Four Years After the Loss of the SS El Faro, the Coast Guard has Forced a Reckoning Over America’s Rust Bucket Merchant Marine and Sent Shivers Through the Military “Unready Reserve”

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Nearly four years after the loss of the SS El Faro and her crew of 33 on October 1, 2015, the Coast Guard convincingly has slammed the door on easy inspections by its own agents and the American Bureau of Shipping, forcing dozens of old, unsafe ships into repair or retirement. 

The action finishes the job first started by Coast Guard reformers after the loss of the SS Marine Electric and her crew of 31 in 1983 and seems to end a 50-year-old hit and miss safety system that allowed old unsafe ships to remain in service.  (To read a free online Until the Sea Shall Free Them, click here.)

Moreover, the inspections have reached beyond vessels in commercial service and include the very old fleet of cargo ships in the Military Sealift Command and the Ready Reserve. The tougher inspections have underlined the nation’s questionable ability to support sustained wars abroad and suggested an “Unready Reserve” is the reality.  

“The steel is rotting,” the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration  administrator and retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby said simply of the old ships as he testified before Congress in March.  

In a more detailed and nuanced manner, a US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the loss of the El Faro came to a similar conclusion.  Yes, the board said, the captain erred seriously in steering the El Faro into Hurricane Joaquin. 

But the ship itself ought never have been approved for conversion to a container ship, the board concluded, because Coast Guard and ABS approved design changes were unsafe and unwise.  The new design lowered the ship two feet in the water and also added containers to the top of the roll-on, roll-off cargo ship. 

Additionally, the investigation showed that a sister ship of the El Faro, the SS El Yunque, sported rusty old ventilation systems that could have allowed the ship to flood in rough water. 

The Marine Board, or MBI, also criticized the ship operator, Tote Maritime, but observers of the hearings and the board feared at the time that the final conclusions went too light on the company and the industry. The recommendations for tougher inspections and ABS oversight were just words if execution was lax. Only a few family members of the lost crew felt the Coast Guard would follow through.  (To read a free online version of “The Captains of Thor — What Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro,” click here.)

CASTINE, ME – OCTOBER 6: Maine Maritime students listen during a reading at a vigil at the school in Castin on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. Four Mainers who were aboard the cargo ship El Faro, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Michael Holland of Wilton, Danielle Randolph of Rockland and Dylan Meklin, both of Rockland, are all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

But a review of inspection records for 2017 and 2018 appears to show an aggressive and unrelenting pursuit of safety violations.  

In sum, the Marine Board of Investigation appears to have been one of the most important since the early 1950’s when the Coast Guard gave a pass to ships it knew to be structurally unsafe.  Where the investigation of the loss of the SS Marine Electric first raised issues over questionable safety practices in 1983, the El Faro Marine Board appears to have ended the debate decisively. 

“Surge” Ships — and the “Unready”Reserve

A close examination of thousands of data entries shows the crackdown clearly, but the range of the Coast Guard crackdown became most apparent this past spring when Rear Adm. John Nadeau, then the assistant commandant for prevention policy, announced that six ships were in such bad shape they were forced to the scrap yards while another 53 vessels – about 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. merchant marine, were categorized as “high risk.” 

“We sent some of our most experienced inspectors to examine these vessels and identified 661 deficiencies, including 86 detainable deficiencies,” said Nadeau at the time. 

There are only about 170 ocean going vessels in the American merchant marine. 

The crackdown also has sent shivers through the military sealift community, where the average age of a vessel is 44-years.  Most ships have a useful lifetime of 20 years. Coast Guard inspections resulted in no-sail orders for six ships in military service and assessments of “not mission capable” for 14 others. 

USNS Obregon

One of the ships that was said to be mission capable – the USNS Obregon — had an astounding 80+ inspection citations in 2017-2018. 

The Obregon was one of 28 Sealift and Ready Reserve ships ordered this past week to undergo a “Turbo Test” of readiness. It remains unclear how the ships performed but early reports were skeptical.

According to Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D., writing in gCaptain:
“By Saturday evening, 23 out of the 28 ships had met their sail date and were off the coast of the United States conducting sea trials. Of the five vessels that failed to meet their window, one of them is a LMSR with Military Sealift Command. The remaining four are MARAD ships, with one FSS sailing a day late, and the three others located in Beaumont, Texas, currently suffering from the impact of Hurricane Imelda.

The ability to deploy twenty-three ships in five days, including four that had been identified in March 2019 as “Not Mission Capable,” is a questionable achievement.”

The military has said that the Coast Guard inspections have helped reveal the weakness of the merchant marine’s military capabilities – and also have forced military planners to triple their estimates of acquisition or building plans. 

