About the Author
Mass Effect
Final Fantasy X
Batman:Arkham City
Borderlands Series
Weekly Column
Champions Online
World of Warcraft
DM of the Rings
Good Robot
Project Frontier

Houston Ship Channel Time Lapse

By Shamus
on Saturday May 16, 2009
Filed under:


This video is very simple, but I found it to be oddly captivating. The time lapse of a big ship like this gives a better sense of how it moves, in a way you just can’t see when watching it creep along in real time.

Link (YouTube)

I love the 0:27 mark, when the tug opens up and pulls away. It looks like the enterprise going into warp at this speed.

The sidebar says that this was done by taking a photograph once every six seconds. Assuming the video was then made by simply mapping one photograph to one frame of video (which is by no means certain) and assuming the video was made at 30fps (was also isn’t certain) then 1 second of video would represent 3 minutes of activity. That’s a compression factor of 180:1, which means that the three minutes of visible activity would represent… nine hours?

That sounds wrong to me, but I honestly have no idea. Either way, it’s fun.


Comments (42)

  1. Henebry says:

    Beautiful. But then I got to thinking about how fast time was moving, and from that point on I was watching for the sun to come up. That it didn’t struck me as creepy. A fallen world, lit from below by the orange fires of sodium arc lamps. Hell is Houston.

  2. Mari says:

    I’m sure Houstonians would disagree, Henebry, but I tend to agree with your assessment if not the reasons for it.

  3. Brandon says:

    Oh, beautiful find. Quite an ethereal quality.

  4. scragar says:

    Right, I downloaded it and tested it, 11 frames per second as far as I could tell. That gives a time ratio of about 1:66 or one second for one minute six seconds.

    This means that the actually trip would have taken around 4 hours 23 minutes.

    Have I just spoiled the magic?

  5. Vladius says:

    Very cool. Looks like it’s floating because of how rapidly the water moves.

  6. J Greely says:

    One of the “related videos” was the original (without music), and the creator says ~3.5 hours. It has a lot of comments that say “needs music”. :-)


  7. Peter H. Coffin says:

    More fun math. The thing goes under three bridges from about the 0:40 mark to about 2:46. The bridges are about 18 3/4 channel-miles apart (16 1/3 NM). The ship does this in 126 film seconds, so (using figures above) or about 2 hours, 18 minutes realtime. Which puts the ship moving at a real rate of 8.1 MPH (7 knts), and apparent speed of 534 MPH (based on the 66:1 speedup).

  8. My first thought was that it couldn’t be 9 hours long because the amount of light in the night sky doesn’t change.

    But it is definitely an interesting video.


  9. ngthagg says:

    Here’s a neat little video, showing off the opposite effect: a 1000fps film, in HD.


  10. froogger says:

    *awards scragar and Peter H. Coffin a geek-trophy*
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Nalano says:

    @Henebry (1)

    Hell is a seaport?

    It’s like watching a plane taxi or rolling stock navigate a train yard. It’s not on a human scale, but it is probably the most interesting (and innocuous) look at human endeavors.

  12. […] Video acelerado de un barco cruzando el canal de Houston www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=3387 por Harkon hace pocos segundos […]

  13. Sheer_FALACY says:

    Actually the coolest part of the video, to me, was the way the smoke stacks (or whatever they’re called) looked. At that speed, it’s like a freaking flamethrower.

    Not to mention the clouds.

  14. skizelo says:

    It may not be hell, but in parts it looks a lot like Blade Runner.

  15. Dev Null says:

    Oh very cool ngthagg.

    In Shamus’s slow-mo, I like the streams of steam, and the low-lying clouds lit from below…

  16. Kalil says:

    I’m a cadet at the California Maritime Academy, in training to become a marine engineer. It is kind of mind-boggling how slow the large ships can be. Our training ship is very fast (it was the fastest ‘research vessel’ in the Navy’s fleet, before it was transferred to MARAD), and it tops out at about 15 knots. That’s about 17 miles per hour. 5 knot maximum speed vessels are not uncommon. Furthermore, in coastal waters, ships are subject to very strict rules regarding speed and wake. Most localities require all ships to be escorted by one or often two tugs. Makes sense, when you consider that many of the larger ships have a turning radius best measured in miles.

    The engines on most such vessels are large slow-speed diesels. I’ve heard of engines with piston strokes a minute long, and seen pictures of the insides of piston cylinders that look like elevator shafts. Our engines on the training ship are a pair of relatively small medium speed engines, each about the size of a semi truck and producing 17,000 HP.

