A Japanese ship carrying cars and construction vehicles ran aground early today in the Chesapeake Bay off Tilghman Island, creating concerns of an oil spill for several hours. But a shift in wind enabled crew members to work the ship free just before noon without spilling any fuel, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.
The 42,000-ton, 64-foot ship Pacific Breeze then set anchor in a shipping channel west of the island to await a comprehensive hull inspection by divers before officials will allow it to continue on its way.
Coast Guard officials said today there was little chance of the ship's fuel tanks leaking -- and even less after the ship broke free of a muddy sandbar in the shallow water off the bay's main shipping channel.
Coast Guard Lt. Claudia Gelzer, of the marine safety office in Baltimore, said preliminary inspections indicated the ship was not damaged. She said the vessel ran aground on either a sandbar or a shoal shortly after 2 a.m. west of Tilghman Island, near the Sharps Island Light.
The vessel had departed from Dundalk Marine Terminal in Baltimore at 11 o'clock last night.
Lieutenant Gelzer said the Chesapeake Bay pilot from Baltimore, who is required to steer ships through the bay, was not on board when members of the Coast Guard arrived about 2:45 a.m.
The lieutenant said investigators want to talk with the pilot to learn how the ship veered off the shipping channel. As of this morning, they did not know who he was or why he left.
Officials were going to wait for high tide, scheduled for 2:39 p.m., to free the vessel. But about 11:30 a.m., a strong wind and forceful seas turned the ship, which was heading south, to the west, toward the shipping lane, Lieutenant Gelzer said.
Because only the bottom part of the hull was stuck in the mud, the lieutenant said a relief bay pilot who replaced the missing pilot drove the ship off the sandbar without the help of tugboats.
The ship was carrying an estimated 294,054 gallons of heavy diesel fuel and 23,512 of light diesel fuel -- its own fuel supply. The ship is not a tanker.
The ship docked at the Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday and left at 11 p.m., headed to Antwerp, Belgium, said Charles F. Dolan, of the U.S. Customs Service in Baltimore.
He said crews at the Dundalk terminal unloaded 106 Land-Rover Discovery vehicles, described as four-wheel drive cars typically used for rough terrain or safaris. They are made in Great Britain.
Also unloaded in Baltimore were 75 Jaguar cars, which come from an export company in Great Britain, and several hundred agricultural and construction vehicles.
Representatives at Wallenius Lines North America, the ship's local agent, said they were too busy today to talk.
Officials at the company's U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., were preparing a statement.