MSC cargo ship runs aground on charted coral reef near Okinawa

2 Sgtmatejkocak

A U.S. Military Sealift Command vessel carrying equipment and 131 people ran aground on a coral reef near Okinawa, Japan, and remained there for more than a week.

Ron Flanders, a public affairs officer for U.S. Naval Forces Japan, said the 821-foot USNS Sgt. Matej Kocak left the navigable channel before grounding. A pilot was not aboard the vessel at the time. The accident is under investigation by multiple U.S. agencies, including the Coast Guard. 

“How the ship ended up on the reef, that’s the main thrust of the investigation,” Flanders said. “I’m sure multiple factors were involved.”

The grounding occurred at about 1130 on Jan. 22. The vessel was about six miles east of Okinawa in an area Americans call Buckner Bay (Nakagusuku Bay). The reef, located between 24 and 31 feet below the surface, appears on maritime charts.

Kocak departed Uruma, Okinawa, shortly before the incident carrying U.S. military cargo, vehicles, helicopters, supplies and ammunition. Flanders said the prepositioning vessel, which can carry an entire brigade’s worth of equipment, was to participate in “various regional Pacific exercises.” 

Okinawa is located roughly halfway between Taiwan and the Japanese mainland at the eastern edge of the East China Sea, and is home to a large U.S. military base. Weather forecasts for the day of the accident called for 30-mph winds and 8-foot seas. Conditions at the time of the grounding were not available. 

The Navy-owned Kocak, based in Newport News, Va., had a crew of 38 civilian mariners along with 67 Army and 26 U.S. Marine Corps personnel on board when it grounded. Nobody was injured. 

Keystone Shipping Co. supplied the civilian crew under a government contract, Flanders said. The company, based near Philadelphia, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The U.S. Navy’s supervisor of salvage and diving oversaw salvage operations. A tanker offloaded fuel from Kocak to lighten the ship’s load on Feb. 2. It was refloated a day later.

“Safely refloating the vessel required the right sea state, the right tide and the right weather conditions to lessen any risks to personnel, the ship and the environment,” Flanders said.

The vessel sailed under its own power to White Beach Naval Facility in Uruma City, Okinawa, for temporary repairs to the hull, which was breached during the grounding. Flanders said permanent repairs will occur at a later date.

The Navy is trying to determine the extent of any environmental damage. That includes investigating whether the coral reef featured live coral.

“The status of the reef and the impact to it are still being determined at this time,” Flanders said. “There were no oil leaks associated with the grounding and every effort possible was taken to minimize any impact to the environment.”

Japanese coast guard officials assisted with the grounding response and were consulted during the salvage process. Japanese authorities are not part of the accident probe because the vessel belongs to the U.S. military.

The U.S. Coast Guard Activities Far East is investigating the incident. A spokesman for the agency’s Japan office declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. 

By Professional Mariner Staff