In Jacksonville, the family members of the victims of the El Faro huddle together in the first pew of the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation and strain to hear every word spoken by witnesses, trying to understand the odd and complex world that governs humans once they step off land onto a ship and sail into our last true wilderness — the oceans of the world.
In this case, they strain to have explained to them the unexplainable:
How did a disjointed set of policies and laws send the crew of the El Faro to their deaths in a 40-year-old ship sailed into a Force Four storm.
They may never fully understand it. I don’t and I’ve been at this awhile.
I’ve spent thirty years writing about the sea, from an investigative standpoint. I’ve sat through two major marine boards and heard the sobs of two sets of family members — one from the SS Poet, the other from the SS Marine Electric — as they learn the particular set of tragic facts that sent their loved ones on a doomed voyage that ought never to have been undertaken. Many of those families are my friends still today.
And it struck me again yesterday how preposterous it is that as a regular course of affairs our general news media is just not much interested in what occurs on the other two-thirds of the world that is not land.
Oh, when something happens on the ocean that then washes up on land — oil, refugees, red tides, bodies — the interest piques for awhile.
The one exception to this rule in my prime was The Philadelphia Inquirer of the era of editor Gene Roberts. Gene assigned me to cover the maritime beat and gave me the resources to follow the story wherever it took me.
It took me on a five year journey — and when that journey was over, the US Coast Guard cracked down on old rust buckets in its fleet, sent 70 of them to the scrapping yards, required survival suits on merchant vessels and created the now famous US Coast Rescue Swimmers service.
The one exception to this lack of coverage rule in modern times comes from the editors at The New York Times and its remarkable long-term project with the working title The Outlaw Oceans.
To date, the series has given first hand accounts of modern day slave ships, murder at sea and the modern day conditions that make the life of an international sea farer float somewhere between feudal indenture and outright human bondage.
Ian Urbina is the author of these stories and he has risked life and limb to understand and report the issues. The Times for its part has invested in a multi-year story on a topic that could consume a lifetime of work.
And it could save many lives in the process and help lay down new laws and policies that more fairly and justly govern the wilderness that is the sea.
It could also comfort the afflicted — the two rows of the relatives of survivors in Jacksonville trying to understand why their loved ones were sent in a 40-year-old ship into a Force Four hurricane.
In all ways, this “second wave” of maritime reporting seems already to have overtaken the first wave started by Roberts and by me.
The secret of course is to keep hammering. At the Inquirer, I was ready to give up hope of reforming the system at year two.
Gene Roberts advised us we had just cleared our throat on the matter. Three years later the maritime institutions acknowledge the problem and made the reforms.
Here’s to that tradition, carried on now by The Times in one of the best journalism projects, land-based or ocean-going, I’ve seen in many a day.
And here’s to all major publications and news outlets covering the other two-thirds of the world.