The large container ship waylaid in the Chesapeake Bay for weeks was back on the move by early morning on Sunday, April 17. The MV Ever Forward went aground in the mud close to Annapolis, Maryland, on March 13 after traveling south out of the Port of Baltimore. Soon after the grounding took place, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region contacted the NOAA scientific support coordinator (SSC). At the Coast Guard’s request, NOAA provided scientific support and modeling to assist in the response, including detailed weather and water level information. The Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the grounding.
NOAA’s team from the Office of Response and Restoration worked with the Coast Guard throughout the past few weeks to get the large vessel safely back into the proper shipping channel and on track to deliver its containers to Norfolk, Virginia. Both government agencies worked together with the state of Maryland and the responsible party, the company that owns the ship, in a unified command effort close to the ship’s location.
The 1,095-foot container ship carried 4,964 full boxes of cargo. Removal focused on lightering the load — a careful, deliberate process in which cargo and ballast are removed from a vessel slowly and strategically. The strategy is designed to keep the ship stable and refloat it without harm to people or the environment. In the meantime, the shipping channel remained open to one-way traffic, allowing other vessels, including container ships, to move through.
“We provide the science that is critical to a proper response,” said Frank Csulak, NOAA’s SSC at the Ever Forward response. “Each situation is unique.”
When NOAA scientists respond to an incident like this, they first determine if an oil spill might occur. They then use an Environmental Sensitivity Index to summarize coastal resources at risk. Such resources can include animals (such as birds and shellfish beds), habitats (such as marshes and tidal flats), and resources like beaches and parks.
The next step is to determine how a spilled oil or chemical might behave, given variables like the type of oil or chemical; its volume; the weather; tidal movement; and shoreline conditions. The team uses modeling tools to predict the trajectory of any oil or chemical leaks, as well as weather models to predict how water movement might impact a potential response.
The MV Ever Forward ran aground in the Chesapeake Bay near Maryland’s Sandy Point State Park, which includes a popular swimming beach. The Bay itself is replete with sensitive areas and biological diversity. It is also a popular recreational sailing location, with important urban ports.
Some of the containers aboard held chemicals and dangerous goods. The Coast Guard reached out to the SSC about any special offloading and handling concerns. The ship held 1,169 tons of heavy fuel oil and 1,020 tons of low-sulfur diesel fuel. But the grounding happened in soft mud, which probably prevented hull damage. No pollution release was detected.
Given initial data gathered at the scene, dredging began and pull barges were brought in to loosen the vessel from the suction that the mud had on the huge vessel. Next, the team employed large cranes to begin lightering. April’s full moon helped, providing a high tide favorable to safe, stable refloating.
Although it may seem strange to use the term “delicate” when dealing with something larger than most skyscrapers, the entire operation was very surgical in nature. Teams rappelled to secure guide ropes to the box sides, so that they could place each container on board in the right location. Drones assessed operations, feeding imagery to managers in real time. The Coast Guard also secured the perimeter near the ship to keep recreational boaters and other shipping vessels away from the danger zone.
“Our main focus, 100 percent of the time, is safety,” said Coast Guard Ensign Craig Oravitz who was on the boat monitoring the lightering and response in the Chesapeake. “We are only going to move as fast as we can move safe.”
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