Tugs can't budge ship stuck in bay

Coal carrier aground off Tilghman Island

March 02, 2007|By Rona Kobell and Chris Guy | Rona Kobell and Chris Guy,Sun Reporters

OFF TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Draped in a dull gray haze that left the Chesapeake Bay looking like slate, the M.V. Montrose, a 712-foot coal carrier on its way to Romania, simply wouldn't budge.

Four supercharged tugboats -- together packing at least 15,000 horsepower -- nudged, pushed and pulled all afternoon.

But by last night, the Montrose remained lodged in the sandy bottom near the mouth of the Choptank River, where it ran aground Wednesday.

"She is stuck. Real stuck," said Mike Coley, a seaman and deck leader on one of the tugs that were trying to free the boat yesterday. The Coast Guard said the ship's owners were working on a plan to try again today.

Few would have expected a mooring in the Chesapeake Bay for the globe-trotting Montrose, a vessel that Coast Guard officials said weighs about 39,000 tons even before it's loaded.

Ships rarely run aground in the bay, largely because the Chesapeake Bay Pilots, an elite group of mariners that guide the vessels through narrow channels, are among the most highly skilled in the country.

The state requires every large commercial vessel leaving the Baltimore Harbor and heading through Maryland waters toward the Atlantic Ocean to have a bay pilot aboard.

The ships either travel north to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, or south down the main channel of the bay and into Virginia.

Pilots come to intimately know the 150-mile stretch of water because most of them have traveled it many times, said Capt. Eric Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

"We have thousands of transits up and down the bay every year. Very few result in a grounding," Nielsen said. "It's something that almost never happens, so something unusual occurred, obviously."

He declined to speculate what might have caused the grounding of the Montrose. Officials declined to identify the pilots who were handling the ship. State and Coast Guard officials are still investigating what happened.

Only 70 pilots work in the Maryland portion of the bay, and nearly all of them are senior pilots -- the most experienced mariners who are licensed to handle larger ships like the Montrose.

Job openings are rare and generally happen only when someone retires or dies. From 1994 to about 2004, Nielsen said, no one entered the association. Since then, about 10 new pilots have joined.

Pilots stay in the job because the pay is excellent and, unlike other seafaring jobs that require long stretches away from families, a pilot is generally gone only one or two days.

Voyage delayed

This week, though, the Montrose's journey turned out to be much longer.

The ship had sailed from China into Baltimore's Sparrows Point terminal, arriving Sunday. It unloaded coke that will be used to make iron, said David Allen, a spokesman for Mittal Steel, which owns Sparrows Point.

From there, the Montrose sailed to Canton and docked at CNX Marine Terminals, a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy Inc., which mines and transports coal overseas.

It took more than 24 hours to load the Montrose with CONSOL coal, a metallurgical variety used in steel-making. The shipment was bound for Romania, said John Pucher, operations manager of T. Parker Host, the agent representing the coal loaders.

Two senior pilots, each with about 30 years experience, boarded the Montrose in Baltimore to accompany it on its 16-hour journey down the bay.

On a normal trip, the pilots would disembark near Cape Henry, Va., at the mouth of the bay, spend the night at a dormitory there, then accompany another ship back to the Baltimore harbor.

But the pilots on the Montrose reported to Nielsen about 7 a.m. Wednesday that the ship was stuck. Nielsen called the Coast Guard.

It remained unclear yesterday how the Montrose became lodged in the shoal. The carrier was to follow a tried-and-true route to the Atlantic, tracing the riverbed of the old Susquehanna River -- the body of water that became the Chesapeake Bay when ice sheets melted more than 10,000 years ago.

Pilots spend much of their journey on the ship's bridge, giving helm orders such as speed and course and where to anchor.

They know every bar and bank along the bay's main stem, which has deep troughs, restricted areas and submerged wrecks. Though they can use global positioning systems and radar, Nielsen said, pilots rely primarily on their eyes.

In shallows

That's where University of Maryland oceanographer Lawrence Sanford thinks the Montrose might have gotten into trouble.

Though the spot where the ship ran aground looks like wide open bay, it's a shallow area that used to be Sharp's Island before it became submerged many years ago. Sanford estimates the ship is a few hundred yards from the deep channel, but it's in a portion of the bay where depths vary widely.

"That side of the channel, for a deep-draft vessel, is very unforgiving," said Sanford, who is based at the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge.

An approaching storm that was expected to throttle coastal areas last night with high winds and tides wasn't likely to affect rescue efforts, Coast Guard officials said. The company that owns the ship, which is based in Liberia, was expected to continue working to free it today.

chris.guy@baltsun.com rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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