Some maritime investigations bring reform as if they were tidal waves. Witness the Titanic. (1912)
Others are tall, curling breakers crashing on a channel bar. Consider here the Marine Electric. (1983.)
But in modern times, reform has spread in the wake of the SS El Faro more as if it were a long, broad, relentless tide.
No one saw tons of change coming from the initial report on the 2015 tragedy. But the tide keeps rising and rising — to a point where it may now have provided the most significant maritime safety reforms in more than 100 years.
The case for the SS El Faro being the most significant maritime disaster since the Titanic can be made here:
* The Traveling Inspectors and others cracked down on old, unsafe ships — prevalent in the US merchant marine fleet — scrapping six and flagging more than 50 of them with high priority watch status.
* A new division within the Coast Guard now closely monitors the quality of the work of the American Bureau of Shipping — a process the Marine Electric reforms started but could not finish.
* The tougher inspections extended to military reserve and sealift ships, which share the age and condition problems of the Jones Act fleet.
* As a result of all the inspection crackdowns, military planners are now looking at how to refurbish the various fleets because they doubt the current ships could sustain military expeditions in the event of a “peer-to-peer” war.
* The Jones Act itself faces serious question marks as its cabotage provisions seem to have failed in stimulating merchant shipbuilding or providing a strong basis for military support.
But the reforms and impact do not just stop there. The El Faro reforms have triggered new reforms in other investigations.
Pending now is a report on the 2017 explosion of the tug barge combination Buster Bouchard and Barge. No. 255 , which killed two seamen and polluted the Texas coast.
The NTSB has already nicked the owner-operator for bad safety cultures. But even though the Coast Guard report is not yet finished, the Marine Board of Investigation set what I believe is an extraordinarily important precedent:
They expanded their inquiry beyond the single barge-tug casualty and considered the entire Bouchard fleet. This resulted in widespread inspections, which in turn shut down a lot of Bouchard’s operations of unsafe barges traveling off Texas, near New York City, in the Mississippi and throughout the Gulf.
This is new. In most all of the dozens of Marine Boards I’ve read, the boards strictly limit themselves to the specific incident, with no expansion or sweep to other ships in a fleet. The 1980 MBI of the SS Poet, for example, famously ignored the owners flotilla of rust buckers, some of which had sunk prior to the Poet.
The 1952 investigations into the Pendleton/Fort Mercer and the 1963 inquiry into the Marine Sulphur Queen were similar. A casual acquaintance with the conditions of T-2 tankers at service in that time period would have prompted a broad crack down. By the time the Sulphur Queen sank, 15 of the war-time ships had sunk.
A broader look across the fleet and the industry then could have saved countless lives. But the boards kept a very narrow focus in 1952 and in 1963, he commandant declined to enact the board’s tough recommendations.
The actions (or inactions) were not surprising. For much of their histories, says a Yale professor, Charles Perow, Marine Boards have settled on narrow issues of civil liability — not reform or justice for seafarers. For that reason, he concluded in his 1984 classic, Normal Accidents, that the maritime safety system is worse than ineffective. Unlike airlines, the maritime system is an “error inducing” system.
So the combination of the El Faro and the Bouchard actions may have reversed that.
The Marine Electric reforms, of course, did indeed land with the force of breakers on the bar. The rescue swimmer school was formed. Survival suits were required. Inspectors were inspired and cracked down on the rust-buckets creating a 30 year era of safety where no American ship was lost.
But in the end, it may be the slow tide of the El Faro reforms that finally turns the maritime safety system into an error-reducing system — one where safety is increased each year rather than marginalized.
Yet open lifeboats remain in service on ancient US ships. The USCG action on the report recommendation was weak and should create sufficient doubt they will have the courage to lead any meaningful and lasting reform.