The captain of a 328-foot bulk ship and four of his crew face federal criminal charges after one of the crew shoved a Maryland pilot and brandished a knife at a second pilot as they guided the outbound vessel down Chesapeake Bay.
The incidents occurred against a background of drunkenness aboard the vessel. The acting helmsman accused of shoving the pilot was drunk, and most of the vessel’s officers were also drunk or absent from the bridge, according to federal prosecutors.
At one point, no one was on the bridge with the pilots — not even the captain. The pilots ordered the vessel to anchor and refused to continue the voyage, citing a lack of qualified mariners, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Coast Guard Lt. Nicole Rodriguez, chief of investigations for Sector Baltimore, called the episode “a fairly unusual case,” although it underscores the fact that preventing alcohol consumption aboard commercial vessels continues to pose a challenge for the industry. Newspapers in Maryland referred to the events as the case of the “drunken sailors.”
The incidents happened March 10 after the Malta-flagged Ocean Victory had offloaded its cargo of steel at the Port of Baltimore’s Ruckert Terminal. The empty ship had departed Baltimore and made it as far as the Patuxent River, about 50 miles south of Baltimore, before the pilots put a stop to the voyage.
Four of the crew were arrested and charged with operating a commercial vessel under the influence of alcohol. They are able seaman Volodym Voychenko, 47, of Ukraine; oiler Yuriy Shelkunov, 29, of Ukraine; able seaman Sergey Prokofyev, 37, of Russia, and second officer Yevgen Bystrov, 39, of Ukraine.
Voychenko and Shelkunov also were charged with assault. Prosecutors said Voychenko shoved a pilot, and Shelkunov shoved a fellow crewmember. Bystrov was charged with making a false statement.
Ocean Victory’s master, Wojciech Kowalski, 63, of Poland, was charged with failing to ensure that the wheelhouse was constantly manned, failing to ensure that each person manning the wheelhouse was competent to perform the duty, failing to notify the nearest Coast Guard office of a hazardous condition and making false statements.
Even before the vessel cast off in Baltimore in the early afternoon, there were signs of trouble. The docking pilot smelled alcohol on one of the ship’s crewmen, and the pilot notified the captain that he didn’t want that crewman assisting in the departure. Voychenko was assigned as the acting helmsman on the bridge.
After the vessel passed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Kowalski and Voychenko exited the wheelhouse, leaving no member of the ship’s crew in the wheelhouse. A pilot, Capt. Allison Schulte, went to the master’s stateroom and demanded that the wheelhouse be properly manned, the Justice Department said.
“Voychenko returned to the wheelhouse as the assigned lookout at which time Schulte smelled alcohol on his breath. Additionally, Voychenko shoved Schulte two times in the shoulder while conversing with her about the ship’s owners,” the federal complaint said.
The other pilot, Capt. Kevin Hanna, told Schulte that Voychenko “was holding a large knife while standing behind him, and Hanna removed the knife from him for his own safety and placed the knife beside the wheelhouse helm,” the complaint said.
The ship’s master returned to the wheelhouse and had a talk with his acting helmsman. Afterwards, the master “removed the knife from the helm and placed it by the wheelhouse chart table,” the court documents said.
Prosecutors said the two pilots then “anchored and departed the ship, because the ship could not safely navigate with intoxicated crewmen and a lack of personnel in the wheelhouse.”
Coast Guard personnel and a heavily armed Calvert County Sheriff’s special operations team boarded Ocean Victory. Shortly thereafter, Shelkunov allegedly shoved Prokofyev and had to be handcuffed, the Justice Department said. Shelkunov refused to take an alcohol test and fell asleep. The other three men’s blood-alcohol level ranged from .142 to .283, the court papers stated.
Although he allegedly lied about it at first, Bystrov eventually admitted that he had purchased two 12-packs of Budweiser, the Justice Department said. He stated that he drank seven or eight beers.
It is illegal for a commercial mariner to operate a vessel with a blood-alcohol level greater than .04 percent. For some people, that level could be reached by consuming only two drinks. U.S. maritime law “puts responsibility on the mariner’s employer to prohibit crewmembers from performing duties while intoxicated and from standing watch within four hours of imbibing,” Rodriguez said.
Some mariners don’t realize that even drinking while ashore can become an illegal act, Rodriguez said. The vessel master is responsible for monitoring the crew’s fitness for duty.
The owner of Ocean Victory is Faubert Maritime Ltd., of the Marshall Islands. The vessel manager is Nikolakis Shipping SA of Athens. Neither company could be reached for comment. Malta flag authorities didn’t respond to a request for comment on their alcohol rules.
Capt. Eric Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, said the Justice Department asked the pilots not to comment on the incident until after the case is closed.
The five men were free on bond and are due to appear in court later. If convicted, they face prison sentences ranging from one year to six years. Maximum fines could be as high as $100,000 to $250,000.
Ocean Victory remained at the anchorage off Calvert County, Md., for two weeks before federal authorities lifted the no-sail order.