The Harbour Master’s Dream Or Nightmare?

The principle of Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) is not a new concept. Original systems were implemented shortly after the end of World War II, when radar control systems were established on the Isle of Man and at the Port of Liverpool in 1948. However, the concept of vessel traffic control has become a major part in the control of shipping, especially in restricted waters, and most major international harbour authorities handling large numbers of daily vessel traffic movements use electronic vessel traffic control to ensure the smooth and safe movement of vessels into and out of port, as well as through restricted international waterways such as the Strait of Dover or the Storebaelt, in Danish waters.

The practice of following predetermined routes for shipping originated in 1898 and was adopted, for reasons of safety, by shipping companies operating passenger ships across the North Atlantic. Related provisions were subsequently incorporated into the original SOLAS (Safety of Lives at Sea) Convention. The 1960 SOLAS Convention referred to ships’ measures in busy shipping areas on both sides of the North Atlantic, and contracting governments undertook the responsibility of using their influence to induce the owners of all ships crossing the Atlantic to follow recognized routes and to ensure adherence to such routes in converging areas by all ships, so far as circumstances permitted.


Meanwhile, the analysis of casualty statistics was showing that collisions between ships were becoming a worrying cause of accidents, especially in congested waterways. In 1963, the Liverpool Underwriters Association reported 21 collisions responsible for total losses of ships, compared with a five-year average of 13.8. A report on tanker hazards presented late in 1963 to the United States Treasury concluded that most accidents were due to human error, with speed in congested waters a principal cause. The report stated that there were too many diverse “rules of the road”, the width of navigable channels had generally not kept pace with the increase in sizes and tonnages of vessels, and not enough was being done to use modern communications.

At the same time, the Institutes of Navigation of the Federal Republic of Germany, France and the United Kingdom had begun a study on improving safety measures in congested areas, such as the English Channel. The group came up with a series of proposals, including the idea that ships using congested areas should follow a system of one-way traffic schemes, like those being used on land. Traffic lanes of this type were already in use on the Great Lakes of North America. The proposals were favourably received by the Maritime Safety Committee of IMO (then IMCO) in 1964 and governments were urged to advise their ships to follow the routes suggested by the group.


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