Pilot’s cellphone use scrutinized in Ever Forward grounding

Tugboats pull the containership Ever Forward free after a month aground in Chesapeake Bay.
Tugboats pull the containership Ever Forward free after a month aground in Chesapeake Bay.
Tugboats pull the containership Ever Forward free after a month aground in Chesapeake Bay.

The pilot conning the containership Ever Forward was distracted by his cellphone before missing a crucial turn that caused the vessel to leave the channel and run aground in Chesapeake Bay, according to federal investigators. 

The pilot, a senior member of the Association of Maryland Pilots, drafted an email and sent two text messages on his phone in the minutes before the grounding, the U.S. Coast Guard said in its investigation report. The pilot also exited from the active navigation setting on his personal pilot unit (PPU) during four crucial minutes leading up to the grounding.

The U.S. Coast Guard cited the pilot’s failure to maintain situational awareness as a leading cause of the grounding, which happened on March 13, 2022, at about 2018. Inadequate bridge resource management by the pilot and Ever Forward’s crew contributed to the incident. 

“Had Pilot 1 refrained from drafting email correspondence and placing and receiving personal or non-urgent professional calls, it is possible he would have maintained better situational awareness and properly executed the turn in a timely manner, avoiding the vessel grounding,” the Coast Guard said in the incident report. 

Pilot 1 has not been publicly identified. The Maryland Board of Pilots suspended him in October 2022 after determining his actions were negligent during the Ever Forward voyage, documents show. The status of his suspension could not be determined by press time. Attempts to reach the Association of Maryland Pilots for comment on the Coast Guard report were not successful.

The Coast Guard publicly released its report into the grounding in late 2022, citing the extensive interest in the incident. Typically, the service requires a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act to release investigation reports and materials. 

Evergreen Marine owned and operated the 1,096-foot Ever Forward at the time of the grounding. The Hong Kong-flagged ship, delivered in 2020, can hold the equivalent of 11,850 20-foot shipping containers. 

Ever Forward got underway for Norfolk, Va., from Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal at 1815 with about 5,000 containers. Unspecified issues with line handlers at the terminal delayed the ship’s departure. 

Pilot 1 had the conn throughout the voyage, which proceeded uneventfully on a clear, calm night. The ship passed Sparrow’s Point at about 1900, and some 30 minutes later Ever Forward’s master left the bridge for a dinner break. A scheduled bridge watch transfer happened about 25 minutes later at about 2000.

Ever Forward entered the Craighill Angle due east of Arcadia, Md., at 2010. Seven minutes later, the ship passed a charted waypoint requiring a turn to 180 degrees to remain in the channel. Instead, it maintained its heading of 161 degrees.

The ship’s bridge crew recognized the mistake almost immediately. The third officer announced the ship’s heading at 161 degrees but did not notify the pilot of the missed turn. “The pilot acknowledged the third officer and took no action,” the report said. “The third officer stated that the pilot was still looking at his phone at this time.”

Moments later, the third officer alerted the pilot to the discrepancy between the PPU and the ship’s electronic navigation systems. The pilot realized the ship was past its turn at about 2018 after consulting the ship’s electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS). He ordered the rudder 15 degrees to starboard then hard to starboard, but it was too late to avoid the grounding. 

The ship came to rest on the sandy bottom almost completely outside the Craighill Channel. Surveys conducted after the grounding and released with the Coast Guard report show the ship essentially plowed a path into the seafloor after leaving the channel. 

The master returned to the bridge soon afterward. The crew began following steps outlined in the ship’s safety management system after a grounding. They quickly determined there was no pollution and no injuries among the crew. Initial attempts by the pilot to back Ever Forward into the channel were not successful. 

Salvors removed containers and dredged around the ship to refloat it.
Salvors removed containers and dredged around the ship to refloat it.

Ever Forward remained grounded until April 17, when tugboats successfully pulled it back into the channel. Salvage crews dredged more than 206,000 cubic yards of material and removed 505 containers to facilitate the refloating process. 

Whatever happened with the line handlers before departure seemed to stick with the pilot throughout the voyage. Ever Forward’s bridge team recalled that he appeared distressed and was frequently on his cellphone. The pilot spent more than an hour of the 126-minute voyage talking on his phone.   

At least one of those calls was a work call related to the line handler issues, the report said. Pilot 1 sent text messages at 2007 and 2015 to another Maryland pilot regarding the line handling issue. He began drafting an email about the situation at 2016.

The nature of the pilot’s phone calls are unknown. However, he acknowledged when speaking to a Coast Guard investigator at 2102 that he executed the turn into the lower Craighill Channel too late.   

Pilot 1 said that “he could not say more until his statement had been reviewed by an attorney,” according to the report. “Pilot 1 also indicated, on this call, that there were no equipment malfunctions (or) navigational issues, and there was no pollution or injuries.”

Coast Guard investigators homed in on two key issues. The first was the pilot’s lack of situational awareness during the voyage. Starting at 2015, just three minutes before the grounding, the pilot switched his PPU from the active voyage setting to records from a prior voyage, where he captured a screenshot. Navigating away from the active voyage prevents the unit from saving voyage data in real time. As a result, there is a gap in data starting at 2015 and continuing until 2019, after the grounding happened. 

Pilot 1 relied exclusively on his PPU for navigation, even though the vessel had accurate paper and electronic charts on the bridge. He told investigators he did not trust navigation electronics that were not his own.

“This overreliance on a single navigational tool limited the pilot’s ability to accurately and quickly make a full appraisal of the situation and safely navigate the vessel,” the report said. “Had Pilot 1 used all available means to determine the ship’s location, the grounding likely would not have occurred.”

The report also makes clear Ever Forward’s bridge team should have spoken up when they realized the pilot missed the turn. Investigators speculate cultural differences or fear of offending the pilot may have influenced the third officer’s reluctance to directly alert him of the error. Having done so, investigators said, could have prevented the grounding or minimized its effects.