The Last Sister: The SS Matsonia Struggles On

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(Note: The original article has been modified to include a veteran mariner’s point of view on the varying degrees of readiness among old ships. All comments and dissenting viewpoints are welcome here.)

She’s still steaming. For now. At age 46. And her operator, Matson, has declined to answer a query on how much longer the old girl may labor in the coastal trades.

Four years after her sister, the SS El Faro, sank on October 1, 2015, the SS Matsonia struggles on, the last of the once proud Ponce class of ships.

The ship app Marine Traffic has the SS Matsonia departing Honolulu on September 27 with an expected arrival date of October 2 at Oak Harbor on the mainland. She remains in service in the Hawaii trades – after 42 different Coast Guard inspections in 2017 and 2018. One example of one inspection?

“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. — March 2018.”


Inspections are no guarantee of course and the Matsonia’s hull cracked open this past February, spilling heavy fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. A fracture in the hull was found about 15-feet below the waterline. 

Fresh inspection records are not available on the Matsonia now, but she appears to have again met Coast Guard and ABS standards.

And some are quick to defend Matson as a responsible owner with a good safety record and a plan for bringing new ships online. Says one experienced mariner:

“You cannot compare how MATSONIA was operated and maintained with EL FARO under TOTE. Furthermore, MATSONIA operated in the Hawaii trade its entire life. That had the vessel in port almost as much as it was at sea, allowing for considerable maintenance work to be performed that cannot usually be done on a fast turn around RoRo. Also, there was a shore gang in Honolulu available to work on the ship every call to Honolulu. Much like in humans, one 47 year old is not necessarily the same as other 47 year olds. If one watched their diet, exercised regularly, got adequate rest and did everything in moderation, while the other person is a couch potato, 100# overweight, smokes and drinks to excess, you cannot expect the same life expectancy.”


The Matsonia just needs to keep running for a little bit longer.

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)

Which was the logic of the SS Marine Electric departure in 1983 and the SS El Faro too in 2015. Those “one more trip” trips sometimes can be killers.

Certainly the publication “Workboat,” is not a fan of the practice. Max Hardberger wrote there:

“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?”

What could go wrong? On very old ships, a lot.

Here’s a searchable data base of inspections of the Matsonia.

SystemSub SystemComponentDeficiency Details
CommunicationsSecurityShip Security Alert SystemSSAS not transmitting. System to be fixed while vessel is in Oakland, CA.
DocumentationLogs/RecordsLogbook/Record (unofficial)Update lock-out, tag-out log.
EngineeringSteam System (main)Piping DrainRepair leaking main condensor drain pipe.
Accommodation/Occupational SafetyOccupational SafetyTripping/Falling HazardRepair wasted step in between main condensor pumps.
EngineeringSteam System (main)Lagging/InsulationRe-attach loose lagging on DC heater.
EngineeringBilge Water Management SystemPumpMake #2 aux engineering nuisance bilge water pump operable.
Fire FightingRemote Fuel ShutoffGeneralRe-attach remote reach rod for fuel oil valve in main space.
EngineeringSteam System (main)Lagging/InsulationSurvey main space for missing, unserviceable, and loose lagging, develop plan to repair.
Operations/ManagementPollutionRetention of Oily MixtureRemove excess oil under SSTDG's.
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)PipingAdjust packing on port main steam stop to prevent excessive steam leaking.
EngineeringSea-water System (primary cooling)PumpTighten packing on main condensor fwd pump to slow excessive leaking.
ElectricalElectrical Distribution System (service)PanelboardProvide appropriate blank for main electrical panel opening.
EngineeringFuel Oil Storage/Transfer SystemValveReplace weeping exterior fuel oil valve for EDG.
EngineeringFuel Oil Storage/Transfer SystemTankTest motorized lifeboat fuel tank to dertermine how excessive water was found inside the tank, make repairs as necessary.
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Air RegisterRe-fasten port forced draft fan linkage. SOLAS (2014 Consolidated) I-11
Fire FightingFixed CO2 Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsRe-attach linkage for EDG fire damper, prove proper operation. SOLAS (2014 Consolidated) I-11
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Water Level IndicatorMake manual steam drum water level indicators readable. SOLAS (2014 Consolidated) I-11
EngineeringSteam System (main)Lagging/InsulationReplace missing lagging on inboard feedwater pump. SOLAS (2014 Consolidated) I-11
EngineeringSteering Gear SystemPumpMake steering system available for inspection/testing following repairs for excessive vibration. 46CFR91.25-10
EngineeringSteam System (main)Piping DrainProve repairs of port sootblower drain with operational test.
EngineeringSteam System (main)PipingProve proper operation of port economizer following repairs.
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Automation EquipmentMake vessel available for boiler automation testing by a USCG Marine Inspector during a OCMI San Francisco port call.
EngineeringSteam Turbine (auxiliary)CouplingRepair leak from cover of high speed coupling on outboard SSTDG.
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Water Level IndicatorRepair leak on inboard steam drum sight glass for stbd boiler.
EngineeringSteam System (auxiliary)PipingDetermine extent of leaks and make repairs to aux steam line leading to evaporator.
EngineeringSteam System (main)Piping DrainCrop and renew holed section of boiler blowdown pipe downstream of skin valve. SOLAS (2014 Consolidated) I-11
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Automation EquipmentProvide records of periodic automation testing being completed within the last year.
EngineeringSteam System (main)PipingRepair leaking high pressure gauge piping on inboard feedwater pump.
EngineeringFeedwater/Condensate Water SystemPumpRepair water leak from jacking bold on outboard feedwater pump.
Fire FightingStructural Fire Protection - GeneralDeckhouse ConstructionProperly seal multiple cat-5 cable wire penetrations going through the deck of the port fan room. (1960 SOLAS II/38(a))
ElectricalLighting (service)Lighting FixtureRepair electrical lamp and outlet in Stock Tender Room #2. (1960 SOLAS II/27(a)(v))
Fire FightingStructural Fire Protection - GeneralDeckhouse ConstructionRepair broken latch on boiler casing door on the galley deck. (1960 SOLAS II/38(d))
Fire FightingVentilation SystemsVentilation Fire DampersRepair all damaged cargo hatch fire dampers. (ILLC 1966 Reg 16(4))
Operations/ManagementLifesavingOp Readiness/Maintenance/InspectionStow lifeboat equipment in port and starboard lifeboats that does not interfere with operations. (1960 SOLAS III/12)
LifesavingImmersion SuitsGeneralEnsure each crew member has an appropriately sized immersion suit for use. (2014 SOLAS III/32.3.2)
EngineeringShafting/Propeller ArrangementsStrut BearingIn accordance with the vessel's submitted mediation plan to minimize any oil loss from the vessel's forward strut seal and the vsl's monitoring plan while underway, the vessel may proceed to Honolulu and return to Oakland to effect permanent repairs (OOA 06 March 18).
Construction/LoadlinePenetrationsGasketIn accordance with the vsl's submitted mediation plan to minimize and track oil loss from the strut seals, crew will maintain monitoring plan while underway and submit trip report indicating strut seal oil daily loss averages for each future round trip from Oak to Hono. This report shall be submitted upon arrival into Port of Oakland to Sector SF.
LifesavingLifeboatPropulsion EngineAll lifesaving appliances shall be kept in working order and available for immediate use before the ship leaves port. Vessel's motor lifeboat was unable to start in the presence of the attending MI.
EngineeringSteam Boiler (propulsion)Gauge GlassEach boiler is to have at least two means of indicating the water level. The stbd boiler upper gauge glass is obscured and unable to be read. The port outboard gauge glasses are leaking and out of commission.
EngineeringSea-water System (primary cooling)PumpAfter any survey of the ship has been completed, no change shall be made to the machinery covered by the survey without sanction of the Administration. Aft circulation pump for main condenser shaft seal is leaking excessively. Renew shaft packing on pump and reduce salt water discharge from pump into bilges.
Fire FightingFire HydrantsConditionAfter any survey of the ship has been completed, no change shall be made to the equipment covered by the survey without the sanction of the administration. The #14 and #19 fire station have areas of severe corrosion on the piping. Vessel is to gauge ppiping and provide prosposal for repair or remediation of corrosion areas.
EngineeringSteam System (main)Lagging/InsulationAfter any survey of the ship has been completed, no change shall be made to the equipment covered by the survey without the sanction of the administration. Vessel is missing lagging on flange to evap live steam inlet and the valve bonnet on stbd boiler aft. Vessel is to install lagging to prevent hazards to engine personnel.
ElectricalElectric Supply System (service)CableAfter any survey of the ship has been completed, no change shall be made to the equipment covered by the survey without the sanction of the administration. Stbd winch disconnect switch box on main deck has split electrical stuffing tube and severely corrode conduit to switch box. Renew stuffing tube and conduit to the satisfaction of the attending MI or ACS.
ElectricalElectrical Distribution System (service)Metallic Enclosure/FrameAfter any survey of the ship has been completed, no change shall be made to the equipment covered by the survey without the sanction of the administration. The winch control cabinet covers in the bosun stores are currently being maintained in a closed position by ratchet straps and rope. Vessel is to secure panels and access doors to satisfaction of attending MI or ACS.

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