On National Maritime Day, Where is the U.S. Merchant Marine?

Sal Mercogliano
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May 22, 2019

Matson’s new vessel ‘Daniel K. Inouye’ making its first approach to Honolulu on its maiden voyage, November 28, 2018. Photo: Matson

May 22 is National Maritime Day in the United States.  Initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, it commemorates the sailing of the American steamship Savannah across the Atlantic to England in 1819.  Since 1933, the date has been celebrated as a recognition for all those merchant mariners who have sailed in the past and the present, and honor those who gave their lives in both peace and war.  

To mark this year’s event, we take a snapshot of the deep-draft vessels that compromise the U.S. merchant marine.  We examine the 180 commercial ships of the commercial industry (according to the Maritime Administration as of April 15, 2019).  

Operating in the protected Jones Act trade (these are ships that must be American-built, American-owned, and American-crewed), two firms – Alaska Transport Company and Polar Tankers – operate nine large crude oil tankers between Valdez, Alaska and American ports along the Pacific Ocean.  MV Alaskan Navigator sailed from Valdez on May 14 for southern California.  This ship, and her three sisters are no strangers to the US Navy.  It was a modification of their design that resulted in the two Expeditionary Service Docks – USNS Montford Point and John Glenn – and the four Expeditionary Service Bases – with USS Lewis B Puller in operations in the Persian Gulf.  

Also, along the Alaskan coast, the five ships of Coastal Transportation work their way between ports delivering general cargo, refrigerated goods, and other material.  Between Hawaii and the United States, Matson and Pasha operate fleets delivering containers and vehicles to the fiftieth state. Both lines are in the process of laying up older ships – most recently Maui was towed away for scrapping – due to new IMO Sulphur regulations that older steam ships will not be able to comply.  New ships, such as Matson’s Kaimana Hila and Daniel K. Inouye and Pasha’s Jean Anne and Marjorie C are sailing past each other between Oahu and California.  

Also operating between the west coast and Alaska are two large ro/ros of TOTE Maritime.  They are the size of the Military Sealift Command’s LMSRs and built by NASSCO in the early 2000s to provide vehicle and container service.  Similarly, TOTE operates two other ships between the East Coast and Puerto Rico. These ships, Isla Bella and Perla Del Caribe, sail between Jacksonville and San Juan and feature the first liquefied natural gas propulsion for American merchant ships.  The ships replaced two older vessels including the ill-fated SS El Faro that was lost in Hurricane Joaquin with all hands aboard in 2015.   

Along the coast of the United States, tankers from Seacor (Seabulk Tankers), Crowley (American Petroleum Tankers), and Overseas Shipping Group transport the necessary petroleum needed for the United States economy.  These ships go where pipelines and capacity cannot reach customers, such as Florida and the northeastern portion of the nation. Several of the tankers from these firms provide direct service to the military. MT Empire State, under long-term charter from Crowley recently transited from the Panama Canal to the Pacific for operations.  Two OSG tankers were also providing services by delivering fuel to American forces in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and another to Israel.

Beyond the 100 Jones Act ships operating between American ports, sixty ships are part of the Maritime Security Program fleet.  Since 1996, this program provides a differential payment to ships to keep them in the United States merchant fleet and active in international trade.  The goal is to maintain global transportation routes and a viable pool of mariners to crew up the reserve fleet.

maritime security program fleet
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Included in this fleet are a variety of firms with unique capabilities.  On the West Coast, APL – a subsidiary of CMA CGA, the third largest containership liner company in the world – operates a fleet of nine containerships between the US and the Far East.  Hapag-Lloyd performs a similar roll with five vessels between the East Coast and northern Europe.  American Roll-on Roll-off Carrier’s fleet of eight ships follow a similar route, but they have been essential for the deployment of American military forces, particularly the dispatch of armored units to Eastern Europe.  In March, MV Patriot delivered the Army’s 4th Combat Aviation Brigade to Thessaloniki, Greece for Operation Atlantic Resolve; the ship is currently enroute back to the United States from England.   Liberty Marine performs similar services, along with bulk carriers.

US Ocean operates one of the most unique fleets under the US flag with an array of multi-purpose heavy lift ships.  One of the key roles that US Ocean plays is providing a vessel for the annual resupply of McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Operation Deep Freeze.   Earlier this year, it was MV Ocean Giant that filled that role and today she is operating in the Mediterranean.  

The largest domestic container operator is Maersk Lines, Limited, a subsidiary of the largest liner company in the world.  Absorbing Sea-Land in the late 1990s, Maersk has a long history of working with the US military, including chartering five E-class ships and modifying them into some of the original Maritime Prepositioning ships in the mid-1980s.  Today, their fleet of 26 ships is one of the largest controlled by any commercial operator, alongside Crowley.  Maersk ships provide the necessary bridge between the United States, to the large terminal in Algeciras, Spain, and then through the Suez Canal and into the Persian Gulf.  

Finally, the last of the 180 ships operate in a few unique roles.  These include ships under government contract by Sealift Incorporated and Schuyler Line Navigation Company (SLNC).  Sealift has four ships that preposition equipment for the US Army and Air Force at forward sites in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.  SLNC handles movement of dry and liquid cargoes in the Far East.

From the two government fleet of merchant ships, the crew on board MV Cape Hudson, one of forty-six ships laid up in the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, is currently sailing in the western Pacific supporting military exercises.  Civilian merchant mariner crews on board Military Sealift Command oilers, resupply vessels, expeditionary fast transports, tugs and salvage ships, and oceanographic survey ships are all deployed around the world in support of the United States.

The last ship is perhaps the best encapsulation of the modern American merchant marine fleet.  MV Pride of America of Norwegian Cruise Lines was started at Litton-Ingalls, Mississippi yard but had to be completed in Germany after the initial owners filed for bankruptcy.  Operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines, she runs among the Hawaiian Islands   This Maritime Day 2019, MV Pride of America will be docked in Kailua-Kona on the big island of Hawaii, the only one of hundreds of super liners in the world with the American flag flying from her.   

These ships, along with a host of others ships, from ferries, to offshore support vessels, to chartered fishing boats, to large ore carriers on the Great Lakes, maritime training ships, and tugs and barges operating on the inland waterways of America all represent the US merchant marine.  The men and women on board all these ships, on this National Maritime Day, are living up to the motto of the merchant marine flag, “In Peace and War.”

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