A little too close to a ghost ship

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March 11, 2007|By Glenn Fawcett | Glenn Fawcett,SUN STAFF

The waters were calm as the M.V. Montrose, a 712-foot coal carrier stranded on a sandbar near the mouth of the Choptank River in the Chesapeake Bay, began to emerge from the foggy haze as we approached slowly on a chartered crab boat whose single diesel engine droned loudly for over an hour to get to the Montrose from the Eastern Shore. Not moving at all, the seemingly lifeless Montrose was listing to port and the stern was elevated.

Circling the ship several times to take pictures, we were low to the water and small by comparison to the Montrose. At one point, we passed only yards from the ship's bow and could no longer see the bridge or anyone aboard. The boat's operator shut off the engine and we drifted a few moments to conserve fuel.

And now, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, all was silent. It was easy to imagine that if the Montrose had been under way, we'd have been crushed by its bow, horns blowing. Barely breaking through the haze, the sun faintly illuminated the fog around us and for a moment the large vessel seemed to become a ghost ship.

Within an hour of our arrival at the scene, four large tugs and a pilot boat approached from the north and maneuvered around the Montrose as their crews assessed the conditions. Ropes were tied from two of the tugs on the port side in preparation to pull while the two other tugs went to starboard. After large ropes were secured to the Montrose and the tugs positioned, horn blasts were used to give the signal to begin. Moments later, one large rope broke from a cleat on the Montrose with a resounding bang and sprang toward the tug, only to smack the water's surface like a water show.

The seas churned as the tugs struggled to free the Montrose without avail. Then the high tide began to recede and hopes of freeing the giant ship fell with it.

Morning had passed to afternoon and the fog lifted. Many positions had been tried and nothing the mighty tugs could do had budged the looming ship. Eventually, the tugs turned and headed north, leaving the job of freeing the Montrose for another day, another tide and another plan.

It took a several days of unloading coal, playing the tides, plotting, pushing shoving and straining by the powerful tugs before the carrier finally slipped free of the bar last Wednesday morning and slid away, like a ghost again, through a veil of late-winter snow.

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