Posted on December 12, 2022
A pilot was distracted by his phone for a minute at a critical turn in a shipping channel just before the mammoth Ever Forward container vessel became stuck on the muddy bottom of the Chesapeake Bay earlier this year, according to a Coast Guard investigation into the incident.
The ship’s crew appeared to be aware that something was amiss but didn’t do enough to get the pilot’s attention before the ship went aground March 13, the report found. The Ever Forward remained stationary for about five weeks.
The Coast Guard report, released Tuesday, provides a timeline of the events that unfolded on the 1,095-foot ship’s bridge after it left Baltimore for Norfolk. The stranded ship had become a magnet of curiosity in the Washington region, drawing onlookers to a bayside park to watch the effort to refloat the cargo vessel.
From almost the moment the pilot came aboard, the report says, he was distracted by a problem at the port, followed by a personal phone call that lasted nearly an hour.
While the Coast Guard report didn’t name the pilot, the Maryland Department of Labor said in a statement Tuesday that a state licensing board had suspended the license of the pilot, whom it identified as Steven Germac. The Labor Department said Germac’s license was suspended in October and that he had not worked on a vessel in the bay since the incident.
The evidence was enough to support a finding that the pilot was negligent, a Coast Guard investigator concluded. The investigator recommended federal authorities take enforcement action against him, but in a memo filed with the report, a senior Coast Guard official said he would wait for state-level proceedings to conclude before making a decision. A state hearing on the case that would determine the status of the license and any penalty is pending.
Germac could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The vessel was operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine, which also chartered the Ever Given, another huge container ship that gained notoriety when it became lodged in the Suez Canal in 2021, snarling global trade.
The Ever Forward pilot, who had 15 years of experience, was on the phone for about half of the two-hour trip down the bay, according to the Coast Guard report. He told investigators it was common for pilots to handle personal matters on long trips. But another pilot who had guided the Ever Forward into Baltimore the previous day told investigators he would only feel comfortable using his phone in an emergency, according to the report.
While the report described the pilot as agitated throughout the trip, the first two hours went fairly smoothly. At 8:16 p.m., the ship was on its proper course through a bend in the shipping channel.
It was then that the pilot began drafting an email, according to the report. At 8:17 p.m., the ship passed a point where it should have made a turn to the right, but no order came from the pilot.
The ship’s third officer, the senior crew member on the bridge while the captain was having dinner, announced the ship’s heading and speed in an apparent effort to prompt the pilot to correct course, but didn’t directly say the turn had been missed, according to the report. Germac acknowledged the announcement, the report said.
“The Third Officer stated that the Pilot was still looking at his phone at this time,” the Coast Guard investigator wrote.
By 8:18 p.m., the pilot had put his phone away and ordered the ship to make a hard right turn, but it was too late. The 117,000-ton ship was stuck.
The third officer called the captain back to the bridge and the pilot unsuccessfully tried to use the ship’s thrusters to get it free, questioning whether it was really grounded, according to the Coast Guard.
In an initial conversation with the Coast Guard that night, the report indicated Germac said the turn was “executed late” but “that he could not say more until his statement had been reviewed by an attorney.”
To get the ship floating again, crews had to solve a Jenga-like puzzle to determine which of the 4,900 containers aboard could be removed to lighten the load, while at the same time scooping 20 feet of mud from the bottom of the bay. A senior Coast Guard official described the scope of the job at the time as historic for both Ever Forward’s size and the amount of time it took to dislodge the ship.