Captain Kevin Stith

Capt Stith (right) and CAPT Gabe Varela , US Navy, (left) reviewing an upcoming MSC operation.

Interview With MARAD Administrator Candidate Captain Kevin Stith

John Konrad
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September 1, 2021

By John Konrad (gCaptain) Early this year the influential American Maritime Officers union endorsed Captain Kevin P. Stith for the job of Administrator of the United States Maritime Administration in Washington, the top civilian maritime position in the nation. While the Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has yet to make a final decision about who will fill that role, Captain Stith is one of the candidates being considered and the only one in the group who serves as captain of a US Flagged ship.

Captain Stith has more than two decades of documented maritime experience and currently serves as Master of the M/V Perla del Caribe, a Marlin-Class container vessel engaged in Jones Act service to Puerto Rico. Captain Stith graduated from Kings Point in June 1996 and is a decorated merchant marine veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom & Iraqi Freedom.

Last month we had the opportunity to sit down with Captain Stith and ask him a few questions about the possible opportunity to lead MARAD.

The previous Maritime Administrator, Rear Admiral Mark Buzby, was highly popular and invested a considerable amount of time and effort into developing relationships with the Pentagon, which has an enormous budget and a considerable amount of political influence. Buzby was highly popular in his role as MARAD Administrator. What parts of Buzby’s legacy do you wish to push forward and what do you want to do differently? 

I would support the development of our ports, waterways, and critical maritime infrastructure., including support for shipyards.  The other areas important to continue are the delivery of the new training ships to the state maritime academies, improvements at the US Merchant Marine Academy, and replacement of tonnage in the Ready Reserve Fleet.

As long as the Maritime Administrator is keenly focused on advocating for US mariners and providing strong leadership in promoting the programs that are essential for sustaining a healthy merchant marine, such as the Jones Act, PL-480, the Export-Import Bank, and the MSP program, then the Maritime Administrator will be doing the job that they were tasked to do.

You began your career at Kings Point. Can you discuss the importance of the school motto, “Act Non Verba”, to your success and the future of MARAD?

The Latin “Acta Non Verba” translates to “deeds, not words”.  This concept was ingrained in me through my parents and my community as I grew up in Ohio.  I was taught that somewhere, someone is preparing and getting better, and if you aren’t doing the same you will undoubtedly lose.  

At Kings Point “Acta Non Verba” took on a much deeper meaning, and a focus on getting the job done, not talking about it.  You may never even know who the most successful King Pointers are because they are relentless in their pursuit of getting the job done. They don’t have the need or the time to talk about what they’ve accomplished the pursuit of it is enough for them.

Over the past 30 years of being involved with the US maritime industry, I’ve also come to realize that nothing ever stays the same.  You either get better or you get worse.

Personally, I believe that when you couple the concepts of always preparing, always getting better, and being relentless in the pursuit of getting the job done with humility, you have done the most that you can do to position yourself for success.  That is the type of leadership and mindset that I would bring to the Maritime Administration.

The state maritime academies have been given large amounts of money for the much-needed replacement of our training ships. Some say that an equal investment of $300 million should be given to KP to invest in building a center for maritime technology, innovation, and cybersecurity. We also need to do more to support union schools and hawsepipe training. Do you agree?

Training ships are critical to the educational and training needs of the cadets and midshipmen at the academies.  The NSMV program is a huge step forward in getting an educationally useful vessel while also getting a vessel that can play a critical role during national emergencies and humanitarian relief. 

Investment in maritime technology, innovation, and cybersecurity is important in order to keep pace with the need to be more environmentally conscious, and economically competitive.  This would be a very complicated task to undertake at Kings Point.  To attempt to weave this into Kings point’s the already difficult mission of maintaining accredited curriculums, sending midshipmen out to sea for practical training, and preparing them to be licensed officers all within the fiscal government framework might not get the desired result.

It might be more appropriate to devise a grant program, administered and collated by MARAD to support and encourage maritime innovation and maritime cybersecurity.

In the last two decades, Marad has been most famous for being largely ineffective. Some say marad needs to be re-organized. Some say it is just under budget. Some say that deadwood needs to be cut from the agency. What are your thoughts?

Historically, MARAD has played a critical role in supporting the commercial US Merchant Marine, specifically in dense of the Jones Act and promoting the movement of US Cargo through the Export-Import Bank. These programs are the backbone of the current US shipping industry.

In regard to the organization of MARAD, it’s the duty of the US Maritime Administrator to develop a US maritime doctrine that aligns with the direction of our national interests; economically, environmentally, and ethically.

I’ve been associated with MARAD since 1992, as a Midshipman at the US Merchant Marine Academy, as a US Naval Reservist working in both the Central and Western Regions, as a Third Mate, Chief Mate, and Master aboard MARAD vessels, and as a Port Engineer assisting with drydocking of MARAD vessels. In the nearly 30 years that I’ve been working with MARAD I’ve been able to see from the operational and administrative levels, what areas are beneficial and the areas that need to be focused upon.

