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Captain of 214-footer was drunk at helm

The Coast Guard feared the ship had been hijacked because of his strange behavior

The Coast Guard feared the ship had been hijacked because of his strange behavior

A Hungarian captain was fined $3,000 and ordered not to operate a vessel in U.S. waters for a year after he was convicted of operating a commercial vessel while under the influence of alcohol.

A Sea Marshal boarding team arrested 52-year-old Janos Gyori Jan. 11 while investigating the 214-foot freighter General Lee for possible security and safety violations about 10 miles off Virginia Beach, Va. Officers say they smelled alcohol on the captain’s breath and conducted six sobriety tests, which he failed, according to the Coast Guard. Gyori was arrested after he refused a breath test. Under federal law a person refusing a chemical test is considered intoxicated, says Coast Guard spokesman Jerry Crooks.

Gyori told authorities during the trial that he drank four beers and part of another the night before he took the helm of the vessel at 4 a.m. Crooks says they found a case of beer in his quarters, a half-empty can in the refrigerator, and several empty cans in the trash.

Under federal law mariners are prohibited from operating a commercial vessel while impaired — having a blood alcohol level higher than .04. They also are prohibited from drinking within four hours of taking the helm, according to the Coast Guard.

“Commercial vessels are held to a higher standard under U.S. regulations for very good reasons,” says Bob O’Brien, captain of the Port of Hampton Roads, in a statement. “This vessel … would have passed through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel. The master’s intoxicated state put his vessel and the port at high risk of a serious accident.”

The General Lee was flagged for boarding even before it entered port and was told to stay 12 miles offshore, says Crooks. But the freighter continued past the 12-mile mark, and when contacted by radio the captain was somewhat incoherent, according to Crooks. Crooks says the team feared the captain wasn’t in control of his vessel, such as in a hijacking. “Our initial concern was security,” says Crooks. “The master was confused and unable to give a straight answer.”

The Coast Guard detained the General Lee until the shipping company could send a new captain. The vessel was detained offshore the following day as well, because the crew failed a fire drill. The empty cargo ship eventually was allowed into port to load a shipment of fertilizer, then departed, according to the Coast Guard.

The incident wasn’t the General Lee’s first brush with the Coast Guard. The vessel earlier had been detained for safety violations in Savannah, Ga., where it offloaded tree stumps, according to Crooks. The ship is operated by Deep South Shipping, which is owned by Oahu Maritime Corp.

Late last year the Greek master of a 580-foot commercial freighter pleaded guilty to operating a vessel while intoxicated. Nikolaos Zografos was arrested at St. John’s Buoy, near Reserve, La., after contract workers cleaning cargo holds informed the Coast Guard that it appeared he had been drinking. Breathalyzer tests confirmed he was intoxicated.