11 ships are trapped behind the Key Bridge, including 4 considered critical to the nation’s defense


BALTIMORE — There are 11 cargo ships trapped in the Port of Baltimore behind the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge — including four that are supposed to be able to set sail at a moment’s notice to support the overseas deployment of U.S. military forces.

The four ships, the SS Antares, SS Denebola, Gary I. Gordon and Cape Washington, are part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, a fleet established in 1976 to quickly supply American troops around the world. Two of them — the Antares and the Denebola — are capable of sailing from the East Coast to Europe in six days, making them among the fastest cargo ships in the world, according to a 2020 Facebook post by the Maritime Administration.

The blocked ships worry some naval strategy experts.

During the Gulf War’s Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, the Ready Reserve Force was fully activated to transport people and supplies to the Persian Gulf Region, said Steven Wills, a navalist for the Center for Maritime Strategy, a think tank affiliated with the Navy League of the United States and based in Arlington, Virginia.

“Right now, we do not have enough logistics vessels like these to do another Desert Shield or Desert Storm,” he said. “We would have to go out and ask for civilian companies to provide their ships in order to get enough.”

There are only 48 vessels in the Ready Reserve Force, according to the Maritime Administration, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The size of the fleet has declined in recent years, as ships are sold, get older and are repurposed, Wills said.

About 85% of all U.S. military cargo is currently housed in the country, said Capt. Douglas Harrington, who is responsible for the operations and management of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which includes the Ready Reserve Force. While there are vessels in the fleet stationed around the country — including in Newport News, Virginia — with four ships trapped in Baltimore, that leaves less capacity for the U.S. Transportation Command to use to transport supplies, Harrington said.

However, he added, two of the ships now penned up by the Key Bridge’s wreckage were out of service before last week’s disaster.

The Gary I. Gordon experienced an “engine casualty,” which is being repaired, said Harrington, the Maritime Administration’s deputy associate administrator for federal sealift and a licensed U.S. merchant mariner. The Cape Washington is also undergoing repair and regulatory work, he said.

The Antares and Denebola, like all vessels in the Ready Reserve Force, are maintained in a reduced readiness state but are supposed to be able to sail within five to 10 days in the event of a national emergency.

Harrington said they haven’t been activated much since Desert Storm, in part because they require a lot of manpower and money to operate.

“Even if that harbor clearance is completed,” Harrington said, “one or more of our ships may still be in a reduced state of readiness because of repairs or maintenance.”

Efforts are underway to clear the tangled mess of steel that is blocking the only channel into the Port of Baltimore, but stormy conditions have complicated the clean-up. Rescue divers weren’t able to resume their search Tuesday for four missing construction workers, who were bucked from the Key Bridge last week when the 984-foot container ship Dali collided with one of its main support structures.

The four men are presumed dead. Divers last week recovered the bodies of two other members of their crew, which was fixing potholes on the bridge when it collapsed just before 1:30 a.m. March 26.

Officials have been reluctant to say exactly how long clean-up efforts will take — just that they will take time. Temporary channels have been opened on the northeast and southwest sides of the wreckage, but at 11-feet and 14-feet deep, they are only suitable for smaller vessels and barges. For reference, the Antares requires a channel at least 30 feet deep to navigate out of the Patapsco River’s Northwest Harbor.

Retired Navy Adm. James Foggo hopes the Key Bridge collapse serves as a “wakeup call” for Americans and policymakers that further investment is needed in maritime infrastructure.

“It was a disaster of epic proportions,” said Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy. “I can’t believe how quickly that bridge went down.”

Besides the four Ready Reserve Fleet vessels trapped behind the wreckage, Foggo noted that the Coast Guard has its principal maintenance facility beyond the bridge in Curtis Bay. More redundancy is needed in the country’s sea infrastructure, he said. Plus, the nation’s shipyards have declined significantly in number over the years, he added.

The Maritime Administration is expanding its Ready Reserve Force, Harrington said. The Transportation Department is purchasing used ships, which are being updated, inspected and otherwise prepared. The Navy also will return some ships to the fleet soon. Once the new ships are incorporated, the Ready Reserve Force will include 53 vessels, Harrington said.

“We are doing everything we can to accelerate their suitability and readiness for being called into service,” he said.

Other vessels trapped behind the Key Bridge’s wreckage include:

•Palanca Rio — an oil/chemical tanker sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands

•Balsa 94 — a general cargo ship sailing under the flag of Panama

•Klara Oldendorff — a bulk carrier sailing under the flag of Madeira

•Saimaagracht — a general cargo ship sailing under the flag of the Netherlands

•Carmen — a vehicles carrier sailing under the flag of Sweden

•JY River — a bulk carrier sailing under the flag of the Liberia

•Phatra Naree — a bulk carrier sailing under the flag of Thailand

Those vessels are berthed around the harbor from Dundalk Marine Terminal and the Canton industrial waterfront to a coal pier in Curtis Bay. There’s an adage in the shipping industry that ships that aren’t sailing aren’t making money. Every day they’re stuck with their crews behind the port’s closed main channel, their owners are losing money.

According to vessel tracking websites, another six bulk ships lie at anchorage south of the Bay Bridge, where they typically lay up before delivering bulk goods such as sugar or fertilizer or wait to pick up coal from one of the port’s two coal terminals.

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