INGLESIDE — A massive crude carrier called the Anne docked at the Port of Corpus Christi on Friday without a drop of oil in its cargo hold.
Nonetheless, its visit made history.
At nearly 1,100 feet long and 200 feet wide, the French vessel was easily be the largest oil tanker to ever call on a port in the Gulf of Mexico.
Officials for Occidental Petroleum successfully navigated the super tanker through the port and safely docked it at the Oxy Ingleside Energy Center export terminal. The experiment came at a time when most gulf ports are wrestling with major spikes in vessel traffic that can be traced to the Panama Canal's recent expansion and the December 2015 repeal of the ban on foreign crude exports.
Nowhere is that trend playing out more vividly than at Corpus Christi's port, the nation's fifth largest, based on tonnage.
"This is a great milestone for this port and this region," Port Authority chairman Charles Zahn said.
The Anne, owned by Belgium-based Euronav, can hold up to 2.2 million barrels of crude, significantly dwarfing the supramax and handymax vessels that are commonly seen at the port. The ship's cargo hold was empty for the test to stay within the port's 45-foot draft limit. In all, five tug boats were needed to escort the Anne through some of the port's narrowest and shallowest choke points to reach its destination.
Cynthia L. Walker, a senior vice president for Occidental Petroleum, said the Ingleside facility is pivotal to the company's operations to move crude out of the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico.
Congress has twice approved plans to dredge the port to a 52-foot draft — in 2007 and 2014. Each time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to put the $350 million effort on its funding list. Port officials plan to fund the first phase of the project on their own. That segment is estimated to total roughly $35 million.
In September, the Port Authority approved $2.1 million in contracts to hire consultants to conduct sediment testing and other studies until more funding can be found.
More than 8,100 vessels sailed through the port in 2016, carrying a total of 94.3 million tons of cargo, according to port financial records. A total of 34 million tons of cargo made its way through the port on 2,238 vessels during the first four months of 2017.
The port took in a record 103 million tons of cargo in 2015.
Capt. Jay Rivera, the presiding officer for the Aransas-Corpus Christi Pilots Association, which is responsible for guiding vessel traffic through the port, said preparations for the Anne's visit began roughly six months ago. It started with conference calls and strategy sessions. Things eventually graduated to more extensive training at the Seamen's Church Institute in Houston, where pilots drilled on simulators.
"We ran scenarios for everything — good weather, bad weather, engine failures. Any kind of emergency you could think up," Rivera said. "We were totally ready for this."
Things went smoothly. Or so it appeared from the Port Aransas shoreline, where Dianne Niemann and her 7-year-old grandson, Phisher Shackelford, watched the ship steam past early Friday morning. They were among dozens of beach goers who beat the sunrise to capture pictures and videos of the massive ship from a popular jetty.
"That thing is huge," an excited Phisher said.
Niemann, of Port Aransas, is married to a ship captain, and she said she thought it was important for Phisher to see a moment of Texas maritime history.
"Is that not a gorgeous thing to see?" asked Niemann, as the Anne sailed by. "This is a big deal for this area."