  17. SteveDJ says:

    I found myself comparing the driving of that ship against myself driving a car at night. And then it occurred to me – there are no lane markers, no headlights, and in some places few lights at all. And yet the ship doesn’t make any wrong turns or whatnot — I know I’d be totally lost trying to navigate through that waterway

    Yea, I know, someone’s gonna say it is all done with GPS. But then that’s no fun… :)

  18. Kalil says:

    It’s done with GPS nowadays, but we’re also still heavily reliant on good old fashioned charting, triangulation, etc. Furthermore, in most coastal waters,ships are required to have a Pilot on board who has specialized in that region and knows it like the back of his hand.
    Also, there are a /lot/ of lane markers, if you know what to look for – they’re called buoys, and they’re color coded to mark which side they should be on (in the States, it’s ‘red, right, returning’, although it varies abroad). Finally, there are ‘headlights’ called ‘running lights’, which not only tell you there’s a ship, they also tell you whether you’re looking at the front, back, left, or right side of the ship.
    Note that all color codes are in red and green. The colorblind need not apply.

  19. nehumanuscrede says:


    GPS is nice, but you need to know how to do it manually in the event GPS decides to up and die on you. Shoot your landmarks and triangulate your position best you can.

    The statement about speed in the channels is dead on. The rules are VERY strict about your maximum speed and how much wake you’re producing. So yeah, it’s several hours to make a run like that one. If you’ve ever been through the Panama Canal, it’s pretty much an all day event as well.

    Still, a simple concept of firing off a camera shot every few seconds made for an interesting video :D

  20. Krellen says:

    The thing I find most amazing about naval movement are tug boats. Those little tiny things are capable, upon their own power, of moving those monstrosities of the waves, and often faster than they can move themselves.

    Tug boats are amazing things. The engines on them must be spectacular (and deafening.)

  21. brashieel says:

    Cool video. Personally, I always find the Ship Channel pretty damn intimidating due to sheer complexity.

  22. Kalil says:

    Yah, the tugs are really cool. They’re not only powerful, they’re also extraordinarily nimble. A number of alums and students from my school work on the bay tugs, and so sometimes when they come by our ship they’ll put on a show. They’re capable of twirling in place – looks like they’re spinning in the center of the whirlpool formed from their own wake.
    At the minimum, most tugs have a pair of counter-rotating propellers to allow for turning by varying thrust to one or the other. Many now have Z-drives, where the propeller mount is capable of rotating. Z-drive tugs are often steered with joysticks instead of steering wheels.

  23. Eltanin says:

    An interesting note to follow up on Kalil’s comment about pilots. To become a pilot, you become master of a certain area, often represented by a chart. I.e., the “Chesapeake Bay”, or “Approaches to Baltimore” or whatever. My understanding is that the pilot’s exam, among other things, is to take a blank piece of chart paper and reproduce your area of specialization from memory. Every buoy, every headland, every depth sounding, everything. Rather astounding really when you stop to think about the density of information stored on a chart. As a mariner, you give a pilot your utmost respect, and listen when he/she tells you something.

    But the Byzantine mess that seems to be Houston’s waterways would give me a headache.

  24. Kalil says:

    Eltanin: Yep, that’s just about right. Not only does it require a tremendous amount of study and knowledge, it’s also a physically demanding job, as you must meet an incoming vessel well outside of harbour, in open ocean, and climb from the pilot boat a ladder (generally, a rickety rope one) onto whatever ship you’re supposed to be guiding, all while both vessels are rocking in rough seas, regardless of the weather.

    …unlike most jobs that demand that kind of physical skill and risk-taking, it actually pays quite well. Experienced San Francisco Bay pilots can make $400,000+.

    As an aside, when a ship has a pilot on board, it flies the ‘Hotel’ flag, which is half white and half red.

  25. Frode says:

    Can you imagine the waves this would have generated if the video wasn’t a timelapse..?

    Surf’s up!

  26. Volatar says:


    I would actually greatly prefer memorizing a map to memorizing the kind of crap they make us memorize in school these days.

    Sadly I am rather inland.

    Luckily I already found a career path with a lot less memorization period. (computer science :D )

  27. Wonderduck says:

    My heavens, the wake this ship would have been causing! The Captain is a madman!

    *reads title again*

    Oh. Never mind.

  28. SteveDJ says:

    See – all the discussion about GPS and such seems to take some of the “magic” away. I was trying to focus on the look of the video.