I don’t necessarily think that MARAD as a whole needs to be re-organized, but rather re-focused on the areas that will result in the greatest impact on our sealift capability, our economic presence on the global stage, while sustaining the US as a world renowned seapower for future generations.

It is no secret that many of the maritime unions compete for jobs and political influence. One union has already endorsed a nonunion candidate. Will it ever be possible for the unions to work together?

In a single word, yes. The Maritime Unions do work together in Washington 99% of the time. It is well known that when it comes to the greater issues of sealift, cargo preference, and the Jones Act that the unions are aligned on their support of these issues.

The US merchant marine is made up of a union and non-union workforce. The number one asset that any organization has is its labor force. The US Merchant Marine is blessed with a remarkably intelligent, hard-working, dedicated, and under-appreciated work force. This cannot be understated. It’s been my experience, having worked for both non-union and union-based companies that a Maritime Administrator should have a depth of experience in both arenas. It’s also important to understand how shipping companies and mariners in right-to-work states interface with union membership.

What worries you most about our nation’s readiness for the next big war?

An assured Sealift capability, particularly in a contested environment. Without pointing specific vulnerabilities, our sealift capability is based on the available mariners we have, the available ships we have and our ability to ensure reliable supply lines. When the other major maritime nations of the world are expanding their tonnage base and adding to their Naval assets, it’s obvious that they understand what Alfred Thayer Mahan detailed for us nearly 150 years ago when he defined maritime seapower. We have to grasp the fact that the key to national stability and prosperity is directly proportional to seapower, which links the US Navy and the US Merchant marine without question.

The US maritime industry is extremely diverse and relatively inclusive at the unlicensed level but the average age of ship captains and shipping executives is well above average and is predominately white, male, and straight. What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion?

When it comes to MARAD and the US maritime industry, we have definitely seen a cultural shift, and there is considerable momentum in continuing to diversify the US maritime industry.  This is long overdue and refreshing to see taking place.  It’s a fact that the more diverse we are as an industry, the more diverse backgrounds we will have, in both our experiences and our perspectives.  That will give us a deeper knowledge base and allow us to make better decisions as mariners and leaders.

It’s my opinion that the best way to continue this cultural shift is through the maritime academy’s recruiting and admissions processes.

What do you say to the people who think that trying to change MARAD is a waste of time?

Nothing ever stays the same. You either get better or you get worse. We also know that our time is priceless.  I believe that a better word to use is the word “focus”.

The US needs to focus on the areas of our maritime industry that can benefit us the most. We don’t have the time or the resources to waste on processes and programs that have little practical value or impact. We need to think along the lines of force multipliers, like the NSMV program.  An continue to develop programs and processes that solve multiple problems at once.

Captain Kevin Stith Bio

Captain Kevin P. Stith has more than two decades of documented maritime experience and currently serves as Master of the M/V Perla del Caribe. Notably, the M/V Perla del Caribe is a Marlin-Class container vessel engaged in Jones Act service to Puerto Rico.  The Marlin Class is the world’s first dual-fueled (LNG / MGO) class of container ships.

Captain Stith graduated from Kings Point, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in June 1996. He majored in Marine Transportation and completed the Ship’s Officer Program, which allowed him to earn his Unlimited Third Mate’s license and the unlicensed Engine Department rating of QMED.  Between 1996 and 2005 he sailed as Third Mate, Second Mate, and Chief Mate. Then in 2005, while assisting in recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding his house in New Orleans after the hurricane, and experiencing the birth of his first son, he attained his Master’s license. 

Captain Stith has served on numerous types of government and commercial vessels, including tugs, supply boats, tankers, containerships, LASH, OPDS, FSS, and LMSR’s. He has been actively sailing for 25+ years, which includes service as Captain of nine different ships. His entrepreneurial experience as a consultant/expert witness, and his sacrifice dedicated to the crew of S.S. El Faro during the investigation of its sinking during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 have impacted the world-wide maritime community.

In 2001 he was awarded the U.S. Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal for his service aboard S.S. Chesapeake(MARAD)  during Operation Enduring Freedom & Iraqi Freedom.

In 2004, during Operation Iraqi Freedom,  he was assigned to S.S. Cape Florida (MARAD) as Chief Mate and was recognized for the completion of “Mission-04 Ammo Supply” cargo discharge in record time.

In 2005 he was awarded the U.S. Merchant Marine Medal for Outstanding Achievement while assigned as Chief Mate of the USNS Bellatrix in providing relief and care to the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “Demonstrating extraordinary compassion and devotion to others that have traditionally brought admiration and honor to the men and women who serve in the nation’s merchant marine.”

In 2019 Captain Stith was nominated for the prestigious Saltchuck Michael D. Garvey Award for “personal commitment to safety aboard the Perela del Caribe through a variety of shipboard initiatives which positively affected many officers and crew – Saltchuk Chairman Mark Tabutt.”

Over the past 25 years Captain Stith has earned more than 50 maritime and related certifications, licenses, and training completions that cover all aspects of Marine & Maritime Safety, Shipboard Security, Operations, Communication & Leadership.

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