Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Deadliest Blog Post

Living near and working at Seattle's Fisherman's Terminal, I hear a lot about The Discovery Channel's program Deadliest Catch. Any fishing vessel moored here that ever had anything to do with the show advertises the fact with a banner or sign on its side, tour buses drive through several times a day, and the word deadliest appears everywhere, from restaurant signs to bumper stickers. But gallows humor and shameless opportunism aside, how deadly is working at sea?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, "fishers and related fishing workers" do indeed have the highest death rate of any American workers, suffering nearly 112 fatalities for every 100,000 workers. Loggers place second (86 per 100,000) followed by aircraft pilots and flight engineers (67 per 100,000). The BLS reports on civilian deaths only, but a recent military report put the death rate for all US active-duty military personnel at 73 per 100,000 for the period 2004-2007. In combat specialities, military personnel have more than twice the death rate of commercial fishermen.

In terms of actual civilian deaths, truckers and other drivers fared the worst (in 2007, where all my numbers come from), with more than 900 deaths, followed by farmers and ranchers with 285. There were 38 deaths among fisherman in the same period but, of course, there are a lot fewer of them than either truckers or farmers.

About 65 percent of US mariner deaths in 2007 were in the fishing or towing industries. According to the latest US Coast Guard Marine Safety Performance Plan, "(m)ore than three-quarters of commercial mariner deaths and injuries are accounted for by incidents where the initial event is a personnel injury, such as falling overboard or being struck by an object." Most of the rest are caused by either a vessel casualty of some kind (a grounding, loss of steering, etc.) or a "material failure."

Going to sea has always been dangerous. Of the more than 200 men that set out to sail around the world with Ferdinand Magellan, only 18 made it home three years later. In modern times, more than 8600 civilian merchant mariners died in World War II, more than half again the death rate of the US Marines and twice that of the army. 

Find the Bureau of Labor Statistics report mentioned above at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf

For Kelly Kennedy's Army Times report on the military death rate sudy, see http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/06/military_deaths_active_duty_061609w/

The Coast Guard's Marine Safety Performance Plan 2009-2014 can be found at http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg54/docs/MSPerformancePlan.pdf

Some good background on the US Merchant Marine and its service during WWII and subsequent struggle for veterans status is at http://train.missouri.org/~emgeer/merchantmarine.html

Friday, June 26, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Edward J. Smith

With the death of Millvina Dean on May 31, the last survivor of the Titanic disaster has passed on. A whole industry has grown up around the story of the Titanic and its captain, Edward J. Smith, an industry fueled by speculation, conspiracy theory, and outright falsehood.

Smith was born in England in 1850, and left school at age 13 to go to sea. He joined the the White Star Line, the line that would one day build the Titanic, in 1880 as Fourth Officer and seven years later was given his first command. He commanded larger and more prestigious ships as the years went on, along the way earning decorations, a rank of Commander in the Royal Navy reserve, and a reputation as the best and safest passenger liner captain in the world. The only major blemish on Smith’s career prior to Titanic was a September 1911 collision between the White Star Liner Olympic, which he commanded, and the British cruiser HMS Hawke.

Smith took command of the Titanic in 1912 and no sooner had the ship sailed on April 10 when quick action on his part helped avert a collision with the SS City of New York, which broke free of its mooring lines due to the surge caused by the Titanic’s passing. He was not so fortunate four days later: he was one of the roughly 1500 people who died when Titanic sank after striking an iceberg.

The popular image today is that of Smith going down with his ship, standing stoically on the bridge as the waters rose over his head, an image portrayed in the 1997 James Cameron film. One legend has him diving into the water with an infant in his arms, which he places on a lifeboat before swimming off to either die or look for more survivors. The last person know to have seen Smith alive was junior radio officer who says he saw the captain dive into the water from the bridge wing a few minutes before Titanic’s final plunge.

In terms of loss of life, Titanic was not the worst passenger ship disaster in history. More than 7,700 refugees, crew, and military personnel were killed on the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff when she was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in January 1945. Eighteen other liner disasters have higher casualty figures than Titanic’s. But the attention given this sinking was unequalled, and led to major reforms in maritime safety and eventually to the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) that we operate under today.

For more on Smith, see his biography and other pages on the “Titanic – A Voyage of Discovery” website at http://www.euronet.nl/users/keesree/captain.htm. This includes some more colorful theories on how Smith met his demise.

The UK site “Lasting Tribute” has a nice short bio on Smith, including a kind of strange video montage with Kenny G. background music. Find it at http://www.lastingtribute.co.uk/tribute/smith/3088437

Walter Lord’s 1955 book A Night To Remember is still one of the best Titanic works out there and to my mind the best introduction to the whole Titanic story. Plus, you can read it in an afternoon.

