A Coast Guard investigation has determined that the pilot guiding the Ever Forward out of Maryland’s Craighill Channel in March spent much of the voyage taking personal phone calls rather than focusing on getting the container ship out to sea.
The 1,095-foot-long Evergreen Marine Corp. ship was carrying 4,964 containers when it grounded on March 13 after departing from the Port of Baltimore bound for Norfolk, Virginia. The Ever Forward was not freed until April 17.
A U.S. Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region report issued Tuesday determined the grounding of the vessel was caused by “the pilot’s failure to maintain situational awareness and attention while navigating and inadequate bridge resource management.”
As far as the licensed Maryland state pilot, identified by the Maryland Department of Labor as Steven Germac, is concerned, the Coast Guard “supports pursuing civil penalty action against Pilot 1 for negligent operation of a commercial vessel.”
According to U.S. code on the operation of vessels, “a person operating a vessel in a negligent manner or interfering with the safe operation of a vessel, so as to endanger the life, limb or property of a person is liable to the U.S. Government for a civil penalty,” the Coast Guard report said.
In addition to civil action, the Coast Guard recommended that “marine operators develop and implement effective policies outlining when the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices is appropriate or prohibited, and that vessel owners and operators ensure and promote crew awareness of policies regarding the duties and obligations of officers on watch for the safety of the ship, even when a pilot is embarked.”
‘A critical time period’
The Ever Forward sailed from Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore at 6:12 p.m. EDT on March 13. It was a clear evening, with a temperature of 41 degrees and a wind of only 3 knots, according to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard’s investigation revealed Germac made or received five calls on his personal cellphone, totaling about 61 of the 126-minute voyage up until the ship’s grounding. The longest personal call placed lasted 55 minutes, from 7:03 to 7:58 p.m.
“Pilot 1 also placed a work call regarding the line handler issues that had been previously encountered, something not urgent and unrelated to the current safe navigation of Ever Forward,” the Coast Guard report said. “Further, he sent two text messages [at 8:07 and 8:15 p.m.], a critical time period leading up to when the turn south into the lower Craighill Channel should have been executed. The Third Officer observed Pilot 1 looking at his phone at [8:17 p.m.], approximately one minute before the vessel ran aground.”
The report indicated that a previous voyage continued to distract Germac from his duties aboard the Ever Forward. The Coast Guard said at 8:14 p.m. Germac viewed a screen on his portable pilot unit (PPU) “with the intent to screenshot data from another voyage. This action stopped the recording of the active transit, and the PPU did not begin recording the active transit again until [five minutes later], after the vessel grounded and the pilot returned to the active screen.”
The Coast Guard said the Ever Forward crossed the predetermined waypoint position to initiate a turn to approximately 180 degrees at 8:17 p.m. Germac did not issue an order to turn, according to the investigation.
The third officer on the bridge then announced the Ever Forward’s heading was 161 degrees at approximately 13 knots, according to the report. The third officer later told investigators that Germac acknowledged him but took no action and was still looking at his cellphone.
The third officer then told Germac that the PPU did not match the ship’s electronic chart display and information system.
“Pilot 1 put away his phone and began to use the ship’s ECDIS,” according to the Coast Guard, which reported there was no recording on the PPU between 8:14 and 8:19 p.m. “The evidence shows that for this duration of time, Pilot 1 was not actively engaged in navigating the vessel immediately prior to the grounding.”
At 8:18 p.m. Germac reportedly ordered the ship turned 15 degrees starboard rudder. Twenty seconds later he ordered hard to starboard. Those orders came too late, according to the Coast Guard, which said the Ever Forward had grounded.
“[At 8:21 p.m.] Pilot 1 indicated to the bridge team that he did not believe the vessel was aground and ordered the bridge team to prepare the bow thrusters,” the report said, adding that Germac gave the command to engage the bow thruster full to port at 8:24 p.m.
A minute later the ship’s master “gave orders to stop engine and conduct safety checks,” the Coast Guard said.
At 8:31 p.m., the master notified Evergreen Marine headquarters in Taiwan and a local company representative that the vessel had grounded and needed assistance. At the same time, the pilot ordered full astern. The bridge team did not comply, the Coast Guard said, because it was following the master’s order for a safety check of the ship.
The Coast Guard said Germac’s PPU again stopped recording at 8:40 p.m. and no further recordings were made.
The report said Germac, who joined the Association of Maryland Pilots in 2007, told a Sector Maryland-National Capital Region investigator at 9:02 p.m. that “the vessel’s turn south to the lower Craighill Channel was executed late and that he could not say more until his statement had been reviewed by an attorney. Pilot 1 also indicated, on this call, that there were no equipment malfunctions, navigational issues, and there was no pollution or injuries.”
Ever Forward grounding dredges up Ever Given case
The Ever Forward, which has a carrying capacity of 11,850 twenty-foot equivalent units, was not refloated until April 17, after the dredging of 206,280 cubic yards of mostly mud and the removal of 505 containers to lighten the ship’s load.
The grounding of the Ever Forward resurrected media attention on Evergreen Marine Corp. Another Evergreen container ship, the Ever Given, notoriously blocked the Suez Canal in March 2021. But unlike the Ever Given, the Ever Forward’s position in Chesapeake Bay did not prevent other vessels from transiting to or from the Port of Baltimore.
Evergreen Marine did not respond to a request for comment on the outcome of the Coast Guard’s investigation.
The Association of Maryland Pilots placed Germac on administrative leave after the ship’s grounding. On Oct. 21, the Maryland Board of Pilots suspended his license and he is prohibited from providing pilotage in the state. According to the Coast Guard report, Germac has requested a hearing on his suspension.
The grounding of the Ever Forward was not the first such incident in which Germac was involved. The Coast Guard said he was the pilot aboard the roll-on/roll-off vessel Tirranna when it grounded in Chesapeake Bay in April 2021. The cause of that grounding, however, was determined to be failure of the steering control relay.
On Wednesday, the Tirranna, a Wallenius Willhelmsen car carrier, was off the coast of Japan, according to MarineTraffic data. The Ever Forward was transiting the Panama Canal and the Ever Given was in Singapore.