Trip on a yacht starting 2017-03-16 in BSAApril17

Following a visit by some members to the Bristol Vessel Traffic Service control room at AvonmouthMap, Dave Herbert of the Bristol Port Company offered to give a presentation to BSA on the history and activities of the VTS. We were able to arrange for Dave to come to this meeting at short notice. Although not many of us sail in the Bristol Channel, the service is the same as that provided by Southampton VTS which controls the area from Southampton to Cowes, also operating on VHF Ch 12.

Bristol VTS

Bristol Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) provides harbour users with comprehensive information concerning vessel movements, height of tide and weather conditions. The Bristol VTS area covers much of the upper Bristol Channel from the Holm Islands to the Lower Shoots including the River Avon. Pilot orders and lock times are allocated by Bristol VTS to ensure the safety and efficiency of navigation in the estuary.

VTS Communication

Bristol VTS can be contacted in a number of ways. VHF monitoring takes place on the below channels and all participating vessels (over 50GT) must monitor the following VHF Channels. Vessels below this size are requested to maintain a continuous watch on VHF channel 12. 

Ch 12 call sign ‘Bristol VTS’ (entire VTS Area)

Ch 14 call sign ‘Avonmouth or Portbury Dock’ (Lock and Dock movements)

Telephone: +44 (0) 1179 802638


Dave began by describing the operations at the Bristol ports, Avonmouth and Royal Portbury docks. Since coming under the control of the Bristol Port Company in 1991 £450 M has been invested in the docks, and the current turnover is £90 M / year. The import and export of cars amounts to 60 – 70,000 a month. The 100,000 containers handled each year are just 1% of the UK container business, but there is a proposal for a new 1.5 Km long container terminal which would cost £600M. One startling piece of information was that there is a warehouse containing 24 million bottles of wine. Dave pointed out that Bristol is the most central deep water port in the UK – lorries with freight to and from the Midlands can make two trips per day, whereas they could make only one to Southampton.

As well as controlling marine traffic Bristol VTS is also the lighthouse authority and is responsible for 113 navigation aids. Sometimes they have to stop large vessels docking as a reduction in tide height of 0.6 m can be caused by high atmospheric pressure (some vessels enter the docks with just 1 m of water below the keel – more like a 12 m yacht than 50,000 T of car carrier). Such a delay can cost £70.000.

The VTS can receive up to 1200 radio and phone calls a day. Leisure craft used to have to call VTS when approaching up-channel, but this is no longer required unless outbound from the Avon. All craft should keep a listening watch on Ch 12 while in the VTS area (from the Lower Shoots to the Holm islands, including the River Avon). All vessels over 50 GRT will call Bristol VTS at the reporting points allowing their intended course to be followed by those listening.

Leisure craft are reminded that they should use the inshore or offshore routes rather than the main channel, and if they have to cross the channel (e.g. to enter Portishead marina) should use the recommended crossing at right angles at Firefly buoy. Large ships are usually travelling at speed – the car carriers approach at 20K – horizon to you in 10 minutes in clear conditions. Vessels approaching on the flood tide will swing 180° to port before entering the locks.

Dave then showed multibeam depth surveys of the entrance to the Avon, illustrating why many yachts run aground by cutting the corner. He ended his talk by emphasising that you should not hesitate to call VTS if you are in any difficulty, or in reduced visibility, for advice.

Detailed advice for leisure craft is available on the Bristol Port Company website, following the link to VTS and navigation, then ‘Recreational Craft’.

Avonmouth VTS  51.5056,-2.7143