A coal ship failed to turn at a well-known buoy in the Chesapeake Bay, and then ran aground near a lighthouse.
Two veteran pilots from the Association of Maryland Pilots were aboard MV Montrose when the 712-foot vessel grounded at 0600 on Feb. 28. The outbound ship was carrying a full load of 74,215 metric tons of coal, the Coast Guard said.
The Liberian-flagged bulk carrier became stuck in mud in the vicinity of Sharps Island, west of the Choptank River. The vessel wasn’t refloated until March 7, following a lightering operation that removed about 10 percent of the cargo.
Montrose took on the load of metallurgical coal at the Port of Baltimore and was en route to Constanta, Romania. The ship had 55,000 barrels of bunker fuel on board. Twenty-four crew and the two pilots were on the ship, the Coast Guard said.
Capt. Eric Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, said the cause of the grounding is “a big mystery.” He said the submerged ancient bed of the Susquehanna River provides a half-mile-wide natural sluice for mariners. Montrose grounded about one-third of a mile away from that wide and deep channel.
“For some reason, the ship failed to turn at a place where we usually turn at a fairway buoy,” Nielsen said. “It’s certainly not where we routinely operate. This is naturally deep water where we usually stay, in the old Ice Age riverbed. When it grounded, it was not in the riverbed. It was the bank of the riverbed.”
The fairway buoy in question is Buoy CR, which stands for Choptank River. It signals a turn to starboard for vessels headed down the bay. The Coast Guard said the ship grounded 1.27 miles from Buoy CR, with the buoy on a bearing of 341°.
“Visibility was clear and the sea state was calm,” said Lt. Connie Williamson, a Coast Guard spokeswoman at Baltimore. “All aids to navigation were on station and operating properly.”
The area is also marked by the Sharps Island Lighthouse. The pilots are very familiar with these locations and the perils associated with deviating from that course.
“The entire Chesapeake Bay is full of areas that are shallow,” Nielsen said. “The natural deep water is marked by aids to navigation, and it is marked, we believe, appropriately.”
At the time of the grounding, the second officer, helmsman and one pilot were on the bridge, Williamson said.
Investigators found no problems with navigation equipment or any other equipment aboard Montrose, according to a statement from Motia Compagnia di Navigazione SpA, the Venice-based technical manager of the vessel.
Seaarland Shipping Management of Villach, Austria, was the commercial operator. Motia said the ship owner is Bentonwood BV of the Netherlands.
The 5-year-old, 38,731-gross-ton bulker has a maximum draft of about 46 feet. A vessel that deeply laden is required to have two senior pilots aboard in Chesapeake Bay, which, at 200 miles, is the longest pilotage route on the U.S. East Coast. The two bay pilots work in shifts, Nielsen said.
Nielsen said one pilot aboard Montrose has 40 years experience, while the other has 30 years experience.
“We predominantly rely on our own eyes, but we also use the radar and our DGPS system, of course,” Nielsen said. He declined to speculate on a cause of the mistake.
Tugboats from Weeks Marine and Moran Towing were summoned to try to free Montrose, whose bow was stuck in the muddy bottom. Initially, three tugboats — with a combined 15,000 horsepower — were unsuccessful and the vessel had to be lightered. On March 1, heavy weather caused the vessel to swing, and it grounded along its starboard side, the Coast Guard said.
Coordinating the lightering and deballasting operation was Resolve Towing & Salvage Inc., which gathered a team of salvage experts along with the local tugs, barges and cranes. The operation was delayed from March 4 to March 6 because of more bad weather.
Coast Guard cutters Conchito from Portsmouth, Va., and Capstan from Philadelphia enforced a 500-yard safety zone around the ship. With the help of three local tugs, Montrose was refloated March 7.
At a safe anchorage 12 miles below the grounding site, Coast Guard divers inspected the hull and found no damage. The lightered coal was reloaded into the ship’s holds.
Motia said Montrose needed no repairs and sailed March 9 for Romania.
The response effort’s Unified Command also consisted of ECM Maritime Services, Maryland Natural Resources Police, Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Department of the Environment. The agencies reported no pollution from the grounding or lightering activities.
The pilot who had been on the bridge was required to give a statement to the Maryland State Board of Pilots, which is also investigating the incident.