The Most Important Missing Piece in Maritime Reform: Giving the Captain Back the Power

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I’m encouraged that Congress has acted on a number of steps to reform maritie safety. I believe both major reports on the tragedy were extremely well researched — to an heroic degree.

I’m cheered that there may be an increase in the Travelers and in oversight of the ABS.

The one missing point, the one issue which neither the Marine Board of Investigation nor the NTSB found within their charter is simple:

In today’s modern world, does the Captain need to be assured and guaranteed autonomy to determine the safety of a ship — under heightened penalties civil and criminal for those who break the guarantee and punish the captain?

Well, yes.

No one believes that the captain of the SS El Faro was blameless here. His reputation must rightfully shoulder that.

But the context also is extraordinarily clear:

Here was a captain with an ultraconservative reputation. He did not let pilots take ship elevators for fear they might be trapped when he needed them most.

This was  a guy who called in two tugs when he thought another ship was unsafe.  He lost his job because of that.

And none of this occurred in a vacuum.  Two other captains in recent years, in well-known incidents,  one working with the El Faro operators, lost their jobs after raising safety concerns. They believe they were fired wrongly for that.

One was able to fight back and sue successfully under existing laws. But that’s a hard, hard path. It cost him $200,000 and years to get there. And the penalties imposed upon the company, were small enough that they amount to licensing  the behavior rather than preventing it.

What we need is a statutory guarantee of the Captain’s authority in safety matters.  It is a “supposed” right now — but everyone knows just how fragile that right is.

What was going on in Captain Davidson’s mind on October 1, 2015?

We don’t know specifically but this is a given:

At some level, not without reasons, he was worried that disappointing the company would cost him his job.

That no matter what professional codes and custom said, captains of ships in the 21st Century were at play and sailed or sat on the beach depending on whether they were “too safe.”

No business involving life and death decisions should be run this way. For the good of the industry and the public.

Professional mariners could right this — given the mandate and the authority.

Until Congress or an agency or a court more firmly establishes the clear right of a captain to be the captain, I fear the biggest lesson from the El Faro goes unheard and unlearned.


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