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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Alpha Zone!

The Montevideo Port
While the title of this post sounds like something straight out of a combat or Sci-fy movie, Wally and I just found out that we are living in the Alpha zone. Okay, not actually living in the zone otherwise we would be drowning, rather we are living along side this water shipping zone.

We found out about this zone through an off the cuff remark. As most of you know, Wally and I live near the beach and through our living room and dining room picture windows we have a grand view of the water. (yeah, I can't help bragging just a little bit). Well, normally during the day we keep the shutters open so we can enjoy the view and happenings on the beach. After sunset, we sometimes debate on just when and at what time to shut those shutters. I often joke, "it's too bad the ocean isn't lit up at night like a pool is, then I'd have something to see through those windows at night." Recently, that has changed!

About four years ago when I first looked out of those windows at the water during the day, I occasionally saw a small red fishing boat, fishing while seagulls circled and pretty much nothing at night. Two years ago, I posted a photo of a ship around twilight time lit up. I thought it might be a cruise ship heading to Argentina, as it was summertime.

Now, when I look out my windows, I see huge container ships and others (as in plural) not only passing by during the day but at night they stop and rest there, camped out as it were, all along the horizon. Now at night we leave the shutters open much later, as we now have a beautiful view of multicolored lights. We pretend, we are looking at a city skyline view, lit up at night.

Ships at night, lighted up off the coast from my house.
Getting back, to the Alpha zone, we finally had to ask someone "Hey, what's up with all of those ships that are just hanging around not moving?" "Oh, (said rather, off-handily) that's the Alpha zone, a waiting zone for all ships wanting to enter Montevideo's Port". Wow! How was I, just now finding out about this? I asked other people and they all seemed to know what I was just finding out. It's a zone where not only do the ships wait out at sea before they can enter into the harbor but where they are also allowed to unload or lighten their cargo, ship to ship in the water! If for some reason they can't be cleared to enter the port for a while, they can hang out in front of "our stretch of water!"

Off-shore "Parking" of ships just waiting.

Still wondering why there was so much waiting time and unloading going on in the waters in front of my house and not in the harbor itself, I found out some more info. about the Port of Montevideo. It's a natural port with a main channel that gives access. This channel is not very wide or deep and is often threatened with sediment. Some people say there are spots you could walk upon. To the west of the channel one can see sticking up out of the water the mast of the shipwrecked El Calpean Star (formerly called the Highland Chieftain). It sank in July, 1960 (the result of an explosion and fire).

Ship in the middle maneuvering into place.
The original main channel of access extends from the jetty to Km 9.35 and at Km 6.5, it was dredged a deviation in four sections, to the east, up to the Km 42.4. My house sits at around 40 km to the east.  The depth recorded in December 2006 was 11 meters to zero!  The channel is clearly marked with lighted buoys on both sides. Due to a significant amount of sediment which in time builds shoals throughout the channel and the inner harbor, the width narrows from this sediment that accumulates. In parts of the channel people say that,  two very large ships can not pass each other side by side, due to their draft (The depth of a ship's keel below the waterline.).  There is much talk of not only improving the port with dredging projects (I hear that a Chinese firm maybe contracted to do this soon) but also one day there is hopes of building perhaps a new deepwater port. Meanwhile the entrance and exits into the harbor have to be managed carefully, juggling smaller ships together with the larger ones while other ships have to wait. Sometimes due to the channel's depth, ships may have to lighten their loads before entering the port. At other times because of shipping schedules boats who can't wait to enter, might pass their loads to fellow company ships or those returning back home. They can do this in view of my house.

The amount of ships certainly has increased in 4 years time! As an update; May 19th, 2013 saw a record 100 ships off the Costa de Oro or the gold coast that runs past my house.

Thanks to Mark Mercer for posting this on Facebook!
That's why we suddenly noticed all of this going on. I don't know why, so much waiting is happening now or how much total ship traffic there is for this year but I do have some figures from back when we first arrived.

In a 2008 report it was mentioned that the port had dealings with some 5,000 plus vessels, including fishing vessels from various countries (525) and Uruguay (1827), petroleum ships (245), barges (113), cruise liners (101), and general cargo ships (223), container ships (819) and bulk vessels (111) among others. The port handled a little over 9 million tons of cargo that year. That shows a lot of ships coming in and out (imports and exports).

The port handles almost all of the imports of the country and the exports mainly are effected through Montevideo and Nueva Palmira. Chief exports include exports of meat, hides, wool, rice, milk, and fish among other things. The approach to the port by the Atlantic is between the Island of Flores and the English Bank. The port is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with a few exceptions.

The port is protected by 2 breakwaters. Wind rather than tidal changes effect conditions at the port. Normally during the year the wind speed averages 12 knots but when the gales of the Southwest blow they can reach 80 to 120 km. an hour (1 knot equals 1.85 km or 1.152 mph). The port closes (at the authorities discretion) when the wind reaches 32.4 knots. This is one example of why so many ships might have to wait to get into the port. The port can also close when visibility is less than a 1000 meters. These things are determined by the Maritime Authority. It can be compared to an airplane circling the airport, waiting to land. Strikes or trouble at the port would also cause a back log of ships waiting.
At twilight, ships in a row with lights aglow.
I went online to various shipping companies websites and found out that Montevideo's port location is: Montevideo Latitude 34°54'33"S  Longitude 56°12' 45" W

There are water zones delineated where ships are allowed to lighten, transfer, complete cargoes and receive supplies and services. The Zone of Anchoring is used for supplies and services.

Ship waiting, "parked" off-shore.
By treaty, Uruguay and Argentina have established 4 zones at the entrance of the River Plata to be utilized by the ships that require to lighten cargoes when arriving for Montevideo, Buenos Aires or other ports of rivers of both countries.  Some zones are utilized also to load or to top off cargo that have been loaded partly in ports of the basin of the Plata. These 4 zones are: the Alpha Zone ("A"), the Bravo Zone ("B"), and zones C (Common) and D (Delta). The depth of the water in the zones "A" or "B" is at least of 12.80 meters of brackish water, and in the zones "C" and "D" of 15.85 meters, that are utilized mainly to lighten tankers. 

There are two light house zones. The light house zone declared "Alpha" of the River Plata (Rio de la Plata), is between the coast and Long. 55°30 and 57°21 'W, and in the south by the limit of the River Plata with Argentinean water. On a clear day, I can see the Alpha Zone's light house on the Island named "Isla de Flores" from my terrace.

The Isla de Flores lighthouse as seen from my deck(zoomed in).
The Light house zone for the zone declared "Bravo" of the River Plata is between the meridians of Punta Sayago and Punta Brava, and of the coast and the Latitude. 35°01 'S. It includes the harbor, the channel of the access, the outer port, the basins and quays of Montevideo.
Ship cruising by my house.
All of this maybe kinda of confusing to take in but to recap.The zone farthest away from the port is the Alpha zone. It's kind of like the ultimate loitering spot for ships. Next comes the Bravo zone from the mouth of the port, including the harbor, it can be used to complete cargoes and lighten loads as well.

Close to Montevideo's port address of Longitude 56 is an anchoring spot (about 200 hectare) that can be utilized for picking up supplies and services needed aboard the various ships. The zone Common is part of the main channel and also heads towards Argentina. The "D"  or Delta zone runs in front of Piri├ípolis.

All said and done, my little window on the world has just gotten a  bit more interesting and hey, Alphas rule!


Anonymous said...

Hello Denise,
What do you see from your window, the ocean or the “Rio de la Plata”?
I just wonder if the “Rio de la Plata” is really a river or rather a gulf. I guess it is a mixture of saltwater and freshwater otherwise it would not be considered a river, but for me it is hard to understand how the freshwater can prevent saltwater penetration... it is more than 200 km wide at its mouth!
Best regards,

Pedro Paulo said...

Hello there!

I just found your blog on google, i'm going to Uruguay next week and i'm gonna stay for 3 months in Montevideo. Here I can see a lot of good advice about the country!

Saludos desde Brasil! :-)

Denise said...

Dear Pedro,
I'm glad you found our blog just be aware that it is WINTER now!!! Bring a heavy coat, sweater, hat, gloves and scarf, even hotels can be cold this time of year.
I hope you enjoy your stay!

Hector said...

Nice blog, lots of info! Regards, Hector

Maria Suzan Michelle Arouza (Cardoz) said...

Dear Denise,

I'm from India and my husband is and oil tanker near Rio De lo Plata.. I regularly check where his ship is on FleetMon - its a ship tracker... Its not much.... but keeps me at peace.... They have put his new destination as Alpha Zone and when I did a google search I found your blog... Thanks for the info... It relaxed my mind...

Maria Suzan Michelle Arouza (Cardoz) said...

Thanks for this post... it was really helpful... My husband's ship is currently headed to Alpha Zone and I was wondering what it is... Thanks!!!

Syd said...

What research, Denise. Excellent blog.