Cargo Ship Set To Leave After One Wild Ride

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

A trans-Atlantic cargo ship anchored off Calvert County for nearly two weeks was expected to be allowed to leave by tonight, ending, for now, a bizarre incident that resulted in four crew members from Russia or Ukraine charged with operating a vessel while drunk, according to U.S. Coast Guard and Justice Department officials.

The Calvert County Sheriff's Office also played a role in the case, deploying about a dozen tactical officers to board the 328-foot dry bulk carrier by climbing up its ladder.

"They were what they were. They were some drunk sailors," said Lt. Ricky Thomas, commander of special operations and homeland security at the Sheriff's Office.

The four crew members and the ship's master had posted bond as of the end of last week. The bonds were posted by the ship's owner, and the five will have to return for court proceedings, the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore said.

The events in question began March 10, when three Maryland captains boarded the Maltese-flagged vessel, named Ocean Victory, to help pilot the ship out of the Port of Baltimore and then south through the Chesapeake Bay, authorities said. One of the Maryland captains smelled alcohol on one of the crewmembers and told an Ocean Victory captain he did not want the man assisting with the departure. The Ocean Victory captain, or master, was identified as Wojciech Kowalski, 63, of Poland, according to federal court documents.

After the ship passed under the Bay Bridge, the Maryland captains noted that no member of Ocean Victory's crew was in the wheelhouse. When a crew member, later identified as Volodym Voychenko, 45, of Ukraine, presented himself in the wheelhouse as the "assigned lookout," he, too, smelled of alcohol, federal authorities said. Voychenko began shoving one of the Maryland captains in her shoulder, according to the Coast Guard.

Another Maryland captain noted the Ukrainian was "holding a large knife," at which point one of the Maryland captains took it from him, according to federal court records.

The Maryland captains anchored the Ocean Victory and departed it, declaring the ship not ready to safely navigate because of "intoxicated crewman and the lack of personnel in the wheelhouse," a Coast Guard investigator later wrote in an application for criminal charges.

After the Maryland captains left the ship, the Coast Guard called on Calvert's Special Operations Team, which is trained to work with the Coast Guard in such situations. The team several years ago became the second such outfit in the country trained by Navy Seals in "Special Waterborne Operations," according to the Sheriff's Office. The team also handles security matters linked to the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and the Dominion Cove Point liquefied natural gas facility, the Sheriff's Office said.

Also on March 10, sheriff's officers boarded their patrol vessel Spec Ops II and met Coast Guard personnel in the Patuxent River, the Sheriff's Office said. About 9:30 p.m., 11 sheriff's officers pulled up alongside the Ocean Victory, climbed up a long ladder and went aboard. Their posture was somewhere between full-on SWAT raid and casual entrance, said Thomas, the team's commander.

Crewmembers were placed in handcuffs. "For the most part, they were compliant," Thomas said.

A crewmember identified as Yuriy Shelkunov, 29, of Ukraine refused to submit to an alcohol breath test and eventually fell asleep, authorities said. Three of his crewmates did take the test, notching blood alcohol concentrations ranging from 0.142 to 0.283 ; 0.08 is generally considered the legal limit. One crew member said he had bought two 12-packs of Budweiser and drank seven to eight of the beers, authorities said. Two others admitted drinking alcohol on board, according to the Coast Guard criminal charges affidavit.

Kowalski, the ship's master, said he knew that some crew members had been drinking before the ship left the Port of Baltimore, according to federal authorities. Once on the water, he said, "it would have been more dangerous to return to the Port of Baltimore, Md., with his crewmen drunk, and would be safer to get to open water," the Coast Guard investigator wrote in his application for charges.

Kowalski eventually was charged with failing to ensure the wheelhouse was constantly staffed, failing to notify the Coast Guard he had inadequate crew strength, given the drunkenness, and making false statements, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Petty Officer John Edwards, a Coast Guard spokesman, said Friday that the ship was still anchored off the coast of the Drum Point area of Calvert County. He estimated it was about one mile off shore, and said he expected the no-sail order for the ship to be lifted by tonight.

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