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Grounded Off New York City - Captain Rossler About His Most Critical Minutes at Sea

In the narrow navigation channel beneath the Verrazano Bridge, a fully loaded gas tanker is headed in the opposite direction as the "Kobe Express". At this moment, the engine fails without any warning - and the outgoing current pushes the containership onto a collision course. For Hapag-Lloyd Insights, Captain Peter Rossler recounts the most critical minutes of his time at sea.

02 July 2017

For every captain, it’s something special to call at an American port. In saying that, I’m not just talking about the view of San Francisco or New York. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the authorities have been very strict, and there’s a huge amount of red tape. The ship has to be declared to the U.S. Coast Guard no later than 96 hours before arriving. All information regarding the ship, its cargo and its crew has to be transmitted error-free; even the smallest typo isn’t permitted and can be punished with a fine. In the worst-case scenario, a ship can be refused entry to the port. Nor is it uncommon for the U.S. Coast Guard to halt a cargo ship off a port, and officials have taken the velvet gloves off when it comes to how they treat the crew.

Once the ship is moored at the pier, in addition to the agent, the first people to come on board are also the immigration authorities – to match faces with documents. Each member of the crew has to present himself individually and answer questions. On several occasions, I’ve seen it happen that a member of the crew is denied permission to go ashore because officials didn’t like his answers. One time, a seaman complained about being handled this way. The result: the entire ship was forbidden from going on shore – and, on top of that, the ban applied to all ports along the U.S. East Coast. As the captain, I tried to intervene. But without success.

Captain Peter Rössler was born in 1970 in the eastern German city of Leipzig. Longing to travel far and wide, he already wanted to go to sea at an early age. At 15, he sailed the Baltic Sea onboard a training ship of the “Sport and Technology Association” (GST). He studied nautical sciences in the northeastern port city of Warnemünde, where he earned his A6 captain’s license for commercial sea-going shipping. In 2016, he was at the helm of the newbuilding “Valparaíso Express” when it became the biggest ship to ever sail through the Panama Canal. Rössler lives with his wife and three children in Ammerland, near the northwestern German city of Oldenburg.

In many ways, what happened in March 2007 in the Port of New York with the “Kobe Express” (PANMAX containership, 294 meters long, 32 meters wide) could have turned into a nightmare.

It had been a tough voyage that began in Bremerhaven. After Rotterdam, we had run into the remnants of the North Sea storm “Kyrill,” which involved huge swells and very high seas. We finally arrived in Halifax four days late. The voyage continued along the U.S. East Coast, through the Panama Canal, along the U.S. West Coast, and then from San Francisco to Japan and on to port of destination, Hong Kong. The heavy fuel oil that we bunkered there caused problems for us on the return voyage. But the engine crew came to grips with the problem.

In any case, I wasn’t worried about that at all when we departed from New York, and all the cargo-handling operations had been completed on time. I studied the weather report for the Atlantic crossing. It called for calm weather and a following wind. Our voyage was on schedule, and I was looking forward to spending some time at home. It was a tranquil Sunday, the 17th of March. A light snow was falling on the houses of New York. “Engine clear!” the chief engineer reported, and the pilot came on board. At 9 p.m., we left our berth at the Global Terminal.

Though I couldn’t have guessed it at the time, this is when some of the most exciting hours of my career began.

With the help of two tugboats, we had turned the “Kobe Express” and started to make headway into the buoyed Ambrose Channel. A big tanker was heading our way in the opposite direction. To have enough clearance, we held our starboard side close to the line of buoys on the right, sailing very slowly. At exactly 10:04 p.m., we passed under the Verrazano Bridge, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. Moments later, I noticed that a giant cloud of steam had risen out of our funnel. Puzzled, I went out onto the bridge wing to see what was going on. It was precisely 10:14 p.m. when I came back onto the bridge and the engine failed. Without any alarms, without any signs. I immediately tried to restart it from the bridge.

“The ship won’t let itself be steered anymore,” the helmsman announced. “The ship is getting out of control!”

The outgoing current turned the “Kobe Express” to port and directly toward the gas tanker, which was already very close. A critical moment!

Captain Peter Rössler

Of course, I already had some critical moments under my belt. For example, I was chief mate on the “MS World Discoverer” expedition cruise ship when it ran aground in the Solomon Islands in April 2000, when the ship hit a reef that wasn’t plotted on any nautical chart. After sending out a distress signal, the captain deliberately grounded the damaged ship on a beach in Roderick Dhu Bay. All passenger survived unharmed. For an entire week, I stayed on board the disabled vessel, along with the captain and the second officer, to ward off any would-be plunderers. We dwelled in two lifeboats that we had tied together, and we kept a rotating watch. What an adventure that was! Especially at night, when the bay was eerily calm and silent. The salvage attempts had to be broken off when roughly a hundred armed rebels started heading toward the disabled vessel to plunder it.

Things could have gotten bad like that just seven months later, in February 2001. I was sailing as chief mate on the “MS Bremen” cruise ship when a gigantic wave hit the ship during a winter storm on the South Atlantic. The storm was blowing with gusts of more than 135 knots – I’d never experienced anything like it in my entire life. We estimated that the waves were more than 15 meters high. At around 6:20 a.m., at position 45°54’S and 38°58’W, the “Bremen” dipped twice in quick succession. The ship tipped over into a wave trough – and then we saw a huge wall of water in front of us. It might have been about 30 meters high, but we could only make a very rough estimate in such a brief period of time.

The “Bremen” sailed straight into the wave. At that moment, I was standing in front of the big central window on the bridge. There was a huge impact, a crack when the window broke. I was washed away by the water rushing in, and crashed through a wall panel in the rear part of the bridge. Luckily, the only wounds I suffered were a few bruises. The bridge was under a meter of water. I had a hard time getting back up on my feet.

All the devices – from the radar to the sonar to the gyro compass – had failed, alarms were going off, and smoke was rising out of the bridge console. The “MS Bremen” was disabled, lying beam on to rough seas. The ship keeled over several times with an extreme list. The bosun and two seamen managed to seal the shattered window with a wooden board. Half an hour later, the engines were working again and, sailing slowly, we were able to turn the bow back into the oncoming waves. The storm abated, and we called at Buenos Aires as a port of refuge.

Captain Peter Rössler

So, let’s return to the scene below the Verrazano Bridge, where the situation was getting dodgy. The big gas tanker kept getting closer and closer. The pilot – a tall, gaunt fellow in maybe his early 40s – was yelling out wild commands over the bridge. But even losing control didn’t make things any better for us at the moment. I thought about what should be done, and made a call to the engine control room.

“Can we start from the emergency control panel ?” I asked the chief engineer. He gave it a try, but the engine didn’t start up. Over the VHF unit, I listened to the excited voices of my counterpart on the gas tanker and its pilot. Every second counted now.

The clock on the bridge showed 10:19 p.m.

“Drop the anchor to starboard, five chain lengths,” I ordered.

Moments later, the ship was jerked hard to starboard and stopped, but the stern was picking up speed and swinging right toward the fully loaded gas tanker. I had the portside anchor dropped. The maneuver halted the strong pivoting of the “Kobe Express.”

At a distance of less than 100 meters, the gas tanker passed by our stern. Just think what would have happened if there had been a collision and perhaps even an explosion of the gas tanker! And right near the bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn, which is always full of traffic! I don’t even like to imagine it!

I heaved a sigh of relief, but only briefly, as we were still stuck without a functioning engine, lying in beam seas with two anchors in the fairway of the channel off New York. The outgoing current was completely pushing us on our own axis. The pilot had calmed down a bit and made contact with four tugboats, which were supposed to bring us to an anchorage. I ordered the two anchors to be hauled up. And, at 11:30 p.m., the chief engineer reported that the engine was running again. I replied “slow ahead,” and the tugboats pulled.

But nothing happened.

We were stuck, off New York City, outside of the fairway near Buoy 19, at 40°34, 2’N and 074°02, 3’W, to be exact.

To have a ship lying aground is an unpleasant thing for any captain. But to have a ship stuck off an American port is a fiasco. I immediately had all the tanks sounded for ballast water and fuel in order to see whether we had a leak. “No change” was the answer, which was already good news. Wondering whether the rudder and propellers were free, I ordered the water depth around the ship to be measured using a hand lead. The result: The forward quarter of the port side of the “Kobe Express” was lying on top of a sandbar. I made another careful attempt to get free using just our ship’s own power, but the big vessel wouldn’t budge an inch. According to the announcement, the next flooding would only be coming in the morning. We had to wait.

A Coast Guard boat arrived. I was prepared for cursing deputies. But, to my surprise, two friendly young ladies came onto the bridge. After I assured them that no oil had leaked out, they helped me fill out various questionnaires and took my statements for the record. They didn’t perform a test for alcohol or drugs, nor did they question any additional crew members. Before saying goodbye, the ladies handed me a document from the harbor master that said we weren’t allowed to leave New York until the cause of the engine failure had been determined and the ship had been inspected by the classification society.

Shortly after four o’clock in the morning, there was some movement of the ship. Soon thereafter, it slowly turned over the starboard side into the fairway. And, about half an hour later, I decided it was time to make a new attempt to free the vessel from the sandbar. “Slow astern!” I commanded. And, wouldn’t you know it, the “Kobe Express” really did slide itself free!

At 5:30 a.m., we reached the roadstead off Gravesend [editor’s note: a neighborhood in Brooklyn south of the Verrazano Bridge and above Coney Island] and dropped anchor. I was just about to lie down for a bit before the surveyor from Germanischer Lloyd [the classification society], whom the agency had ordered during the night, planned to come on board. But then the chief engineer came on to the bridge. “The cause of the failure was a clog in the service tank,” he said.

A few hours later, the expert confirmed this assessment in addition to certifying that the engine was fully operational again. Nevertheless, everyone on the bridge was nervous because there were still divers in the water to inspect the hull. Had the ship sustained any damage? Was there perhaps a tear? I was somewhat anxious when the men came on to the bridge. But the news was good: They hadn’t even found any dents; just a few scratches. The ship was seaworthy without restrictions. Hiding my sense of relief, I got started on the paperwork, as I had stacks of forms to fill out.

Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard came on board again to have us show them that the engine was running properly and to collect the documents. At 5 p.m., the surveyor, divers and officials left the ship. And less than 90 minutes later, the fax machine rang: The clearance from the harbor master was on hand. We hauled up the anchors and set a course for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I’d never been as happy to leave New York as I was that evening.