The planned renovation of the fleet now is “three times more expensive” and “taking twice as long” to elevate the existing fleet up to Coast Guard certification standards, Army Gen. Steve Lyons, the commander of Transportation Command, told Congress. 
A detailed look at the inspections appears to show a kind of cat-and-mouse game at play. 

The inspectors bear down on some of the very old ships, with the owners patching them up, only to see more system failures and more inspections, with the cycle repeating itself over and over. This is explained in part because it is difficult to simply order a ship to the scrap yard.  If the owners keep fixing the ships up, they can sail.  But the inspectors also can meet them at the next port, and see if new issues have occurred. 

MT6Y7F Capt. Jason Neubauer, center, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation chairman, questions a witness Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, during week two of the final S.S. El Faro MBI hearing in Jacksonville, Florida. Neubauer, along with other members of the panel, queried various witnesses during the hearing sessions to obtain information crucial to their investigation into the S.S. El Faro sinking in October 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony L. Soto

For example, the SS Matsonia, a sister ship of the SS El Faro, remained in service in the California to Hawaii trades – but underwent 42 different Coast Guard inspections in 2017 and 2018. One typical inspection report stated:

“In accordance with the vessel’s submitted mediation plan to minimize any oil loss from the vessel’s forward strut seal … while underway, the vessel may proceed to Honolulu and return to Oakland to effect permanent repairs,” one report stated in March 2018.”

Yet even with that oversight in 2018, the Matsonia’s hull cracked in February 2019, spilling heavy fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. Divers then found a fracture in the hull about 15-feet below the waterline. 

Recent records are not readily available on the Matsonia, but the ship is back in service now, according to ship tracking apps and software, and again presumably meeting the Coast Guard standards. Some mariners note that the ship’s owner, Matson, is in the process of bringing new ships into service and has a good record of safety and maintenance. 

ROCKLAND, ME – OCTOBER 5: Rom and Debora Rainey hold candles as they sing Amazing Grace with a group of people gathered at the Fishermen’s Memorial in Rockland Harbor Monday, October 5, 2015, for a candlelight vigil in honor of Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, and Danielle Randolph, 34, also of Rockland. The pair were among four Mainers and 29 other souls who were aboard El Faro, a cargo ship which is believe to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Still, the incident did not go without comment within the industry.  In “Workboat,”Max Hardberger remarked:

“The Matsonia is 46 years old, almost certainly the oldest ship of 760’ or greater carrying current U.S. certificates. All of her sister ships in the Ponce class built by Sun Shipbuilding have now been scrapped or gone to the bottom. One, the El Yunque, was towed to a scrapyard in 2016 after an inspection revealed extensive steel deterioration. In fact, the El Faro had replaced another Sun-built ship, the El Morro, in the Puerto Rico trade after that ship had to be scrapped due to hull condition. So the question is why the Matsonia is still navigating?”

The new, tougher inspections, if sustained over time, will finally end an era that began in the 1950’s when the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer sank off Cape Cod.  The rescue of the crews has been celebrated in Coast Guard history and Hollywood movies (The Finest Hour), but that hid from view a darker chapter in USCG history. 

The ship type was known to be defective but was allowed to continue sailing. The Coast Guard took little effective action again in 1963 when the Marine Sulphur Queen went down with all hands.  And again in 1980 when the SS Poet, an old troop ship, simply disappeared. 

Finally, in 1983, three survivors of the lost ship the SS Marine Electric and her crew of 34, testified that the vessel was riddled with holes and poorly kept.  A Marine Board of Investigation recommended that the American Bureau of Shipping be banned from inspecting vessels because it had an inherent conflict:  It was paid by the ship owners. 

Bob Cusick

The Coast Guard command ignored those recommendations and in fact widely expanded ABS duties, arguing that the arrangement could provide seasoned inspectors where the Coast Guard frequent inspector rotations could not. 

But by 2015, the El Faro MBI found that 38 percent of ABS inspections were not well done.  Rather than replacement, the Board recommended tighter oversight – which seems to have happened effectively this time. 

The Coast Guard inspections were not the first word of the military transportation problem. Internal military inquiries have raised the question as well. 

For example, in September of 2018, an Inspector General’s report was highly critical of the Military Sealift Command’s maintenance of “prepositioning ships” – ships loaded with cargoes deployed in key areas of the world. The report said:

 “…  the Blount Island Command, Operations Division Deputy Director of the
Marine Corps Technical Assistance and Advisory Team provided two examples where a prepositioning ship was unable to attend planned exercises because of maintenance deficiencies, including one instance where a ship carrying the Marine Corps’ equipment developed a hole in the hull during transit…”  

 One Congressman said the situation comprises a “weak flank” for the country militarily, suggesting that major battles of past wars could not be won today.   

“It’s debatable whether the Marines, if they were to land on the shores of Guadalcanal, would they be able to have supplies for the second month? The answer is, probably not,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat.