That grounded big container ship

So, just about a year after the Ever Given went aground in the Suez Canal, blocking traffic for days and creating chaos in the supply chain, a sister ship, the Ever Forward, somehow missed a small turn in the channel in the Chesapeake Bay while departing Baltimore and grounded in mud.

These ships are huge. They are 1300 feet long, nearly 200 feet wide, weigh 140,000 tons, and draw at least 40 feet of water when even partially loaded. They are the largest container ships built. Why one of these monsters was going to Baltimore is a question in itself. Baltimore is way up the Bay, far from the ocean, a relatively small East Coast container port. I was posted on a Military Sealift Command ship in Baltimore in 2015 and could see the container cranes from the ship, so I know where the Forward must have berthed. I imagine, if this was the first visit to the Port, there was some kind of event hosted by the Port, a celebration, executives with smiles and flowers and the press, “Oh, look, we can handle these ships, aren’t we the best?”

Based on videos and reports it seems the ship was traveling between 8 and 9 knots coming down the channel, coming south. The channel swings to the right, to starboard, maybe 15 degrees, but the Ever Forward just kept going straight. In the channel the water depth is 50 feet, but outside the channel the depth is 30 feet rising to 24 feet to less than 20 feet. The ship is now well off the channel, in the mud, fully, bow to stern. The depth at the bow is only 17 feet. This means that the hull of the ship, which is at least 40 feet from the keel to the water surface, somehow plowed into the sediment for all 1300 feet. Now the ship sits in the mud, with, quite likely, half that 40-foot draft not in water but in the mud beneath the water.

This is, actually, hard to imagine happening, unless that sediment was very soupy indeed. If the ship drove into the mud, pushing it aside as it drove forward, the mud would have to be pushed aside as well, meaning, forming a hump next to the hull. A rough calculation suggests this 140,000 ton ship might have pushed aside over 100,000 cubic yards of mud.

When the ship was coming south, the ship had to be under the command and control of a Chesapeake Bay Pilot. When I was sailing we always -always – took aboard a pilot when entering a port, any port. The pilot gives the commands, engine speed, wheel commands. One would think the pilot gave a command to turn the ship as the channel turned, but only the voice recorder will tell the real story. It is however likely the pilot, whoever he or she was, had rarely if ever been operating a ship that size, that slow to heed rudder commands.

Anyway, the ship went hard aground and now sits in the mud. Two dredges are working to remove the sediment from around the ship, the largest using a clam bucket that can hold 65 cubic yards at a time. Rough math, again – if it takes 15 minutes to drop the bucket, close it, bring it up, swing it over a barge, drop the load, and return to the bottom, and if the bucket never stops operating, day and night, to remove 100,000 cubic yards will require 16 days of dredging. But of course the barge and bucket have to be moved and repositioned as the dredging happens, so maybe you need to double that time, or triple it.

Apparently, also, the ship on leaving Baltimore was not holding a lot of ballast water, which is usually taken on when well offshore, so during the run down the Bay the ship is configured to reduce draft in the channel, meaning, with the weight of containers on the deck the ship might be considered tender – that is, a little top heavy. The reports are explaining that as they dredge by the ship they need to be careful they don’t cause a shelf near the ship which might allow it to roll into the deepened water – ie, take on a great list, or even capsize.

These ships are as I said earlier huge, and the containers stacked on the deck (as well as in the hull itself) reach very very high. Maybe it makes sense to remove fuel from the ship to lighten it, though this will also increase her tenderness. Another thing to do is remove containers, reduce the high weight. But the trouble here is that there aren’t many cranes mounted on barges that are tall enough to lift off those containers, and they would need to be lifted one at a time, a tedious and slow process. In the worst case, it might take weeks and weeks to remove containers and complete the dredging before the ship can be pulled back into the channel.

Of course, if the ship plowed through sediment this suggests that the bottom of the ship might be damaged, compressed, crumpled, bent. There is no question the sailors on the ship are sounding the voids and tanks every hour to make sure there are no leaks. Maybe there are leaks. Nobody had as of March 23 placed a boom around the ship, but surely this will happen soon, for there is the danger of fuel leakage as well.

This is going to be very expensive. The daily cost for dredging barges, dredges, and tugs is in the tens of thousands of dollars a day. It will be a race between trying to get the ship free as soon as possible so it can continue on its rotation, and dredging and moving enough sediment so the ship can be moved safely, without tearing open the hull or unbalancing the ship such that it shifts, maybe even rolls. And as they do this work, of course, as they pull the ship toward the channel, they come closer to the other marine traffic now using the channel. At some point the channel will need to be closed to free the Ever Forward. The worst outcome of all would be partly freeing the ship but not totally, yet blocking the channel.

This incident is not stopping a major world trade route. There will be no supply chain interruptions, except for those customers whose containers and goods are now delayed on that ship. But this is another sign of what can happen when an enormous, highly complex, clumsy ship makes one small mistake.

We will see more such mistakes.

Author: Charlie Sheldon

Charlie Sheldon studied at Yale University (American Studies) and the University of Massachusetts (Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and Resource Management). He then went to sea as a commercial fisherman off New England, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster, red crab, squid, and swordfish. Active in the fight for the 200-mile Fisheries Conservation Zone, he later worked as a consultant for Fishery Management Councils, developing fishery management plans and conducting gear development projects to develop more selective fisheries. He spent 28 years working for seaports (New York, Seattle, and Bellingham) as a project and construction manager and later as an executive. In addition to overseeing habitat cleanup projects, he worked with Puget Sound Tribes establish a system whereby tribal fishing could coexist with commercial shipping in Seattle Harbor and Elliot Bay. Then, nearly ancient, he returned to sea, shipping out with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, and Bosun. Starting with commercial container vessels, on the New York to Singapore run, he finished his career aboard naval ships for Military Sealift Command. His last gig was as bosun aboard USNS Shughart, New Orleans to New York, in 2016. Always a writer, he published Fat Chance with Felony and Mayhem Press in 2005. He began working on ideas for Strong Heart long, long ago and began serious research in 2010. These days he hikes in the Olympics whenever he can, cooks for his wife, and continues to write tales in Ballard, Washington.

2 thoughts on “That grounded big container ship”

  1. Another fascinating insider look at the hidden world of global shipping, and perfect length. Keep ‘ em coming!

  2. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. This is fascinating stuff. Will there be a point at which shipping companies, and their financiers and insurers, decide that these ships are too risky? Or do the profits outweigh the risks?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: