Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Joseph Hazelwood

When the twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill came around last month, a lot of the mythology surrounding the incident came around again, too. Everybody knows, for instance, that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the tanker, was drunk at the time of the incident. Except, this was never proved. In his trial following the incident in Prince William Sound, Hazelwood was acquitted of being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the oil spill. In fact, he was acquitted of all felony charges, though he was convicted of a misdemeanor charge (negligent discharge of oil) and his master’s license was suspended under Coast Guard administrative rules.

Also untrue is the story that Hazelwood left the bridge under the supervision of an unlicensed mate. Third Mate Gregory Cousins was a licensed mate, what he lacked was the endorsement required by oil tanker watch officers to operate in Prince William Sound. Cousins was cleared of any charges related to the incident.

The Exxon Valdez may be the most famous oil spill, but it’s not even close to being the largest. Ten years before the incident in Alaska, the Atlantic Empress collided with the Aegean Captain off Trinidad and Tobago in the eastern Caribbean. The resulting spill dumped 287,000 metric tons (about 84 million gallons) into the sea, compared with the Exxon Valdez’s 37,000 metric tons (about 10.8 million gallons). The Exxon Valdez doesn’t even make the top ten in terms of size of spill.

On the other hand, none of the oil from the Atlantic Empress/Aegean Captain incident came ashore. The crude from the Exxon Valdez’s tanks is still being dug out of the beaches in Prince William Sound. The resulting damage to shore life, fisheries, tourism, and recreation has been an economic disaster for the Prince William Sound region, even leading to the bankruptcy of the Chugach native corporation.

The legal wrangling following the case is still in the courts. Less than a year ago the US Supreme Court threw out a $2.5 billion punitive damage award against Exxon. It had been whittled down from an initial $5 billion figure, in addition to nearly $300 million in actual damages, awarded in 1994.

As for Hazelwood, he paid a fine, did community service, and spent two decades as the butt of drunken captain jokes. Last month he apologized to the people of Alaska for the incident. See http://www.adn.com/exxonvaldez/story/711385.html for more.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome aboard!

Maersk Alabama in Mombasa, Kenya after the pirate attack. US Navy photo by Laura A. Moore.

Don't know port from starboard? My new blog, The Misunderstood Mariner helps make the world of ships and the people who run them understandable and interesting. Ships are the vehicles of globalization so along the way we'll talk about how important the maritime industry is to the modern world, especially economically.

I'm still getting the blog up and running, but on the meantime here's the original Note I composed for Facebook that got this whole thing started. Since I wrote it, the whole crew of the Maersk Alabama, including the captain, has been rescued. As of today, the captain was still in Kenya still, but the rest of the crew have returned to the US. Meanwhile, the pirate taken prisoner may face a criminal trial. For the latest click here.

Who's driving the boat? A Nautical Primer for Journalists
Some of the reporters covering the Maersk Alabama drama seemed to have learned everything they know about nautical affairs from watching Master and Commander and Titanic. Here, then, a short primer addressing some of the biggest whoppers I’ve seen, from a former journalist turned professional ship captain.

Your author as captain of the Spirit of Discovery in south-
east Alaska, 2010. Photo by Kathryn Hill.
Who’s driving the boat? Captain is commonly used to refer to the person in charge of any vessel, but the term is inexact. It can be very confusing when dealing with the military, where “captain” is a specific rank (and even then, a captain in the Navy is equivalent to an Army or Air Force Colonel, while a captain in those two services is equal to a Navy lieutenant). The captain of a military vessel can be almost any rank, depending on the size of the vessel, it mission, etc. The Coast Guard uses the word master to refer to the person in command of any civilian vessel. To some people, especially in the yachting world, master is only used when the owner and the captain are the same person. Sail boaters often use the term skipper to refer to the captain. Although many of these folks are licensed and working mariners – often as professional sailing instructors – this term may be considered derisive outside the recreational boating community (‘Nice docking there, skipper!” said in a sarcastic tone). 

Mate is an even more inexact term. It can be anyone from the only other crew member on a family’s recreational boat to the Chief Mate on a large tanker or container ship. As vessels get larger, the mate becomes less of a glorified deckhand and more of an officer in charge of the vessel when the captain is not on the bridge. Larger commercial vessels will carry more than one mate, each of whom may take charge of the vessel’s operation for a period of time called a watch. The larger a vessel is, the less likely the captain will actually be assigned a watch, only taking charge in particularly difficult circumstances. Also, as vessels get larger, the less likely it is that even the mates will actually steer. Steering is usually done by a deckhand, called an able seaman  (not a lot of gender inclusive terms in this industry) or AB on commercial vessels under the direction of the mate on watch. The person actually in charge of the watch is said to be conning the vessel, as in “You have the conn, Mr. Sulu.” 

Boats, ships, and names. It’s not easy telling a boat from a ship. One definition says a boat can be carried on a ship but not vice versa, but this doesn’t necessarily work. Mark Twain said anything that works on a river, regardless of size, is a boat. Also, the Navy refers to large nuclear submarines as boats. In general, a boat will be smaller than a ship. The Coast Guard doesn’t even use these terms in its regulations, preferring “vessel.” Crews on even large vessels may refer to their vessel as a “boat” as a diminutive, fond or otherwise. 

The old tradition, in which ships are referred to as “she,” is fading away. Even Lloyds of London refers to ships as “it” these days. A ship is never “he”, even when named after a man (“The Edmund Fitzgerald took a wave over her bow.”)  In a lot of the coverage of the Maersk Alabama I saw the ship referred to as “the Maersk”. This is incorrect. Maersk is a shipping line and like many such lines puts the name of the company before the name of the specific vessel. If shortened at all, the vessel should have been referred to as “the Alabama”, although this is an informal usage, the equivalent of referring to Barack Obama as “Barack” in a news story.

Most vessels have a prefix before the name. These days they usually refer to the vessel’s function, although one of the most common is M/V, which simply means “motor vessel.” Other common prefixes are S/V (sailing vessel), F/V (fishing vessel), R/V (research vessel), and M/Y (motor yacht). You get the idea. Military vessels have a whole designation method I won’t get into here.

Knot. A knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour. Thus it is never correct to say, “knot per hour.” A nautical mile is equal to 6082 feet plus change, the same as a minute of latitude.  Knot is commonly used to express both ship speed and wind speed, even in many places that have adopted the metric system. 

Seizing a vessel. If the crew illegally takes control of a vessel, its cargo, etc. it’s called mutiny. If an outside person or persons do so it’s called piracy. If the captain does so it’s called barratry. Note that the captain has a separate legal status from the crew, thus the common usage “captain and crew.”

Updated October 16, 2013