage, regular cruises by the Caribbean Princess will commence from the Bayport terminal, with a total of 27 sailings scheduled, while Princess’ Western Caribbean schedule calls at the ports of Costa Maya, Roatan, Belize City and Cozumel. Officials say the Emerald Princess will make Houston its home port for Western Caribbean sailings next year.

Princess is scheduled to call on the Bayport Cruise Terminal through 2015, and a study indicates the operation will create an economic impact of $2 million from each sailing, $50 million annually and add over 200 jobs to the greater Houston region.

Princess Cruises will be joined by the Norwegian Cruise Line in 2014 in calling the Bayport Terminal home. Norwegian Cruise Line is expected to bring its 2,374-passenger Norwegian Jewel to Houston for seven-day Western Caribbean cruises through 2017.

Port of Houston officials estimate the Princess and Norwegian cruise lines will bring more than 400,000 cruise passengers through the terminal from 2013 through 2017.


Turning Basin Contract Awarded

A $1.3 million construction contract was recently awarded to Grant MacKay Company by the Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority to perform work related to the redevelopment plan for the Turning Basin Terminal.

The contract calls for the razing of selected buildings at the Turning Basin, as well as for the removal of existing concrete and steel building structures at multiple locations, asbestos abatement, security lighting, fencing and camera relocation.


There’s an App for That

The Port Authority has developed a mobile app that allows you to use your smart phone to check on the status of a container and its pick up availability. The Mobile Customer Access (MCA) app includes the following categories: terminal announcements, container availability, booking inquiry, vessel schedule, gate inquiry, and terminal information. To download the app,

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