Ship part

Vessel briefly loses power in Mobile Bay, drifts sideways

An 835-foot bulk cargo ship that lost power and briefly drifted along the Mobile Ship Channel yesterday was deemed a “non-event” by the Alabama State Port Authority harbor master, according to Judith Adams, port spokesperson. Although she said such occurrences are rare, “any port worth its salt” is prepared to respond to such emergencies, and Mobile Port officers have prior experience.

“Around 4 p.m. we were advised that the inbound bulk carrier AOM Elena had lost power,” Adams said today. “Harbour tugs were called almost immediately, they quickly righted her and put her alongside.”

Adams said the ship “probably had a small cattywampus”, but the harbor master assured him it was “not in danger”. She could not immediately tell what cargo the ship was carrying.

A spokesman for the US 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 arrived, we saw the tugs were on their way almost to the scene,” Wisdom said. “No damage or pollution was reported, so our response was limited.”

Wisdom said a marine accident is broadly defined as “an unplanned incident on the water”, which may or may not be investigated, depending on its severity. He could not say if an investigation had been opened on the AOM Elena.

It took about an hour for the tugs to arrive, Adams said, but they were quickly able to secure the vessel, redirect it and moor it to a berth.

According to social media posts by photographer David R. Black (above) on the east coast and tug captain James Alan Tompkins in the harbour, the vessel was indeed nearly perpendicular in the channel at one point, with her bow pointing east towards Fairhope.

Today Tompkins 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 tugs were ordered, but ultimately only three were needed to bring the ship to port.

“It stopped in the channel of the ship and moved sideways in the channel while drifting,” he added. Tompkins is a 33-year veteran of harbor tug operations. “Once we got to the ship, the engine room was fully fueled and ready to get underway coming to Mobile with a load of coal for McDuffie.”

From the footage, the scene was somewhat reminiscent of the ship Ever Given clogging 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 obstruction for such a long term, 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 managed to keep the ship in a very good position and the harbor tugs were there to help quickly,” Adams said. “We were very lucky.”

As with any port in the world, Adams said the ship was guided through the channel by local bar pilots. Pilotage services in Mobile are provided by the United and Exclusive Mobile Bar Pilots, which is governed by a state regulatory body, the Alabama State Pilotage Commission. A person who answered the phone number given for the Mobile Bar Pilots today refused to acknowledge that the incident had happened or whether the Mobile Bar Pilots were involved.

But Adams confirmed the regulations require “one bar pilot on every ship”. She said the harbor master’s report did not indicate which pilot was aboard the AOM Elena, but added whoever they are, they must be trained to respond to a loss of power or other emergencies. .

Likewise, harbor tugs are operated by two private companies — Crescent Towing and Seabulk Towing — whose fleets are trained and prepared to respond to emergencies, Adams said. She noted an incident in 2013 when the Carnival Triumph cruise ship broke free from its moorings during an unusually strong April thunderstorm, eventually drifting into and damaging a vessel belonging to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a drilling rig broke away from the harbor and drifted into the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, which had to be closed and inspected for damage. In 2006, the 534-foot-long ZIM Mexico III struck a crane at the port, which overturned and killed an employee. Adams said the incident resulted from the ship’s thrusters failing during a turning maneuver.

“These things happen but we’re very lucky to have protocols in place,” Adams said. “This is a heavily regulated industry and our primary concern is safety.”