The grounding of a loaded 700-foot grain ship in Chesapeake Bay last Thanksgiving is being blamed on insufficient navigation by pilot and ship’s crew, according to U.S. Coast Guard investigators.
A Maryland State Pilot who had the conn of the Cypriot-registered Katya V while outbound from Baltimore for Spain, on November 26 told investigators that the ship’s position was never plotted on a chart although the vessel was traveling down Chesapeake Bay at a speed of 10 to 11 knots in fog.
Coast Guard officials concluded that the pilot had mistaken a fishing vessel on the ship’s radar for the Morse A “CR” fairway buoy off Tilghman Island and thus accidentally headed inshore towards the mudbanks where he eventually grounded. The ship was equipped with three operating radar sets, some with ARPA, as well as a GPS receiver, according to reports.
“The apparent cause of the casualty was failure of the pilot to properly fix the vessel’s position using all available means, in that he relied wholly on his radar observations . . . ,” says the Coast Guard’s report on the accident. “In addition,”the report continues, “the investigation revealed that no navigational fixes had been plotted on the ship’s chart.”
“One of the things that puzzled us was the lack of plotting in this case,” said Lt. Cmdr. M.D. Kearney of the Coast Guard’s marine safety office in Baltimore. “There are probably any number of land targets in that area which would have provided some good radar information.” Specifically, the investigators mentioned the end of Tilghman Island, as well as Sharp’s Island Light and the nearby Maryland shore to the west as potential targets for radar navigation. The vessel’s third mate, who was on the bridge with the pilot, reportedly plotted neither radar nor GPS fixes on the ship’s chart. After the grounding, the pilot said that he began to make notations on the chart.
Contributing to the apparent disorientation of the pilot was the passing of a northbound ship, M/V Tarkwa, some minutes prior to the grounding. To facilitate the port-to-port passing, Katya’s pilot altered course slightly to starboard, then altered again back to port for a few minutes after the passing. Finally settling on a heading of 170 degrees true, the pilot reported that he saw a target on radar that he believed to be the “CR” buoy off the mouth of the Choptank River. A few minutes later when the pilot was out on the starboard bridge wing, the vessel’s third mate also reported to the pilot that he could see the buoy about a mile ahead and slightly to starboard. Neither the mate nor the pilot had determined by radar if the target was exhibiting the plotted characteristics of a buoy, according to reports.
A minute or two later, when the mate spotted a fishing boat through the fog on the starboard bow, the pilot suddenly ordered hard right rudder and told the helmsman to come right to 190anddeg;. Neither he nor the mate had visually located the “CR” buoy and it is unknown if the buoy was actually detected on radar, according to reports. The pilot’s intentions had been to pass the CR buoy close aboard to starboard and then to execute a slight turn to starboard.
“Apparently when the pilot realized that his target was a fishing boat and not a buoy, he sensed immediately that something was wrong and ordered an abrupt turn to starboard,” said a Coast Guard investigator. If the pilot had consistent positions plotted on his chart he might have had a fall-back reference to use when he became disoriented.
Meanwhile the vessel’s captain and another Maryland State Pilot, both of whom could have been assisting with navigation, were below deck. Katya’s captain was Greek, and the vessel’s crew was mostly foreign. For the long passage down the Chesapeake from Baltimore, the two pilots had been alternating shifts on the bridge; the pilot who had the conn at the time of the accident had been on duty for 90 minutes. A bout an hour before the grounding, Katya’s master had gone below to his office.
At the time, the ship’s pilot believed he was following the deepest water available, with depths of 100 feet or so across a gradually curving channel slightly more than a half mile in width. There was sufficient water for the ship’s 39-foot draft across a channel of a little less than a mile in width. To fetch up on the mudbank where it ultimately grounded, the vessel had to wander inshore of a plotted 60-foot curve by a half mile (only a few minutes travel at a speed of 10 knots).
It was just after 1030 hours when the pilot ordered hard right rudder, with the fishing boat still barely visible in fog to starboard. The helmsman did immediately put the ship’s rudder over but it was too late. The pilot and mate looked over the side and could see that the ship was no longer moving through the water. The pilot reported that he observed the gyro repeater indicating the ship’s heading was 170 degrees and that the rudder angle indicator showed the rudder in the full-right position.
The pilot reported that he attempted to back the ship clear but she was stuck fast in the mud, about a mile and a half from Sharp’s Island Light which is a fixed structure 54 feet high. At that time the pilot said he went to the ship’s GPS receiver and, for the first time, plotted the ship’s position: 38 degrees 38’1″ north, 76 degrees 24’5″ west.
Katya V, owned by Med Globe Shipping Co. Ltd. of Nicosia, Cyprus, is operated by Propontis Shipping Agency of London. The ship was freed from the mud about 36 hours after the grounding. After an ABS inspection in Norfolk, it proceeded across the Atlantic to Spain.
Coast Guard officials said that no action was taken against the pilot’s license since the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction over state pilots.