Tugs try to refloat the Ever Forward from its stuck position near Craighill channel in what would become a first attempt. Photo: Benjamin Moll

Investigators: Bay Pilot Operating Ever Forward Was Distracted

The Bay pilot who was operating the container ship MV Ever Forward when it ran aground has had his license suspended as the Coast Guard releases its investigation report into the grounding. And Coast Guard investigators are recommending charges against him.

The marine casualty investigation report reveals that the pilot (referred to as “Pilot 1”) was relying solely on his Portable Pilot Unit (PPU) to navigate the 1,095-foot-long ship. Just prior to the grounding, the report says he exited the active navigation of his PPU to look at a previous transit.

The report also finds the pilot, identified by the state of Maryland as Captain Steven Germac, was repeatedly on his cell phone throughout the trip out of the Port of Baltimore. The report reads, “Pilot 1 also made a series of five phone calls amounting to over 60 minutes of time during the course of his outbound transit. He also sent two text messages and began drafting an email immediately before the grounding occurred regarding issues he experienced with facility line handlers.”

Germac was on the bridge around 8:17 p.m. with the Third Officer, Deck Cadet, and an Able Bodied Seaman (who was at the helm) when the ship passed its charted waypoint, marking a turn to approximately 180 degrees True. The Coast Guard says no order was given to turn the vessel and the helmsman maintained the previously ordered course of 161 degrees True. The pilot was using his cell phone at that time. About a minute later, the pilot noticed the vessel was past its turn and ordered 15 degrees rudder to starboard. That’s when the Ever Forward ran aground outside the Craighill Channel.

The Coast Guard’s investigation finds no mechanical issues or equipment failures contributed to this
marine casualty. They say the factors that contributed were “(1) failure to maintain situational awareness and attention while navigating, and (2) inadequate bridge resource management.”

To prevent similar marine incidents from happening in the future, USCG recommends that marine operators develop new policies “outlining when the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices is appropriate or prohibited” and that vessel owners and operators make the crew aware of their “duties and obligations of officers on watch for the safety of the ship, even when a pilot is embarked.”

The same day the Coast Guard released its report, Capt. Germac’s license was suspended.

A statement released Tuesday from Maryland Department of Labor Chief Strategy Officer Joseph E. Farren reads:

“After thorough review of evidence and expert analysis in the investigation of the March 13, 2022 grounding of the MV Ever Forward, the Maryland Board of Pilots (Board), in a unanimous decision, voted to summarily suspend the operating license of Captain Steven Germac on October 20, 2022, and formally notified Captain Germac by letter dated October 21, 2022.”

The Coast Guard report notes that Germac had a total of 15 years of pilotage experience on the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 10 years of which was as a senior pilot with the Association of
Maryland Pilots.

The report also says the pilot was “in the practice of intentionally not using any other navigation
equipment” than his PPU while underway, “citing a distrust of vessel equipment that was not his own and instances of equipment breaking while a pilot was using it.”

The Ever Forward was leaving Baltimore and bound for Norfolk when the grounding happened that March Sunday evening. The vessel drew 42.6 feet of water, and NOAA charts indicate the water depth in the area where it ran aground was 24 feet at Mean Low Low Water.

Our sister company, the Annapolis School of Seamanship observed the ship’s position the next morning. Based on Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, Vice President Capt. Matt Benhoff said at the time it appeared the ship failed to turn into the designated channel, whether by mechanical or operator error.

It hasn’t been confirmed until now that the failure to turn came as a result of cell phone distractions and reliance on a single electronic navigation device.

The grounding tied up resources for at least a month.

Being stuck in so much silt at the Bay’s bottom, it took several attempts and more than four weeks to refloat Ever Forward. First, large-scale dredging operations came in to try to dig the ship’s bottom out of the mud. When that didn’t work, cranes and barges painstakingly removed 500 of the 5,000 containers.

Bay Bulletin reported on every step of the process, capturing video (from a safe distance) by boat as multiple refloat attempts were made.

During its month stuck on the shoal, Ever Forward became something of a tourist attraction as local waterfront parks saw a bump in visitors arriving to watch operations on the giant ship from shore.

A team of tugboats from up and down the East Coast came in to dislodge and tow Ever Forward back to Seagirt Marine Terminal at the Port of Baltimore before it eventually continued on to its destination of Norfolk.

In Tuesday’s state Labor Department statement, Farren writes, “As part of the Board’s statutory process, Captain Germac will be afforded an opportunity for a hearing to formally challenge the Board’s decision in this matter. Captain Germac has not piloted a commercial vessel since March 13, 2022.”

The Coast Guard report recommends that the Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection charge the pilot with civil penalty action for negligent vessel operation. The Coast Guard Sector Maryland-NCR’s Officer in Charge will review the recommendation.

-Meg Walburn Viviano