Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mercy Ships, Mariners, & Religion

A reader noted that in last week's post about maritime-based relief efforts in Haiti, I pointed out that two of the charities were Christian. Having worked for a large charity in the past, I know it's important for many donors to know where their money is going. Some would not want their money going to a Christian charity, some would not want their money going anywhere but a Christian charity, some couldn't care less. I only pointed out the charities' religious affiliation since I was encouraging people to donate money, goods, and expertise, but I thought they should do so with their eyes open.

One of the charities, Mercy Ships, was for many years associated with the Christian missionary organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Mercy Ships itself was founded by two YWAM members, but has for years been operationally separate from the youth missionary organization. YWAM has been the subject of several controversies over the years. Mercy Ships has been criticized recently for high salaries paid to its top officers. According to the Charity Navigator website, the charity's president earned more than $124,000 in 2007. Mercy Ships also note that more than 82 percent of donations go to programs, as opposed to salaries, administration, and other expenses.

For Charity Navigator's complete report on Mercy Ships, click here.

South African Murray Tristan Crawford is currently serving as an Assistant Purser with Mercy Ships and blogs about it here.

Modern mariners sometimes have an uneasy relationship with religion. One captain I worked under forbade crew members from holding non-denominational "gatherings" in public areas on board the vessel. Another told the crew to honor the Sabbath as best as possible by only performing necessary watchkeeping, safety, and sanitary duties on Sundays. On the evening of September 11, 2001, I was asked by some passengers to lead a prayer before dinner. It was a natural reaction on their part, but I had to refuse: with sixty passengers on board, you can be sure someone would be offended. Then there's the HR issues that come up when "asking" crew members to pray with you.

Religion used to be a much more important part of mariners' lives. Englishman John Newton, a seaman working on a slave trader, did not consider himself a spiritual man until his vessel was in a storm one night and he called out to God for help. His conversion would eventually lead to him giving up the sea and the slave trade, becoming a clergyman, and writing and publishing the song "Amazing Grace" in 1779. Religion is a major theme in Herman Melville's Moby Dick which, while it is fiction, is based on real events and informed by Melville's career at sea.

Churches and other faith-based organizations have often rallied to the cause of the seaman, traditionally lonely, poor, and possibly a slave to the bottle. Sometimes, religious orders provide material needs, like the monks that Time magazine reported on in its January 11, 1960 edition:

The little coastal freighter barely made it to the lee of Caldy Island, in the Bristol Channel, one mile off the Welsh coast. Bound out from the Scottish port of Irvine on a 30-hour run to the Welsh port of Milford Haven, the 700-ton St. Angus had run into one of the winter's wildest storms, which raked and pounded Britain from the Hebrides to the Scilly Isles. Off tiny Caldy (pop. 59) the seven-man crew faced a grim Christmas. Their food was running low and there was little hope of getting more. The men of St. Angus radioed the situation to the mainland, and resigned themselves to riding out the storm on empty stomachs.

Suddenly they saw a sight to make Lord Nelson rub his eye. Out from the island, against 8-ft. waves and a 60-mile-an-hour wind, bucked an old World War II amphibious craft manned by four cowled monks and a coast guardsman. When St. Angus finally got a line to them, the crew hauled up a tea chest of staples. It was no ham or roast goose Christmas dinner, for the monks who brought it were austere Trappists, who eat only bread, butter, cheese and fruit, but there were some cans of beer (kept for monastery guests), for St. Angus men.

Today several religious organizations exist to serve seamen. All listed here are Christian. If you know of any serving mariners of other faiths, please add a Comment below or email me at

New York's Seaman's Church Institute, which I mentioned in my "Holidays At Sea" post, can be contacted here. Also mentioned in the at post were the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society (more information here) and the Seafarers & International Home in New York here.

Seamen from around the world call on the Stella Maris Center nearest them. More here.

UK seamen may look to the Seamen's Friendly Society of St. Paul here.

The Mission To Seafarer's is also based in the UK but ministers to mariners of all nations. More info here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Relief From The Sea

The tolls in Haiti are staggering: 200,000 dead, 1.5 million homeless, thousands being evacuated from the country altogether. We read of a woman giving birth on a US Coast Guard cutter, of families being separated, of supplies being delayed for days. On the other hand, we hear of the maritime community rising to the occasion, from the US mobilizing civilian and military mariners on a massive scale, to small groups of boaters in Florida collecting relief supplies for air drop. I mentioned some of these efforts in my last post, and also mentioned that this isn't the first time mariners have come to the aid of victims of disaster, whether it be man-made or natural.

San Francisco, April 1906. During the earthquake and Great Fire, the crew of the cruiser USS Chicago (pictured above) evacuated as many as 20,000 people from the city to nearby Tiburon. It would be the largest such evacuation by sea until Dunkirk, almost forty years later.

Dunkirk, May - June 1940. About 850 vessels snatched more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from almost certain death or capture at the hands of the Third Reich. Seven hundred of the vessels -- the "Little Ships of Dunkirk" -- were small private craft that could get close to the beach, then ferry the troops to warships waiting offshore. Although Churchill reminded the British that "wars are not won by evacuations," the episode provided a huge psychological boost to the Allied war effort.

East Prussia and Polish Corridor, January - May 1945. Like many battles on the Eastern Front, this "Axis Dunkirk" dwarfed its better-known, Western Front equivalent. Over 15 weeks, 1,000 vessels from warships to small fishing boats evacuated as many as 1.2 million civilians and soldiers from German-held areas cut off by advancing Soviet forces. One-hundred fifty eight civilian vessels were lost while trying to ferry evacuees over the Baltic Sea to German-controlled Denmark. Some evacuations continued even after the German surrender on May 8.

New York City, September 2001. Following the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center towers, small craft of every size brought supplies and water into lower Manhattan, while evacuating as many as 500,000 people. Smoke and dust from the attacks reduced visibility to the point where the vessels were navigating by radar. Despite this, there were no casualties associated with the effort.

South Asia, December 2004. This earthquake and tsunami was the worst natural disaster in modern history, with nearly 230,000 dead and millions left homeless. Mariners of all stripes were involved. In addition to military and civilian ships from the region (India alone committed 32 warships to the effort), countries as disparate as Mexico, Pakistan and Australia sent vessels. Among the on-scene vessels was the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which ferried supplies to parts of Indonesia.

US Gulf Coast, August 2005. The US Coast Guard evacuated more than 33,000 people following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The US Navy and Military Sealift Command also aided the effort; MSC provided a hospital ship, as well as ship-based logistical support for first responders over a six-month period.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Relieving Haiti

With 10,000 deaths being added each day to the death toll in Haiti, people around the world have been asking if they can lend a hand to the relief effort. Donating money is the best way for most people to help. Most relief agencies will tell you that, although the offers of "another body" to help is appreciated, budgets and other practicalities limit on-scene staff to people with specialized skills. Sometimes, those skills are those belonging to mariners. Earlier this week, for instance, I received this email:
Could you please pass the info below along to anyone you may feel may be interested. The vessel is a brand new 300ft/228 passenger US flagged Cruise Ship.

There is a POSSIBILITY that the Voyager, formerly named the Cape May Light, will be staffed and in operation very, very soon. IF so, I will need to staff her.

Please note – She will be U.S. Flag, we need U.S citizens/green card holders, and we require unlimited licenses.

She would sail from Green Cove Springs, Florida to Haiti.

2.She would be used to house U.S. government and military people.

3.If we get the okay to go, this will happen very, very quickly.