    It looks as if there were several places where the captain could choose to go left, or right, or straight ahead. And, unlike driving, there are no signs that say “Out to Sea, Next Exit”. :) It almost reminded me of those old-style maze puzzles from some classic computer adventure games.

    But yes, I can agree and have respect for the captain that can navigate such waterways from memory.

  29. Eltanin says:

    Kalil: What school are you attending? And where are you trying to work when you’re done? Not company, but type of marine job.

    I sailed as chief mate for traditional rig sailing vessels until the wife, house, and child made me swallow the anchor. Obviously I was working with small potatoes compared to commercial shipping, but we did a lot more low-tech navigating (not to mention steering) than is common with big shipping.

    Are they still making you learn celestial? Or a better way to put it would be, are you still getting treated to the mysteries of celestial navigation? It was a big part of our program to teach students and I truly love it. There’s nothing in this world quite like the satisfaction of a tight star fix.

    I worked for http://www.sea.edu for much of my almost ten years at sea.

  30. Ermel says:

    re tugboats, a quote from Scott Adams (Dilbert creator):

    “The ship had a gym in the bow, with windows to look outside. I used to pretend to power the ship by my pedaling on an exercise bike. I almost passed out trying to ram a tugboat — they’re faster than they look.”

    (Paraphrased; sorry about that. And SCNR.)

  31. Kalil says:

    Eltanin: I’m going to the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, CA. I’m currently back home in NC for summer break. I’m probably going to work on tankers for a few years, because the money is too good to turn down (can’t knock six-digit starting salaries. O.o), but I plan to eventually ‘settle down’ to working research vessels or university vessels, because they seem like a lot of fun. I’ve got a strong background in science already, and I like the academic environment. And scientists very rarely choose to do research in boring places.

    According to the administration, this years freshmen are the last that will be required to learn Celestial, although I believe it will still be offered as an elective. I’m opposed to cutting it from the curriculum, given that one good solar storm could render GPS inoperative for months. I’m not sure that I believe that it’ll be removed – the Coast Guard has talked about removing it as a requirement for a decade now, and it hasn’t happened. They’ve been considering removing flashing light (morse code) for even longer, and, again, that hasn’t happened.

    The SEA program is really cool – I actually really wanted to participate in it, but I won’t have the opportunity before graduation. My current month-and-a-half of summer is the only break I’ll have until I graduate.

  32. Marmot says:

    This is beautiful! I am constantly amazed at what changes in video (or thought) are possible with just a little difference in the synch. Thanks for the link :)

  33. Unary says:

    I followed the link-backs, and the guy who made this (Lou Vest) had another page (on Flickr) where there was another video (like this, not at night) where he gave said he assembled the photos for that video at 15 FPS.

    Once you have a procedure for something, I don’t know why you’d change it.

  34. Groboclown says:

    I used to live in Houston, and I can say that it was close enough to hell to count. Any place where you have the local authorities say “stay away from this area” because of a chemical accident – on a regular basis – counts.

  35. rbtroj says:

    ShipSim 2008 for your ultra-low-speed simulation fix:


  36. Elijah Meeks says:

    That’s beautiful. Somebody needs to integrate this and the old Areva nuclear commercial into a two-hour time-lapse of processing and transportation–like a Koyanaqaatsi with a real message.

  37. Zaghadka says:

    Sorry to drop a test post on you, but my browser is doing weird things. I had to flush the cookies and the cache, and for some reason the main page renders in Lawful Good, but the comments are showing up in Chaotic Evil.

    This happens both in FF 3.0.10 and IE 6, and IE Tab in FF won’t even load the page.

    You messing with your ajax?

  38. Zaghadka says:

    Test successful. For some reason, filling in the posting fields reset the comments page to “Lawful Good” again.

    (I should mention that I’m running No-Script, with only shamusyoung.com and technorati.com whitelisted for scripts.)

  39. Zaghadka says:

    Okay. I think it’s all better. Feel free to prune these posts.

  40. Zaghadka says:

    Almost there. :)

  41. James says:

    Cool video

    I hate to break up the on-topic conversation of mathematics and careers at sea, but can anybody tell me what the song is?

One Trackback

  1. By Video acelerado de un barco cruzando el canal de Houston on Saturday May 16, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    […] Video acelerado de un barco cruzando el canal de Houston www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=3387 por Harkon hace pocos segundos […]

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated and may not be posted immediately. Required fields are marked *


Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darth_Vader">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>