The scandal of American shipping – incompetence, venality and shocking safety standards

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

‘We are globalisation,’ a senior executive at the shipping company Maersk told me. ‘We enable it, and we have questions about it too, but we ask them in isolation.’ He then granted me leave to travel on Maersk vessels wheresoever I wished in order to write a book about shipping and seafarers, promising that Maersk’s lawyers would not vet the manuscript before publication.

Maersk have little to fear from writers. The giant corporation is effectively public-relations proof (if they stopped their ships’ engines today there would be a worldwide supply crisis the day after tomorrow). Moreover, Maersk is among the industry’s leaders, confident that whatever I found would be better, or no worse, than average standards at sea.

The American company at the heart of Rachel Slade’s excellent and gripping Into the Raging Sea, Tote Maritime, seems to have been a top-to-bottom disgrace in 2015, when its 790-ft container ship El Faro went down with all 33 hands off the Bahamas, having driven into the eye of a hurricane named Joaquin.

Slade does an incisive and compelling job explaining what happened to the El Faro, cutting between the doomed voyage, the backgrounds of the crew, the story of American shipping, the incompetent and venal owners and the would-be rescuers and investigators.

Using transcripts from the bridge (ships record their navigators’ conversations, storing them in ‘black boxes’), Slade’s narrative begins in that slightly sickening and compulsive mode which makes the words of those on the brink of disaster such transfixing reading.

Captain Michael Davidson’s ship is dying under him, flooded, listing and without power. Conditions outside are so severe that a person could barely breathe and certainly could not stand, so chaotically violent and intermingled are the wind and sea. Davidson tries to call his company’s manager in charge of safety, designated the QI — Qualified Individual:

Operator: Thank you for waiting.
Caller: Oh God!
Operator: Just briefly, what is the problem you’re having?
Caller: I have a maritime emergency and I would like to speak to a QI. We had a hull breach, a scuttle blew open during the storm. We have water down in three-hold with a heavy list. We have lost the main propulsion unit, the engineers cannot get it going. Can I speak to a QI please?
Operator: Yes, thank you so much, one moment.

Nothing can save them at this point. El Faro was 40 years old, poorly designed and redesigned, with air intakes fatally near the waterline. It had no electronic chart (the crew plotted their courses with pencil and paper); open lifeboats (which, extraordinarily, the company had been permitted to retain, arguing that replacements were too expensive); watertight doors that leaked; and an engine which seized when its lubrication system could not cope with listing. Her only strength was speed, which her captain used to drive into the hurricane, believing he was dodging around it.

The book exposes the imprecise science of hurricane prediction and Davidson’s disastrous reliance on a user-friendly forecasting system provided by StormGeo, a Norwegian company, which uses obsolete weather data. The last lethal ingredients were the crew and captain’s states of mind, and here the book becomes an engrossing study of how capitalism fails when it has cut all margins to the marrow.

The senior officers are insecure in their jobs. The captain, more worried about his standing with the company than the approaching storm, risks his ship rather than arrive late in Puerto Rico. His officers, who can see catastrophe coming, never quite stand up to him, taking refuge in incredulity and deference to rank. They see little future for the vessel or for themselves with Tote, which is sacking personnel indiscriminately, replacing mariners who should have provided oversight with unqualified executives. Tote’s preparation for the hurricane season was an email reminding captains that it was hurricane season.

Slade is rightfully angry. Shipowners, she points out, were fundamental to the founding and success of America, and still enjoy disproportionate protection under its laws. The Jones Act of 1920 requires that ships plying America’s coasts be built, owned and operated by Americans, creating a monopoly which costs domestic consumers dear. The Act should guarantee these ships high safety standards, but the American Bureau of Shipping, which inspects them, is paid for by the shipowners themselves. As one inspector put it to me: ‘No conflict of interest there, then! I can stop a ship from sailing, but I rarely do.’ ‘In what circumstances would you stop one?’ I asked. ‘A crack in the main deck!’ he laughed.

The lesson of Into the Raging Sea is that when the components of capitalism and global trade are not properly checked, regulated and restrained, and workers not cared for or respected, then lust for profit drives us all into the deep.

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