The Economic Times of India has a sweet obituary of Millvina Dean at http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Titanic-has-no-survivors-left/articleshow/4623100.cms

For a good overview of the SOLAS convention, see the page on the International Maritime Organization's website at http://www.imo.org/TCD/contents.asp?topic_id=257&doc_id=647#1

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"What's a TWIC?"

I recently posted a photo online that had an image of my TWIC card in it, a reference that drew knowing chuckles from my friends in the maritime industry and bewilderment from those outside of it. “What’s a TWIC?” was the question they all asked.

TWIC stands for Transportation Worker Identification Credential. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because (so far at least), only maritime workers are required to have one. The idea is port security, and every mariner, port worker, and person having access to a port (like truck drivers who haul containers) should supposedly have one by now.

 As with a lot of the post-9/11 homeland security legislation, this program has had a number of problems rolling out, including backlogs at processing centers, a big computer crash back in October, and problems getting card readers up and running, especially on small vessels and at small facilities. Mariners have been frustrated with long delays, yet another set of fees and background checks, and cheapness and general cluelessness on the part of the private contractor administering the TWIC program, Lockheed-Martin.

 The ultimate question is whether the TWIC program is going to make our ports and shipping safer. Maybe. It might help prevent an “inside job” terrorist attack of some kind, but is useless against Somali pirate-style attacks on ships just outside of US ports. Given some of the recent bad press the TSA has gotten over airport security, it’s easy to be cynical and think the TWIC program is politicians trying to look tough on terrorism. To be fair, the little bit of it I have seen in action seems, if nothing else, to give vessel crews in a heightened state of security awareness. It remains to be seen what the full program will accomplish when – or if – it gets up and running.

For more on the ins and outs of TWICdom, see the TSA’s TWIC web page at http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/layers/twic/index.shtm

See David Tyler’s “Problems obtaining TWIC cards causing frustrations for many mariners” in the June/July 2008 issue of Professional Mariner at https://professionalmariner.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=420C4D38DC9C4E3A903315CDDC65AD72&nm=Archives&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=E11ADF18BC7246D2BD7F4D966AB430AD

An eye-opening, and sometimes painfully hilarious, look at the current state of airport security, is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “The Things He Carried” in the November 2008 edition of The Atlantic Monthly at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200811/airport-security

Filed from M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Sitka, Alaska. 

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mariners in Review: The Pirate Queen

Someone once said that a language is just a dialect with a navy. English became the world's most widely-spoken language on the decks of the ships of the British Navy. Susan Ronald’s The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire chronicles the early days of England’s maritime power, when Elizabeth I enlisted merchant sea captains in her decades-long struggle to defend her throne and the Protestant faith against her enemies, foremost her one-time brother-in-law King Phillip II of Spain.

While Phillip and the pope tried to crush Elizabeth in various ways, the queen fought back by trying to cut off Phillip’s funding at the source, the treasure of the New World. Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, John Hawkins and others were the Blackwaters of their day, acting on the Queen’s wishes (and often with heavy financial backing by her and her ministers) while allowing her to maintain plausible deniability. These “pirates” were what we would call “privateers” today, although that term had not yet been coined and Ronald avoids using it. What starts out as irritating raids on a few ships grows over the years into a full-scale confrontation and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

There’s enough swashbuckling and derring-do to keep the general reader turning the pages, while providing the nautically inclined with a good feel for shipboard life in the late 16th century. The Patrick O’Brien crowd will enjoy the detailed look at the weapons, supplies, and even loot of the era. And Elizabethiana enthusiasts will find a whole new side of their favorite queen: Walsingham, Cecil, Robert Dudley, Mary Queen of Scots and all the usual suspects from any book about Elizabeth are here, but it’s the gentlemen adventurers of the era and their crews and ships that get top billing.

For more on The Pirate Queen see Susan Ronald’s website www.the-pirate-queen.com/index.html

For further reading, an excellent book on the history and development of the British Navy is To Rule The Waves: How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World by Arthur Herman. Find more at books.google.com/books?id=EgH1u2sJt4oC#reviews_anchor

Filed from M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Juneau, Alaska

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Real or not, global warming is a fact of nautical life

It was a conversation I was having a lot more in recent years: the patriarch of the family, what yacht crews call the “charter primary,” visited me on the bridge, asked me the usual questions (“Were you in the Navy?” What kind of engines do you have on here?”), then proceeded to explain to me how “global warming” was nonsense, and that it was obvious to anyone who could do a few simple calculations on the back of an envelope. I joked that some day we would be offering yacht charters above the Arctic Circle. “Not in your lifetime,” he said confidently.

