Storm-tossed ‘ghost fleet’ oiler stays grounded for 11 weeks

A decommissioned tanker ship that was incorrectly moored in Virginia’s James River broke free during a November nor’easter, then drifted a half-mile downstream before running aground in thick mud and sand.

The James River Reserve Fleet tanker Monongahela grounded in the river in early January following a severe storm. The U.S. Maritime Administration said the ship had been incorrectly moored.
Three of Titan Salvage’s hydraulic pullers are secured to the aft deck of the ship, with anchor chains from each leading to plate anchors in the riverbed 1,900 feet upstream. (Photos courtesy Crowley Maritime Corp.)

The 700-foot Monongahela, part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s “ghost fleet,” moored off Fort Eustis, broke loose on the night of Nov. 12, 2009, and ran aground at about 1000 on Nov. 13, according to Lt. Jack Smith, spokesman for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads.

The fleet oiler, which was removed from military service in 1999 and is scheduled for disposal, sustained two holes in its hull after striking a lighting platform in the anchorage area, Smith said. The ship then drifted onto a shoal on the western side of the river.

Wind gusts in the area during the storm — the remnants of Hurricane Ida — exceeded 50 mph, according to buoy data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There were also unusually high tides.

“When we were notified, the vessel was already aground,” Smith said. “It grounded within the boundaries of the reserve fleet anchorage and never actually went into the channel. Shipping interests weren’t threatened.”

Monongahela is part of the James River Reserve Fleet, a group of auxiliary vessels owned and overseen by the Maritime Administration (MarAd). According to MarAd’s monthly inventory, the fleet comprised 59 vessels as of Dec. 31. Twenty-three of those vessels are scheduled to be scrapped; others are used for training or are moored in the river for possible reactivation during national emergencies.

After Hurricane Floyd caused extensive damage to fleet moorings in September 1999, MarAd installed a plate anchoring system to prevent the ships from moving excessively during heavy weather. Steel plates were driven into the riverbed, with vessels moored to the plates with chains. The three-year project was completed at a cost of $2.3 million.

Susan Clark, public affairs officer for MarAd, said Monongahela was moved to a new location in the anchorage in 2005 after other ships were taken out of the fleet for disposal. The ship was then incorrectly moored to the plates, she said.

“The crane that was in service at the time the ship was moored was incapable of lifting Monongahela‘s (starboard) anchor,” she said, leaving only a port anchor chain connected to the plates. “The crane has been replaced by a stronger one, and we do not expect this to recur. This was the first ship to break away since the plate anchor system was installed in 2002.”

Clark could not provide further details, saying a report on the incident was still being compiled.

The punctures Monongahela sustained when it struck the lighting tower were well above the waterline and did not pose a threat to the ship’s operation, Smith said. A transformer that was knocked from the tower to the river bottom was being salvaged and repaired, Clark said.

The tanker, which has the capacity to carry 150,000 barrels of oil or aviation fuel, was empty at the time of the incident. No pollution was reported.

Efforts to refloat the 37,000-ton ship began on the first high tide after it ran aground, but tugs dispatched by MarAd could not pull it free. Titan Salvage was contracted and after three weeks of calculations and test pulls, the ship was refloated on Jan. 27.

Salvors attached three chains to vacant plate anchors in the riverbed 1,900 feet upstream, then used three hydraulic pullers installed on the aft deck of Monongahela to dislodge the ship. Two earlier efforts using lighter anchors driven into the riverbed failed when the hydraulic pullers lifted the anchors out of the mud.

“The team was able to capitalize on shifting winds and high tides for refloating of the vessel,” said Gage Parrot, Titan director for the Americas.

Titan crews worked in conjunction with MarAd, the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local authorities during the recovery effort. Monongahela was inspected, then towed back to the reserve fleet and moored on Jan. 28.

“The Maritime Administration took extraordinary and careful measures to free this ship,” said Acting Maritime Administrator David Matsuda. “We are looking at exactly how this happened and what we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff