First Responders

What Do You Do When a Really Big Ship Does a Doughnut on the Savannah River?

June 16, 2022Noelle Wiehe
container ship doughnut

The 1,091-foot motor vessel Maersk Surabaya ran aground in the Savannah River, on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, near Savannah, Georgia. US Coast Guard photo by Air Station Savannah.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — When the Maersk Surabaya began to do a mammoth container ship’s version of a doughnut on the Savannah River, first responders feared it might smack into other vessels.

So when US Coast Guard watchstanders in Savannah were alerted at 6:09 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14, that the 1,091-foot Danish-flagged cargo ship had gone askew and run aground near Old Fort Jackson and began drifting in a circle until it blocked the federal navigation channel, they rang Lt. Alex McConnell.

He’s a marine casualty investigator with the US Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in the Savannah Office of Waterways Management. He lives near Forsythe Park in historic downtown Savannah, about a 12-minute drive to where the 94,322-gross-ton ship got stuck.

“In these kinds of situations, the best thing to do is just go out there, see it in person,” McConnell told Coffee or Die Magazine.

His first job would be to answer a trio of crucial questions: “Is the vessel safe? Is the crew safe? What is the status of the river?” And then get the ship on its way.

a doughnut
The Port of Savannah, the second-busiest port on the East Coast, recorded an all-time cargo record in May 2022, thanks to rising consumer demand. The Georgia Ports Authority said Savannah moved the equivalent of 519,390 shipping containers. US Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser.

When he arrived, McConnell began analyzing the grounding with representatives from the Savannah Fire Department, the US Coast Guard Small Boat Station Tybee, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.  

The navigable channel the container ship was using is dredged to about 49 feet deep. Outside that channel, however, the water runs increasingly shallow. Once Maersk Surabaya got sideways, the ship made contact with a riverbank and got jammed.

To free it, McConnell and the other responders needed to turn the boat around and point it back down the channel. And that was going to take a lot of room, a space the equivalent of 10 giant container ships. So a 45-foot response boat-medium crew from US Coast Guard Station Tybee Island marked off and began enforcing a 509-foot safety zone in the river, keeping all shipping and recreational watercraft away from the container vessel.

Then came a swarm of tugboats, like water bugs skimming down the river. The initial operation called for a trio of tugs pushing on the port side of the ship, plus one astern yanking at the massive vessel.

But they couldn’t budge Maersk Surabaya to the center of the channel.

a doughnut
A container ship in the Savannah River arrives at the Port of Savannah on July 25, 2021. US Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser.

So three more tugs steamed to the scene. The river was calm, and they quickly pushed Maersk Surabaya off the mud and into the waterway. Two hours after first responders arrived, Maersk Surabaya was running upriver to deliver its cargo of consumer goods to Garden City stevedores. 

“Fortunately, it happened in a window of time where there weren’t many vessel movements planned,” McConnell said. “Lucky for us, it did not impact commercial traffic.” 

Toward the end of the mission, the only thing left to complain about were the “no-see-ums,” what folks down here call gnats.

Marine Safety Unit Savannah will continue to probe the incident, including figuring out why the ship jackknifed in the waterway. They’ll also work closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers to take sonar readings of the channel, making sure that it’s not damaged or will pose risks to other vessels.

A US Coast Guard Aids to Navigation team from Tybee Island also will verify that the buoys marking the channel’s location are where they’re supposed to be.

“It’s kind of coming at it from multiple angles there,” McConnell said. “Our focus is to identify what the cause was and then do our best to prevent it from happening again.”

Read Next: ‘Thread the Needle 19 Times’ — How Rescuers Saved Schoolchildren Trapped in the Chasm of Doom 

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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