I’m not sure a lot of shipping company executives would agree with him. Scientists measuring the winter extent of arctic ice say it’s getting smaller over time, and what some see as an environmental disaster others see as a great business opportunity. Everyone from local Inuit tribes, making money off an increased Coast Guard presence, to big energy companies lining up to tap more easily accessible oil and natural gas reserves, are seeing opportunity in the Arctic Ocean. Shipping companies see a route from Asia to the American east coast that’s faster (about half the time) than the Panama Canal route and cheaper than paying west coast port costs, as well as rail or trucking costs.

It’s not all good news for the maritime industry, though. Whether they believe in global warming or not, vessel operators are going to have to take into account regulatory changes designed to ameliorate its effects. Foss Maritime is already using low-sulfur fuel in its tugs and is developing hybrid technology for the next generation of its vessels. Small operators along the InterCoastal Waterway worry about the disappearance of barrier islands under rising sea levels. Retreating glaciers in Alaska leave more ice in the water, open up channels faster than they can be charted and, in the long term, and make a huge tourist attraction less accessible and available. For a lot of companies, from Mom and Pop tour operators to large shipping companies, changes are happening right now.

For a transcript of International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Efthimios E. Mitropoulous's address to last year's "Impacts of Climate Change On the Maritime Industry" conference, see www.imo.org/About/mainframe.asp?topic_id=1698&doc_id=10058

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrique, of the Dept. of Global Studies & Geography at Hofstra University, has published a great map of polar shipping routes at people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch1en/conc1en/polarroutes.html

Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian filed his excellent article on the Arctic resource rush, "A Very Cold War," in April 2008. Find it at www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/05/poles.endangeredhabitats

Filed from the M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Tracy Arm, Southeast Alaska

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Clean up, catch up, and follow up

The old saying goes "he who is always his own counseller will often have a fool for his client" and I guess you could say the same thing about a writer who is always his own editor. Going back over some old posts, I've noticed a few copyediting problems. If you notice a post sounds a little bit different, it's because I've gone back and fixed some typos, grammar (including one egregious subject/verb agreement problem), and generally tightened things up. If I change any items of fact, I will indicate so in the text.

Thanks to everyone who's given me feedback, both in the Comments and otherwise. Thanks to reader Steve Gordon, who referred me to the http://www.jonesactquestions.com web site. It includes links to petitions and other actions mariners can take to preserve Jones Act rights. The site is run by, or at least heavily sponsored by, the Gordon and Ellias law firm, which specializes in Jones Act injury claims so the same caveats I applied to the link in my original Jones Act post apply.

The National Public Radio program "Planet Money" had a good podcast on the economics of modern piracy back in April. Find it at http://www.npr.org/blogs/globalpoolofmoney/images/2009/04/podcast04.22.09.mp3

My snarky comments about "Doc" in the Love Boat post shouldn't be taken to mean paint all cruise ship doctors with the same broad brush, but there has been some real controversy lately. Find Stephanie Chen's October 2007 Wall Street Journal article "Trouble At Sea: Free-Agent Doctors" at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119318197257869091.html?mod=todays_us_personal_journal. For the other side of the story, cruise ship doctor Andrew Lucas recounts his experiences on the "Adventure Medics" web site http://www.adventuremedics.com/magazine/diaries/confesions-of-a-cruise-ship-doctor

On a less serious note, find The Love Boat fan club site at http://www.fanpop.com/spots/the-love-boat

Posted from the M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Ketchikan, Alaska

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Keeping Up with The Jones Act, Part 2

The second part of the Jones Act legislation, and the one most controversial in public policy circles, is the so-called “cabotage” law. Put simply, a vessel must be built in the United States and crewed by a predominantly American crew to sail under the US flag. This is not a symbolic right; it entitles the vessel to move paid cargo or passengers from one US port to another. A foreign-flagged vessel has to pick up or drop off cargo or passengers at least one foreign port along the way. This why so many Alaska-bound cruise ships, almost all of which are foreign-flagged, begin or end their cruises in Vancouver.

The US is not alone in having these sorts of requirements. Mexico requires vessels under its flag to have at least 90-percent Mexican crew, compared to the US requirement of 75 percent.  On the other hand, some “flag of convenience” states, such as Liberia or The Bahamas, allow anyone with the proper qualifications to sail on their vessels. Panama, for instance, has the largest merchant marine fleet in the world, with crews from a number of different countries.

These cabotage provisions of the Jones Act were meant to protect American jobs, both in shipyards and at sea. They have been chipped away at almost since they became law, mostly to fit specific situations, such as the 1978 provision allowing foreign-built hovercraft to operate in Alaska. I myself was captain of a large yacht that, while Australian-built, was registered in the United States. A now-expired law allowed the vessel to be re-flagged if the owners spent a certain percentage of the vessel's value into upgrades and repairs. The Jones Act was not completely thrown out the window in this case, though: the vessel still has to drop off or pick up its passengers at a foreign port; two other small vessel operators protested the awarding of a “coastwise” endorsement.

More recently, there have been attempts to allow foreign-flagged vessels to serve in the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil trade, in which the only intermediate stop is an oil-drilling platform. Many of these oilrigs are floating vessels in their own right and usually foreign-flagged, often in the Marshall Islands. Another area of contention is foreign-flagged gambling boats that never leave the dock. The local governments may permit gambling, but is the vessel itself in violation of federal cabotage laws? Stay tuned.

For more information, check out the Maritime Cabotage Task Force’s excellent web site at www.mctf.com 

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Keeping Up with The Jones Act, Part 1

“The Jones Act” is a catchall term describing three laws designed to protect American merchant mariners. It is all, without a doubt, protectionist legislation and thus has been under assault for years by shipping companies, foreign governments, and their allies in the US government.

In everyday situations, the Jones Act protects merchant mariners in a variety of ways. Ship owners are required to provide their crew with a certain minimal nutrition level (3100 calories a day), rest periods, and medical care. Ship owners are required to provide medical care for any injury or illness sustained while “in the service of the vessel,” up to the point where a doctor believes the person is as “cured” as he or she is going to get.

The term “in the service of the vessel” can be tricky. One fishing boat owner and captain I know hired a deckhand, who got drunk in a bar, and was then injured as a result. Despite never having actually reported to the vessel for work, the deckhand was entitled to medical treatment for his injuries as the owner’s expense. This included a daily stipend that’s just small enough to make the injured crewman want to get back to work and make some real money, while large enough to eat up the profits and cash reserve of a single small fishing or charter boat owner in a very short time.

Seamen are not without their burdens under the Jones Act. They are considered wards of the state and thus cannot refuse to be seen by a doctor if the captain of their vessel deems it appropriate. The hiring process may also involve filling out long medical history questionnaires that would be considered intrusive, if not outright illegal, if required by most landside employers. And the coverage is not all-inclusive: tooth decay, for instance, is considered the seaman’s responsibility.

For more on Jones Act claims from the individual mariner's point of view, a good resource is the Ogletree Abbot Law Firm’s site www.shipguide.com. It’s a clear, well-organized site with everything you’d care to know about Jones Act claims. Keep in mind that the site is produced by a law firm that specializes in maritime claims, so it has a definite point of view.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Love Boat

When I was a kid in the late ‘70s, Saturday night meant The Love Boat, the TV adventures of Captain Stubing, the crew of the Pacific Princess, and an all-star guest cast of passengers who came aboard every week looking for love. It was great fun and probably single-handedly responsible for a huge increase in the popularity of cruise ships. It was also responsible for a huge number of misconceptions about the cruise industry.

The fresh-faced American crew is the first thing you won’t find on most cruise ships, since the vast majority of cruise ships are not American flagged. Capt. Stubing in real life is more likely to be British, Norwegian, or Greek than American. Ditto for your yeoman purser, Gopher, although Holland America, for instance, frequently has American officers in the hotel department. Your bartender Isaac, though? He's probably from the Philippines, a Caribbean island (the Bahamas is a common recruiting ground), or any of a number of other Third World countries. Isaac probably earns not much more than $500 a month, so tip him well before you head off to the Promenade Deck with Charo.

Your Cruise Director, Julie, just might be an American. Why? Because she speaks English, the most likely common language shared by all the passengers, and most likely the only language spoken by the American passengers.

The show did get a few things right: the captain is more likely to be at his desk doing paperwork than on the bridge navigating the ship, the bartender seems to be working everywhere and all the time, and the cruise director spends virtually the whole cruise dealing with demands, complaints and come-ons from guests while learning a huge number of names in a very short time. Oh, and the lecherous ship’s doctor? To be fair, most ship’s doctor’s I’ve known do not fit this mold, but this sub-species is definitely out there. Now that I think of it, most of the “Docs” I’ve known were probably in medical school in the ‘70s. Maybe I wasn’t the only one learning from The Love Boat.

Filed from M/V Spirit of '98 at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers