When Sunscreen is Optional: The Importance of “The Travelers”in Preventing SS El Faro and SS Marine Electric Type Tragedies

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(Note: To find the latest chapters of Until the Sea Shall Free Them — The Wreck of the SS Marine Electric, please scroll down.)

They are the one part of the Coast Guard — a pretty romantic service filled with rescue swimmers, captains of cutters, and daring chopper pilots — where sunscreen is optional.

They are more likely to be crawling through ballast tanks and dark, damp ship holds than snagging desperate crewmen from sinking ships as the Go-Pro captures all.

Yet they may do more to save lives than we’ll ever know.  “The Travelers” should command your respect and attention.  They were, in my opinion, the biggest factor in cleaning up the shameful mess of the merchant marine back in 1983 when a clearly unseaworthy ship like the Marine Electric sank taking 31 souls with her.

Lots came out of the classic, landmark US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation with dozens of recommendations — including the felony indictment of the ship line. One can argue whether the Commandant then went far enough in reforming the American Bureau of Shipping inspections or not.

But nothing sent unsafe rust buckets to the scrap yard like the simple executive decision made by the high command:

Send out the travelers.  Give them operating authority. Crack down on the rust buckets.

Within a few months, nearly 70 old ships were sent to scrap.

Bills now before Congress favor tripling the number of US Coast Guard “travelers” — the senior traveling inspectors who move from port-to-port and ship-to-ship on high-profile cases.  They have a reputation for a great sense of integrity, duty and a great depth of knowledge in the arcane art of ship inspection.

There are arguments that the ABS — a private non-profit organization — should no longer be responsible for performing inspections.  They missed clear unsafe conditions in the Marine Electric circa 1983 — and did the same circa 2015 with the sister ship of the SS El Faro.

Of this, I’ve mixed feelings.  Read the discussion boards of merchant marine officers and you’ll see some ABS inspectors are highly respected. The argument for outsourcing inspections to the ABS makes some sense: the Coast Guard can’t retain experience talent over the long-term; the ABS can.  There are excellent professionals in the ABS.

And of course, those arguments are valid.  As far as they go.  They get weaker when one looks at the set-up of the ABS — which is paid more or less directly by the ship owners, not by the Coast Guard.

Then, add in the revolving door factor among some USCG senior officers — some at the commandant level — into the high paid ranks of ABS. The potential of conflict is real. How closely will Coast Guard officers oversee ABS inspections if in retirement the ABS may be their employer of choice?

(Says someone with great knowledge of the business who is not a knee jerk ABS fan: “You do see some synergies from the ‘revolving door’ — you do see Coast Guard officers moving over to the ABS and saying, ‘We’ve got to do this right.'”)

Still, cultures and unspoken incentives can speak as loudly as pledges of impartiality.  I know first hand from working as an executive at S&P Ratings, which had a similar “rated-company pays” set-up.  In my days there in the 1990’s the S&P analysts were of high integrity acting within a near academic environment where peer influence ran  clearly in favor of the end consumer — not the rated company.

That worked well — until it did not.  Long after my time, a slim but important faction of the bond-raters made some regrettable compromises on structured housing bonds that helped wreck the economy.

Has that happened at the ABS?  The US Coast Guard Marine Board in the SS El Faro certainly thinks the ABS is not up to par.  And an officer at the hearings suggested that nearly 40 percent of all ABS inspections fell short of US Coast Guard standards.

My guess is that the challenge here is not corruption so much as consistency, culture and drift. If the paycheck is coming from the ship owner and there is no other influence, one gravitates to that cutlure.  And that culture is and always will be: don’t hold us up; time is money; let us sale.

One upon a time, ABS inspectors and Coast Gaurd inspectors worked more closely together.  Over time, Coast Guard focus on ship safety inspections gave way to anti-terrorist activities — and who is to argue against those priorities?

What’s to be done now?  Replacing the ABS with an all-Coast Guard team was the recommendation of the “gold standard” Marine Electric Coast Guard Marine Board.  But the Commandant rejected that then, and it’s unlikely ever to happen. It would take a massive budget increase.

On the other hand, tripling the number of The Travelers is realistic and would have a ripple effect on the ABS.  It would set a standard of professionalism and responsibility — and establish a large core group that not only can focus on the old ships of the American merchant marine, but also set the cultural standards of ABS inspectors.

That makes a difference.

For certain, the Marine Electric sank because she was so poorly inspected that the ABS and Coast Guard certified as safe holes in her hull, cracks in her deck, and hole-riddled hatch covers.

A reason the El Faro sank, it has been said, is that the captain was too aggressive and sailed too close to the hurricane — and thus was overwhelmed.

There is much to that of course, but it would also be interesting to consider what might have happened had the ship not flooded, wallowed, then went wobbly after losing its engine and steering.

It’s one thing to blame a captain for losing a perfectly fit ship.

It’s another to send him out in a rust bucket.

Did the El Faro have the same deficiencies as her sister ship?  (Which The Travelers forced into scrap?)

If so, then the Coast Guard and the ABS sent her out to sea with rusted ventilation exhausts that were open to flooding — and were two feet lower to the ocean after modifications to the ship were made.

They had on board only gravity-drop open lifeboats — from the era of the Titanic, but even less effective in heavy seas.

Yes, it’s uncertain what happened and how she flooded.

But if she had not flooded, the captain and crew stood a far better chance of deliverance. We owed them that. They ought to have been able to count on a safe, seaworthy vessel. I doubt they had it.

I can say with some certainty: if The Travelers inspect a rust bucket  like the SS El Faro today, they’ll shut her down.

We need more of them. And we need them now.






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