An 835-foot bulk cargo ship that lost power and briefly drifted down the Mobile Ship Channel yesterday was characterized as a “non event” by the Alabama State Port Authority’s harbormaster, according to Judith Adams, a port spokesperson. Although she said such events are rare, “any port worth its salt” is prepared to respond to such emergencies, and agents of the Port of Mobile have had prior experience.
“At about 4 p.m. we were notified the inbound bulk vessel AOM Elena lost power,” Adams said today. “The harbor tugs were called out almost immediately, they quickly righted her and got her into berth.”
Adams said the ship “probably got a little cattywampus” but the harbormaster assured her it was “not at risk.” She could not immediately say what cargo the ship was carrying.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Heartland Office, PA Wisdom, said the agency was notified of a “marine casualty” at 4:44 p.m.
“By the time the report rolled in, we saw the tugs were en route almost on scene,” Wisdom said. “No damage or pollution was reported so our response was limited.”
Wisdom said a marine casualty is broadly defined as “an unforeseen incident on the water,” which may or may not be investigated, depending on its gravity. He could not say whether an investigation had been initiated into the AOM Elena.
It took about an hour for the tugs to arrive, Adams said, but they were quickly able to secure the ship, redirect it, and moor it to a berth.
According to social media posts from photographer David R. Black (above) on the Eastern Shore and tugboat engineer in the port, the ship was indeed almost perpendicular in the channel at one point, with its bow pointed east toward Fairhope.
Today, the tugboat engineer told Lagniappe the ship was loaded with coal, and lost power “due to bad fuel.” But he said power was restored before he arrived. Five tugboats were ordered, but ultimately, only three were needed to get the ship to the Port.
“It coasted to a stop in the ship channel and got sideways in the channel drifting,” he added. “Once we got to the ship, the engine room had complete power back and was ready to get back underway coming to Mobile with a load of coal to McDuffie.”
Based on the imagery, the scene was somewhat reminiscent of the ship Ever Given famously obstructing the Suez Canal for several weeks in 2021, disrupting global trade. But Adams said in the bay at least, the Mobile Ship Channel is less prone to such a long term obstruction, and the comparison to the Ever Given incident is apples to oranges.
“I’m not going to say it could never happen here … but the pilots were able to keep the vessel in a very good position and harbor tugs were there to assist quickly,” Adams said. “We were very fortunate.”
As with any port globally, Adams said the ship was being guided through the channel by local bar pilots. Pilotage services in Mobile are provided by the tight-knit and exclusive Mobile Bar Pilots, who are governed by a state regulatory agency, the Alabama State Pilotage Commission. A person who answered the phone number listed for the Mobile Bar Pilots today declined to acknowledge the incident occurred or whether the Mobile Bar Pilots were involved.
But Adams confirmed regulations require “a bar pilot on every vessel.” She said the report from the harbormaster did not note which pilot was on board the AOM Elena, but added whoever it was, they are required to be trained to respond to a loss of power or other emergencies.
Similarly, the harbor tugs are operated by a pair of private companies — Crescent Towing and Seabulk Towing — whose fleets are trained and prepared to respond to emergencies, Adams said. She noted a 2013 incident when the Carnival Triumph cruise ship broke free from its moorings during an unusually strong April thunderstorm, eventually drifting into and damaging a ship owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a drilling platform broke loose in the Port and drifted into the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, which had to be shut down and inspected for damage. In 2006, the 534-foot-long ZIM Mexico III struck a crane at the Port, which toppled and killed an employee. Adams said that incident resulted from a failure of the ship’s thrusters during a turning maneuver.
“These things happen but we are very fortunate to have protocols in place,” Adams said. “This is a heavily regulated industry and our primary concern is safety.”
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