Luann L. Ayer
Vice President, Human Resources, Deck/Engine
International Shipping Partners, Inc.
4770 Biscayne Boulevard
Penthouse A
Miami, Florida 33137
305-573-6355 ext. 236
Several Maritime Administration ships are also being dispatched to Haiti. MARAD has been to Haiti before, sixteen years ago as part of Operation Uphold Democracy. For more on this week's mobilization, see the Seafarer's International Union's website here. MARAD has also brought the Massachusetts Maritime Academy Training Ship Kennedy into the effort.

The civilian mariners of the Military Sealift Command spent six months on scene at the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The hospital ship USNS Comfort, pictured above, was one of those and is today involved in the Haiti relief effort. For more see the MSC website here.

The Christian NGO Mercy Ships has dispatched its Disaster Response Team to Haiti. Mercy Ships is always looking for experienced mariners, but most positions are volunteer. Mariners and medical professionals who wish to help can find more information here. To contribute specifically to Mercy Ship's Haiti relief, click here.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines is using their ships to brings supplies into Haiti. For more on that, including how to contribute, check here. RCL's decision to continue port calls at their private beach in Haiti has been controversial. See The Guardian's coverage here.

The yacht crew charity Yacht Aid Global coordinates volunteers, donations, and transport to needy areas. They don't appear to have updated their site for a few months, and there is nothing specifically on it about Haiti, but there are several email addresses there for sending queries.

The Christian charity Harvest Time International is collecting needed supplies for evacuees from Haiti, many of whom are being initially brought to the Orlando area. For more on their needs, check here.

The Haitian Embassy in Washington has a special Earthquake Information and Emergency Response web page that includes a list of the major agencies participating in the relief effort

I've seen a number of posts on the Internet from people looking for or offering private vessels to run relief supplies to Haiti, or to rescue friends or family stranded there. The US military is currently blockading the country in an attempt to keep refugees from going to sea in unsafe craft or conditions, so while it may be routine to clear out of US and other ports when bound for Haiti, private vessels may have difficulty getting in or out again. At last report, the port of Port-au-Price was closed to "non-essential boat traffic."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How Deep Is It Here?

Certainly one of the questions most commonly asked by passengers on the vessels I work on is "How deep is it here?" For most of them, it is simply a matter of curiosity, but for the mariner knowing how much water is "under the keel" is essential for safe navigation.

Charted depths. A nautical chart is a good place to start when you want to know how deep it is. The section of chart above provides a lot of information, for example. The depths, in feet, are the little numbers printed throughout the chart. The central channel depth (40 ft) is probably maintained artificially, by dredging. Different charts use different measures, depending on the conventions of the country that produced it and the most convenient unit for a given area. US charts, like the one above, may use feet for charts of harbors, rivers, and other relatively shallow areas, but fathoms (six feet) in deeper areas. Many other countries will use meters on their charts. Most depths are measured from a datum, usually the average depth over the course of hundreds of low tides.

Depth finders. Most vessels will be equipped with a depth finder, an instrument that uses sound waves to detect the distance to the bottom. Depth finders can range from hand held devices the size of a flashlight to sophisticated systems costing millions of dollars. Some models double as fish finders on commercial and recreational fishing boats.

Lead lines. Lead lines are long ropes with the depths marked out in given intervals along their lengths. Many lead lines have a weight on the end with some kind of sticky material on it to bring up part of the the bottom to determine its composition. Lead lines also have a terminology of their own, the most famous term being "mark twain," a way of saying "two fathoms." Writer and river pilot Samuel Clemens took the term as his pen name. Although largely made obsolete by sonar technology, American merchant seamen may still be tested on lead lines before they receive their documentation.

Soundings. Traditionally this was a term for any water shallow enough to be measured by a lead line. In Twain's day, this was 24 feet, but modern electronics have expanded that range to 1500 feet or more. Getting a depth reading gets harder as the water gets deeper, as the water attenuates the sound signal. A vessel traveling at speed may also outrun the return signal, and thus get no reading on the depth finder.

Deepest and shallowest water. The Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, is more than 35,800 feet deep. If Mt. Everest were placed at the bottom of the deep, it's peak would still be a mile under water. Tour operators on Alaska's Chilkat River claim it's "North America's shallowest navigable river," at places shallow enough to both stand in and operate a twin-engine boat carrying 20 or more passengers.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. A league is a term measuring distance, not depth. Although its exact length has varied at different times and places, it usually refers to a distance of about three miles. Jules Verne was not referring to the depth of the ocean in the title of his 1869 novel, but to the distance Capt. Nemo's submarine the Nautilus had cruised throughout the world's oceans.

"Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies." Also known as "Ariel's Song," this poem comes from William Shakespeare's play The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Call Me "Captain"

Like many ship captains, I love to quote myself, so here's an excerpt from the very first post of The Misunderstood Mariner:
Captain is commonly used to refer to the person in charge of any vessel, but the term is inexact. It can be very confusing when dealing with the military, where “captain” is a specific rank (and even then, a captain in the Navy is equivalent to an Army or Air Force Colonel, while a captain in those two services is equal to a Navy lieutenant). The captain of a military vessel can be almost any rank, depending on the size of the vessel, it mission, etc. The Coast Guard uses the word master to refer to the person in command of any civilian vessel. To some people, especially in the yachting world, master is only used when the owner and the captain are the same person. Sail boaters often use the term skipper to refer to the captain. Although many of these folks are licensed and working mariners – often as professional sailing instructors – this term may be considered derisive outside the recreational boating community (‘Nice docking there, skipper!” said in a sarcastic tone).
It is almost always appropriate to address the captain of a vessel as "captain," in fact it may be compulsory for the crew to do so, either by the captain's order or by service or company policy. On the other hand, some captains hate it. My first captain got up in front of the crew and said he didn't care for saluting "or any of that stuff" and that we should just call him "D---." Some captains insist on the honorific, virtually using it as a first name. Crew working under these guys (and they are almost always men) need to be alert: such a captain may be driving with his ego or hiding some form of incompetence with his title.

Origins. The word captain derives from the Latin caput, meaning "head." The title thus has the same origin as capital (as in "capital punishment," literally meaning removal of the head), capitol, and, of course, cap. Although now much more formalized in meaning, a captain was originally the head of any military unit and only later came to be used to indicate a specific rank.

Famous Captains. On the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005, the website yesterday compiled a list of the "Top Ten Famous Captains." Topping the list is Francis Drake, followed by Sir Walter Raleigh, followed by three or four pirate captains (of course, some considered Drake a pirate, too), a couple of explorers, and finishing up with two fictional captains, Long John Silver from Treasure Island and Captain Kirk from Star Trek.

Intense Captains On Film. For some true egomaniacal fun, check out Charles Laughton's performance as Captain Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, James Cagney as Captain Morton in Mr. Roberts, and Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the 1956 version of Moby Dick. More recently, there's the melodramatic Captain Sheldon (played by Jeff Bridges) in White Squall and Gene Hackman as Captain Ramsey (pictured above) in Crimson Tide. The latter, a submarine commander, holds a missile drill while the crew is fighting a real fire; now that's intense.

"O Captain my Captain!" I am often greeted by passengers with this line, which is the title of a poem by Walt Whitman. The captain in Whitman's poem is dead, which makes this a somewhat less than cheery greeting. Here's the whole poem:
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mariners In Review: The Popcorn Edition

When asked what my favorite "boat movies" are, it's hard to answer. I try to stick to facts in this blog, but there are few films that capture the flavor of going to sea, and many are downright inaccurate when it comes to portraying nautical affairs. So, leaving aside the dozens of "Navy" movies and Erroll Flynn-type "sea pictures" that have come out over the years, here are a few to out in your Netflix queue. Films with an * are based on true events.

Action In the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). Humphrey Bogart stars in this tale of merchant mariners in World War II. Modern mariners will find much familiar here, from the crew complaining about the food to the boatswain who longs for retirement while simultaneously trying to get others to re-enlist. Portrays the hazardous duty American merchant mariners faced and portrayed them as heroes long before their contributions were widely recognized.

*Lake Boat (dir. Joe Montegna, 2000). Playwright David Mamet wrote this play based on his service aboard a Great Lakes freighter. No slam-bang action sequences here: this is life aboard ship as routine, with the most excitement being speculation as to the fate of a crewman gone missing on shore leave.

The Long Voyage Home (dir. John Ford, 1940). Another World War II merchant mariner tale, this one featuring John Wayne only a year after his breakthrough role in Stagecoach, also directed by Ford. Less action than in Action In The North Atlantic, but a good look at the camaraderie a ship's crew can form, as well as the rumor mongering, drinking, and petty bickering that go on.

*Lord Jim (dir. Richard Brooks, 1965) Peter O'Toole stars as the disgraced merchant sailor who finds redemption among an isolated people in southeast Asia. Based on the novel by mariner and author Joseph Conrad, which was in turn based on true events.

*The Perfect Storm (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2000). Based on Sebastian Junger's "creative nonfiction" book on the events leading up to the loss of the fishing boat Andrea Gail.

The Sea Chase (dir. John Farrow, 1955). John Wayne again, this time as an anti-Nazi German sea captain on the eve of World War II, trying to outrun the British Navy and get his freighter safely to port. Although a bit melodramatic at times, it accurately portrays some of the problems of navigation and ship operations of the time. Also showed the Germans as sympathetic only ten years after the war and twenty years before Das Boot.

*The Sea Wolf (dir Michael Curtiz, 1941). Edward G. Robinson stars as the brutal captain of a seal hunting schooner in this adaptation of Jack London's novel, based on London's experiences at sea.

*Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997). Based on the latest scholarship of the time, this may be the last Titanic movie ever made. Although the central romantic plot is fictional, the sequence of historical events is largely accurate.

*White Squall (dir. Ridley Scott, 1996). A mariner friend of mine calls this "a two-hour Abercrombie and Fitch commercial," and while it does feature some of the hottest young male stars of the mid-'90s (Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe), it also tells the true story of the 1961 sinking of the school ship Albatross.

Comedy Relief. A few movies capture some aspects of life at sea through their humorous treatment of it. The title character in Captain Ron (Thom Eberhardt, 1993) is often quoted by many real life mariners, but the movie also accurately shows how much work even a small boat, and especially a wooden one, can be. The Coast Guard crew in Disney's The Boatniks (dir. Norman Tokay, 1970) has a much more casual attitude about boating and drinking than their counterparts today (the same could probably be said about Disney executives), but anyone who's spent much time around a large marina will recognize many of the characters and mishaps portrayed here. The challenges of running an older ship with limited funds provide some of the comic moments in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (dir. Wes Anderson, 2004), with Bill Murray as the Jacques Cousteau-esque Zissou.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


When Otis Redding sang that he was "sitting on the dock of the bay" he gave away a key geographic fact about the bay: it was in the United States. When bringing a ship into port and looking for a place to tie her up, it helps if you know whether the person you are negotiating moorage fees with is speaking American English, or British English

In British English, a dock is technically the spot in the water where the vessel sits while tied to a pier, wharf, or other structure. Think of it as the equivalent of "parking space." In the US, a dock is the actual structure the vessel is tied to. These structures have their own names, and their exact usage may vary. A pier is a dock perpendicular to the shoreline in some places, in others it's a dock with a specific industrial function, such as seafood processing. Pier may also refer to any structure that stretches out over a body of water, such as a fishing pier. A wharf is parallel to the shore in some usages, but the word also refers a fixed (as opposed to floating) structure where vessels load or unload. In this usage, the wharf may also serve as a short-term storage facility. A quay is any dock used for loading or unloading. "Quay" may be pronounced like "key" (the preferred UK pronunciation) or "kway" (preferred in the US), although in the US you are more likely to hear the term berth. Berth can also refer to a specific spot on a dock, again similar in meaning to "parking space."

Mooring lines. Once alongside the dock, a vessel is secured using mooring lines. Each line has a name, based on its function. In the diagram above, the lines labeled "2" and "5" are called breast lines, and are used to hold the vessel against the dock. Lines "3" and "4" are spring lines, and prevent the vessel from moving back and forth along the dock. Number "1" is called a headline, or bow line, and "6" is a stern line. These also restrict lateral motion.

Dry docks. A dry dock is a dock that can be raised from or lowered into the water with a vessel secured inside it. This allows access to the underside of the vessel for repairs or inspections. Although the term "dry docked" is sometimes used by laymen to mean a vessel not currently being used, in fact dry dock time can be very expensive, so most vessel owners want to "splash" their vessel again as soon as possible. The proper term for a vessel taken out of service is laid up. Similar in construction, but opposite in function is an impounded dock, a large chamber which holds water in and thus allows vessels to keep floating when the surrounding water is too low, such as a low tide.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


After reading the Comments following
my post last Saturday, Landlubber Lewis asks: "What exactly is a ferry, anyway?" A ferry, or ferry boat, is a vessel that makes (usually) regular, frequent runs across a body of water, transporting people, vehicles and even goods. Ferries go back to our first ancestors who found a particularly good place to cross a stream by floating on a log. The ancient Greeks believed that souls were transported into the underworld by a ferry run by Charon, who demanded payment for his services. This story may be the origin of the tradition of placing coins on a dead person's eyelids, or in his mouth.

Oldest. The oldest operating ferry service in the world may be the Mersey Ferries service between Birkenhead, England and Liverpool, which may have been in operation since 1207.

Busiest. The English Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world (more than 400 ships a day pass through it) and includes a dozen separate ferry routes. Some ferries are devoted exclusively to trucks hauling cargo. Hong Kong's Star Ferry and New York's Staten Island Ferry both carry more than 70,000 passengers a day, making them the busiest passenger ferries in the world.

Smallest. The smallest dedicated ferry in the world may be on a tributary of the Li River near Yangshuo, China. The boat carries two people and one bicycle across the river near a small dam at times when the water is too high to walk across. The shortest regular run for a ferry is 110 yards, served by the Elwell Ferry over the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

Largest. The largest car ferry (in terms of vehicles carried) is the Ulysses (pictured above), operated by the Irish Ferries. She can carry 1,342 cars, 240 tucks, and has staterooms for 228 passengers. The world's largest ferry system is operated by the province of British Columbia, which operates 36 vessels among 47 ports between Vancouver and Prince Rupert.

Fastest. The 65-meter Hormuz, operated by the Sultanate of Oman, reached a speed of 56 knots in July 2008, making it the fastest diesel-powered ferry in the world.

Worst Ferry Disaster. The M/V Doña Paz collided with the tanker Vector in the Philippines in December 1987. The resulting fire and sinking killed 4,341 people (nearly three times the death toll of the Titanic disaster). Other notable ferry disasters include:
Le Joola, September 2002, 1,800 dead
Toya Maru, September 1954, 1,153 dead
Al Salaam Boccaccio, February 2006, more than 1,000 dead
MS Estonia, September 1994, nearly 1,000 dead
MV Bukoba, May 1996, about 800 people dead (estimated)
MV Salahuddin-2, May 2002, more than 450 people dead
MV Nasrin-1, July 2003, more than 400 dead
MS Herald of Free Enterprise, March 1987, 193 dead

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top 10 Stories Of 2009

Note: an earlier draft of this post, including a different photo, was posted here yesterday by mistake. The text remains the same except for for some fixed typos and clarifying edits. Sorry for any confusion and Happy New Year.

As a new year begins, the mainstream media look back at the top stories of 2009. The maritime media are no different, and it's interesting to compare the two, as it may indicate the level of awareness by the media and thus the public of maritime affairs. The trade journal Work Boat does an excellent comprehensive year-end review, so let’s take a look at their Top 10 maritime stories of 2009 and see how the same stories fared in the national media (for Work Boat's complete year-end analysis of these stories, click here.)

Weak economy hits barge operators. The economy was the big story in the mainstream media, but few outside the trade and business journals took note of the (in some cases) 30-percent drop in barge demand and rates. With so much of the nation’s trade, especially commodities, shipping by barge (see my post on the Economics of Tugs), this is an often-overlooked economic indictor. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin took note of this story in a larger series about the collapse of the state's economy.'s Paul R. LaMonica alludes to this in a generally upbeat post about shipping stocks taking a hit, then rebounding dramatically.

Recession, drop in commodity prices hits OSV operators. OSVs are the offshore supply vessels that run crew and supplies to drilling rigs and other “oil patch” operations, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil prices, new exploration, and the economy in general can have a huge effect on OSV “day rates” and thus one of the most important sectors of the US maritime economy. A few mainstream media outlets followed the story, all of them in the affected communities. Business Week followed the rise and fall of oil prices closely.

Some improvement in mariner licensing. Mariners have been hit with a double whammy in the last few years: increased screening and credentialing requirements resulting from post-9/11 legislation, and the US’s decade-long effort to bring US mariners “up to code” internationally in training and certification standards. The Coast Guard, suffering it’s own increased workload due to its increased homeland security role, has had trouble keeping up. This tends to be a very 'inside baseball" type of topic and got no coverage in the mainstream media.

Hawaii loses Superferry. The super-fast Superferry (pictured above) fought everything from hostile legislation to blockades, but was ultimately done in by insufficient revenue. This got a little more coverage than most of the other stories on the list, with significant stories by the Los Angeles Times, among others.

Stimulus package pumps money into shipyards. About $100 million was appropriated to assist US shipyards and their workers, mostly through government contracts. As might be expected, the major coverage was in areas home to shipyards expecting stimulus dollars. The Toledo Blade covered the topic, as did

Bankruptcy filings pick up steam in '09. The failure of GM and other large companies tended to dominate the mainstream media, although again local outlets like the Snohomish County (Washington) Business Journal noted local shipyard bankruptcies.

Navy awards additional LCS contracts. The new Littoral Combat Ships are designed to operate by stealth in the shallow coastal areas traditional combat ships can’t always access. The program saw massive overruns (in the neighborhood of 300-percent) and was cancelled after the launch of the USS Freedom in 2007. It was revived in 2009. This received little notice outside the maritime and business press, although Reuters did an interesting article on it.

Delta Queen steamboat grounded. Built in 1890, the Delta Queen has been operated ever since by a series of owners. The 176-passenger paddle wheeler had also needed a series of exemptions from construction and safety regulations that came into force in the ensuing decades. Although still functioning as a hotel, legal battles over those exemptions have kept the Delta Queen tied to the dock. The story received more attention than most on this list, partly because candidates Obama and Biden had promised during the 2008 election to work to extend the vessel's exemption, a promise they subsequently dropped. Good coverage by both the New York Times and the Marietta (Ohio) Register.

More funding needed for inland projects. Lock and dam repair and construction in the US is seeing some of its lowest funding levels in years, despite Obama Administration commitments to infrastructure improvement and hard times in communities that rely on inland waterways trade. The Riverside, California Press-Enterprise ran interesting articles about this, which also received coverage in papers and websites serving farm communities in the Dakotas. See also my post on Locks and Canals.

"Green" boats get real in 2009. The commercial maritime industry is already several steps ahead of the automotive and aerospace sectors, with many working vessels already using biodiesel, hybrid technology, and even solar power. Good coverage from Business Week, as well as a local take from the Wilmington (Delaware) News-Journal.

It's interesting to note that two maritime stories from 2009 that received a lot of attention in the mainstream news did not make Work Boat's list: the seizing of the Maersk Alabama by pirates, and the launching of the world's largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas.