Masters Of The Merchant Marine

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We’ve relearned that in seafaring the human element is more important than any device.

Those union schools were no poorboy, storefront institutions. Congress, in an effort to keep at least some trained merchant seamen, adopted an “equalization” system, subsidizing officer and crew pay and benefits as well as shipbuilding costs. Establishment and support of union schools was written into union ship operator contracts, the money really coming from Washington. Despite all these subsidies, American costs to build and operate far exceed costs of ships built and manned abroad.

A medium-size bulk carrier built in this country would cost $4.0 million, versus $1.8 million abroad. An American crew would come to $2.8 million a year. A crew selected in the Philippines, Taiwan, or Hong Kong would cost only $600,000. Fast cargo liners, the kind most suitable for wartime naval support or conversion, are most heavily subsidized—at the rate of 80 percent of wage costs and up to 55 percent of construction costs. Yet today 98 percent of the substances on our strategic-item list are imported on foreign-flag-ships. When World War II ended, 168,000 American seamen manned 3,500 active U.S.-flag vessels. By 1950 that fleet had declined to 1,082 privately owned ships with 53,506 seamen. Twenty years later the U.S. flag flew over 770 ships with jobs for 36,168 officers and crew. By 1979 the figures were down to 536 ships, manned by 19,710 seafarers. In 1980 only 3.5 percent of U.S. imports and 3.87 percent of exports were carried in American-flag ships. By way of comparison Russia carries almost 60 percent of her commerce in ships flying her national colors; Japan carries 40 percent and France 30 percent.

Our merchant marine is not a neat, centralized institution like the Army or Navy. Despite regulation by the Department of Transportation and policing by the Coast Guard, a shipping company still enjoys enough independence to go broke against foreign competition. High U.S. standards for vessels and sometimes quixotic Coast Guard enforcement magnify costs.

No matter how new and huge a ship may be, when she is taken out to sea, a certain humility is demanded. The sea is never conquered; there is only the pale victory of survival. Ships still go missing with all hands, like the Marine Sulphur Queen , which left Beaumont, Texas, in February 1963 with a cargo of liquid sulfur at high temperature, was reported once in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, then vanished. The Liberian tanker Torrey Canyon went aground in the Stilly Islands, spilling five million gallons of crude. The fifty-thousand-ton Panamanian tanker Claude Conway , with empty tanks, exploded off North Carolina, with loss of three of her Italian officers and nine of her Taiwanese crew. How did they communicate, I wonder, when the crisis came? The tanker Betelgeuse blew up in Bantry Bay, with loss of fifty lives; the Maria Alejandra —236,000 deadweight tons (DWT), only three years old, and with all the latest safety devices, including inert gas—exploded and sank at sea. The four-year-old Amoco Cadiz , with 230,000 tons of Mideast crude, ran aground when failure of the hydraulic steering system caused the rudder to lock left. The Italian captain stopped engines and radio-telephoned his owner in Chicago. No major disaster has yet struck an LNG carrier, so we can only speculate what might happen if one hundred thousand cubic meters of concentrated fuel at —260 degrees Fahrenheit were to expand three hundred times into its gaseous state in the presence of fire. Collisions almost always result in fire.

Suppose something happened to the Seawise Giant , the largest ship in the world; 564,762 deadweight tonnage, 1,500 feet overall, 225 feet beam, 93 feet depth, and 81 feet draft? The engine room of this ship can be left unattended for up to twenty-four hours under her American Bureau of Shipping classification. A television monitor in the chief engineer’s cabin keeps him advised. Engine controls are on the bridge. Navigation aids include a satellite system and collision avoidance system as well as more usual equipment. Among crew amenities is a swimming pool. Yet the sheer size of these ultra large crude carriers, as they are called, is frightening. Just the problems of steering a fifteen-hundred-foot vessel; the vulnerability of a single propeller with that great draft; the amount of pollution caused if ever she should come to grief—all these are daunting. The maritime industry operates at a frantic pace because competition is keen, and a vessel not under way at full speed is costing money. The goal is for propellers to be turning, or cargo unloaded or loaded, at every moment. Nor is there much patience with a captain who, with estimated time of arrival established, port authorities notified, pilot and tugs alerted, docking berth cleared, and stevedores hired, arrives late because of fog or storm.