Many were undoubtedly surprised to hear that the grounding of the MV Ever Forward was the fault of a marine pilot who was paying more attention to his cellphone than keeping the ship on course, leading the container ship to spend a month stuck in Chesapeake Bay mud last spring. But that was the recent finding of U.S. Coast Guard investigators looking into why the Ever Forward drifted off course in its passage from Seagirt Marine Terminal to Norfolk, Virginia, on March 13, 2022.
Among other things, their 27-page report also strongly recommends that vessel owners and marine operators develop a better policy on cellphones. To which, one could imagine the collective reaction of every adult who has ever handed a young person the keys to a family car, much less a 1,095-fool long, loaded vessel: Duh. That such a simple precaution had not previously been taken should set off some alarm bells; in airline cockpits, for example, cellphones are outright banned because of their potential distraction.
For decades, we have heard from organizations such as the Association of Maryland Pilots that it is crucial that the big ships headed to and from Baltimore be guided from the mouth of the bay onward exclusively by licensed pilots with extensive training and deep knowledge of the Chesapeake. Staying in the channel can be tricky, we are told, and even experienced ship captains lack a pilot’s deep understanding of Maryland and Virginia waters. Clearance in some places can be measured in mere feet. And so, since the mid-19th century, marine pilots have been called upon to perform this specialized task even as advanced navigation equipment — from sonar to radar to global positioning systems — fundamentally changed the industry.
Shortly after the report’s release, the Maryland Board of Pilots announced it had suspended the license of Captain Steven Germac, the Ever Forward’s pilot, in late October. That seems entirely appropriate, but who is going to pass judgment on the broader issue of whether pilots are even necessary in this age of self-driving vehicles? Will it be the governing Maryland Board of Pilots, whose nine members include four pilots? Such expertise is surely helpful, but apparently insufficient for them to have pursued a cellphone ban before this event. It would also seem quite possible that the average pilot might be reluctant to jeopardize a gig that pays a six-figure salary. And, even if a pilot’s presence is a redundancy, a member of this insular profession can always assure himself it’s all for the purpose of safety.
We are mindful, too, that no one was hurt in the grounding of the Ever Forward. The cargo ship’s hull wasn’t even damaged. But the risk the event posed to Maryland’s economy was significant. Fortunately, the vessel did not block passage to the Port of Baltimore, and so shipping continued. And, just as importantly, it appears the port’s reputation was left intact, too. The Maryland Port Administration reports that business is good so far this year with general cargo (including containers) up 3% as of September compared to the first nine months of 2021.
Baltimore has few more important economic assets than its maritime traffic with the dollar value of cargo exceeding $61 billion last year and shipping generating about 15,000 jobs directly and 125,000 more indirectly. Small wonder so many are investing big — from the $166 million for new cranes recently spent by Ports America Chesapeake to the $466 million allocated chiefly by the state and federal governments (along with CSX, the state of Pennsylvania and the city of Baltimore) to expand the Howard Street Tunnel to allow double-stacked container rail service and the sprawling container terminal planned at Tradepoint Atlantic.
Given all that, protecting the port’s future would seem to require greater oversight. How did a pilot come to believe he could comfortably check his texts and email while at the helm of such a vessel? Is this a common practice? A sign that pilots are an anachronism in the age of global positioning satellites? With a new governor and new cabinet coming to Annapolis in a matter of weeks, the next session of the Maryland General Assembly would seem a fitting moment to conduct public hearings on Maryland’s statute regarding pilots and whether the state board charged with overseeing them has done its job adequately — and kept up with the times.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.