Where are the Merchant Marine Inspectors?

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May 28, 2008

Where are the Inspectors?

By John G. Denham

Each day I read articles in newspapers, see TV clips and peruse blogs featuring maritime accidents. My computer’s “favorites” has a list of bad news reporters that keep me informed of the casualty ” de jour.” Why so many?

In November 1942 I arrived in Honolulu in the Territory of Hawaii. I was 16. I arrived on USAT Ernest Hinds, an over the hill cargo passenger ship. In a moment of extreme patriotism I had shipped out with the Army transport Service (ATS) while I waited to be 17 and join the navy. Unemployed and a high school drop-out I joined Ernest Hinds late one afternoon with the plan of getting seaman’s papers the next day. I woke early to find we were passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Chief Mate, Charley Shaw informed me not to worry, I could get papers in Hawaii.

Standing in front of a stern appearing, elderly uniformed USCG officer I answered his query “How did you get here, if you reside in San Francisco?” My response created “My God boy, you were shanghaied! Do your parents know where you are?”After a call to San Francisco ( Mom indicated no concern) and some discussion, then a phone call to USAT Hinds, I was issued a Certificate of Service certifying I was now an Ordinary Seaman and signed by the concerned Merchant Marine Inspector in Charge.

Since 1942 I have faced a number of USCG officers, but none since about 1950 had any idea of who I was, why I was there and what I had been doing; that was established by a petty officer following a guide-sheet. My licenses state, ” “having been duly examined and found competent” I was licensed to be, whatever?

To be a licensed Master I underwent hours of training, months of rehearsals, and years of qualifying experience at sea. I wrote pages of answers and was reminded that “no one gets out of here is less 10 days.” After 10 days having been duly examined and found competent I was handed a Master, unlimited License signed by a U.S. Coast Guard Captain, as officer in charge.

Federal Pilotage endorsements in Washington and California were accomplished without any demonstration of ability or skill and 100% on written responses to printed questions. Route knowledge was accomplished by listing all navigation aids etc., on formatted blank charts. Although a number of day and night trips were required, certification could easily be circumvented. Advancing to state pilotage, although experienced and capable was a political process requiring no tests or examinations and certified on a pocket sized card. Special ports pilotage was similarly accomplished. It’s understood that a better system for state pilotage is now effective and enforced, however the certification for qualification is subjective. In most cases, a pre-requisite for state pilots is a federal endorsement.

However there are bigger dichotomies in the maritime process of marine transportation. A vessel is a man made structure operated by humans, mostly guided by computer manipulated equipments. The engineering competence of the ship builders is verified by the elements and the tenacity of the crews. However most non-environmental induced failures are produced by poor ship management: collisions, allisions, groundings are mostly caused by the lack of a proper lookout, inadequate BRM, and or failure to observe the ordinary practice of seaman.

Licensing, operational practices and procedures are functions that require knowledgeable supervision. None of those can be properly accomplished without properly experienced supervisors overseeing their conduct. For some time there has been a recognized decrease in the quality and effectiveness in the process responsible to provide and maintain certified competency in maritime skills.

Accidents occur and will continue to happen as long as people and equipment are tested by nature. However a significant reduction in such mishaps can be accomplished if the faults are identified and quickly promulgated as “lesson learned,” even though some are repeated.

A process of timely investigation by knowledgeable, experienced maritime qualified experts is needed to resolve technical questions involving accidents that may influence the public safety and interfere with commerce.

The ordinary practice seaman is a term that has endured over two centuries. It is not just a catch-all clause but a professional reminder by others that view the mariners work, they expect good sense to prevail, apply due diligence and follow through in all tasks and duties and verify with certainty that Neptune’s laws are obeyed.

The ordinary practice of seaman implies a knowledge of proper seamanship and experience that is disappearing in our mariners and being by-passed by otherwise concerned managers. The instinct and inquisitiveness of a practiced mariner to know proper from not, compliance from disregard and error from slovenly practice is essential to improve. Is it time to revisit the need for a dedicated, professional cadre of “Steam Boat Inspectors” and a mandated management process that verifies our vessels are competently managed. The opposite of the ordinary practice of seaman is unskillfulness, a term from the past, that is reappearing.

John Denham is a retired USN Captain, Licensed unlimited Master and Pilot, maritime academy teacher,and author with extensive experience as a marine consultant. He is also author of The Assistant and DD 891.

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