A licensed Maryland state pilot was looking at his cellphone at approximately 8:17 p.m. March 13, as he guided an aircraft carrier-sized container ship through the Chesapeake Bay, according to a statement from an officer on board, which was cited in a U.S. Coast Guard report.
One minute later, the 1,095-foot ship had run aground.
That ship, the Ever Forward, spent 35 days stuck off the Anne Arundel County shore in March and April and now, nearly nine months later, the Coast Guard has revealed the cause of the grounding in a 27-page report Tuesday.
Its investigation found that the pilot, who began working with the Association of Maryland Pilots as an apprentice in 2007, was on the phone for nearly half of the Ever Forward’s transit before it grounded, also sending text messages and drafting an email. Furthermore, when the pilot did not adequately steer the ship to follow the shipping channel, other officers in the bridge — essentially the vessel’s command center — were not vocal enough in informing the pilot of the ship’s doomed trajectory.
“The Report of the Investigation determined the incident’s causal factors to be the pilot’s failure to maintain situational awareness and attention while navigating, and inadequate bridge resource management,” the report stated.
The Coast Guard report also said that marine operators should be more mindful of cellphone usage from now on.
“Based on the finding of facts, the Coast Guard is recommending that marine operators develop and implement effective policies outlining when the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices is appropriate or prohibited,” the report stated.
The pilot, Capt. Steven Germac, was identified in a news release Tuesday from the Maryland Department of Labor, which stated that his operating license has been suspended: He has “not piloted a commercial vessel” since the grounding.
The Ever Forward, the largest ship ever to get stuck in the Chesapeake Bay, had been traveling from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, when it did not turn south with the Craighill Channel and instead plowed into a shallow area, outside the channel, at 13 knots. It became stuck in 18 feet of Chesapeake Bay mud and sat for over a month until it was finally freed after a massive effort involving two failed tugging attempts, dredging 210,000 cubic yards of material and the removal of 500 shipping containers to lighten the load.
“After thorough review of evidence and expert analysis in the investigation of the March 13, 2022 grounding of the MV Ever Forward, the Maryland Board of Pilots (Board), in a unanimous decision, voted to summarily suspend the operating license of Captain Steven Germac on October 20, 2022, and formally notified Captain Germac by letter dated October 21, 2022,” the state labor department said in its news release.
Efforts to reach Germac for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.
“As part of the Board’s statutory process, Captain Germac will be afforded an opportunity for a hearing to formally challenge the Board’s decision in this matter,” the labor department’s release said.
The pilot has requested the opportunity for a hearing, according to the Coast Guard report.
The Ever Forward is owned by the same Taiwanese company, Evergreen Marine Corp., as the Ever Given, a ship that became internationally infamous for blocking shipping through the Suez Canal for six days in 2021. Unlike the Ever Given, the Ever Forward did not block shipping, instead causing only minor inconvenience in the shipping channel as crews worked to free it.
Maryland law requires foreign vessels to employ an expert pilot licensed by the state to navigate state waters, and Germac was the expert pilot for the Ever Forward, which sailed under the Hong Kong flag. The Coast Guard report cited AT&T records, which found that Germac (who was identified as “Pilot 1″) spent about 61 minutes of the “126-minute voyage up to the grounding” on his personal cellphone, including a 55-minute personal call. At least one of the five phone calls he made was a work call, the report said, but it was “not urgent and unrelated to the current safe navigation” of the Ever Forward.
“Further, he sent two text messages at 2007 and 2015 (8:07 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.), a critical time period leading up to when the turn south into the lower Craighill Channel should have been executed,” stated the report, which also found that he “began drafting an email immediately before the grounding occurred regarding issues he experienced with facility line handlers.”
Germac told investigators that it is not uncommon for pilots to complete “various personal tasks while underway,” although another pilot interviewed by the Coast Guard stated that he did not make personal calls while in transit.
The investigation found no suspicion of drug or alcohol use by Germac or the ship officers and there were no signs of mechanical issues or equipment failures. However, other officers did not adequately communicate the ship’s ill-fated path to the pilot, the report found.
As the Ever Forward missed its turn, just one minute before grounding, an officer stated aloud the vessel’s speed (13 knots) and that its course was 161 degrees (a south-southeast direction), but did not alert the captain that the ship’s course should actually have been 180 degrees (due south). Instead, Germac simply “observed that the bridge team seemed to be chattering more.”
An officer then successfully alerted the pilot, who “put away his phone” and tried to quickly redirect the ship. He ordered “hard to starboard” 20 seconds later, but it was too late. The ship was getting stuck.
Although the ship had slowed to 0.4 knots, Germac “indicated to the bridge team that he did not believe the vessel was aground,” and he “ordered the bridge team to prepare the bow thrusters.”
However, the ship didn’t budge, and in the minutes after it ran aground, Germac and others made other efforts to free it, began conducting safety checks and informed Evergreen headquarters in Taiwan.
When speaking over the phone with a Coast Guard investigator at 9:02 p.m., Germac said “the vessel’s turn south to the lower Craighill Channel was executed late and that he could not say more until his statement had been reviewed by an attorney,” per the report. At 10:50 p.m. — about 2 1/2 hours after the ship ran aground — he departed the ship.
Salvage of the ship began that week as dredges, including one billed as the largest clamshell dredge in the Western Hemisphere, worked to dig up the mud it was stuck in. Twice, tugboats unsuccessfully tried to pull the ship free. Ships, cranes and crews of workers then removed shipping containers, which were sent back to Baltimore, and finally, seven barges and tugboats pulled the Ever Forward free on April 17. They towed it to an anchorage near Annapolis, where a team of divers assessed the hull for damage.
The ordeal was surely a costly one, perhaps tens of millions of dollars, although Donjon-SMIT, the salvor, declined to comment on the total cost.
It also had an environmental impact. More than 400,000 square feet of area was dredged, with 210,000 cubic yards of material being loaded onto barges and taken to Poplar Island, where dredged materials are dumped for a wildlife habitat restoration project.
The dredged area was near a natural oyster bar, but a report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found “no discernable impacts on oyster populations.”
However, the ship also grounded in a favorable habitat for overwintering blue crabs, and the report estimated that 423 crabs — about 5 bushels — were impacted by the grounding and dredging; for comparison, the total Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is estimated to be 227 million.
“The impact to the resource on a baywide scale is estimated to be small, but there are likely to be longer lasting effects on the local scale redistributing crabs and fishing effort until the bottom returns to its earlier formation,” that report said.
The container ship suffered little damage to its hull, and it has continued to operate. As of Tuesday evening, according to ship-tracking website Marine Traffic, the Ever Forward was scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Panama.