Saturday, June 16, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: Joseph Hazelwood (Re-post)

When the twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill came around [in 2009], 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 [March 2009] he apologized to the people of Alaska for the incident.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: William Bligh (Re-post)

William Bligh. 1814 portrait by Alexander Huey.

April 28 [2009] marked the 220th anniversary of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. William Bligh, commander of that ill-fated expedition, has become synonymous with the image of a cruel captain, an image reinforced by popular fiction, especially movies.

Bligh was an officer under Capt. James Cook on that explorer’s third and final voyage, and served aboard vessels engaged in some of the most important naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Before taking command of the Bounty, he left the navy for a brief period to work in the merchant service. The Bounty’s log showed him to be, if anything, more sparing of cruel punishment than a lot of his fellow captain’s of the day. He also took from Cook a concern for the health of his crew, including making sure the food onboard exceeded the standards of the day and that the crew got daily exercise.

Bligh was also an early reformer of watch standing systems to combat crew fatigue, splitting his crew into three instead of two watches. It was this third watch that required an extra officer to be in charge of it, which led to Bligh recruiting Fletcher Christian for the 1789 voyage during which the mutiny occurred.

Bligh gets little credit for his forward thinking, although even popular accounts of the mutiny acknowledge Bligh’s skill in bringing a small boatload of loyalists 3600 nautical miles to safety with only one casualty. It’s probably inevitable that today Bligh is considered the bad guy in the mutiny, what with Christian being portrayed on film by heroic leading men Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando. The fact is, the 1984 film The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, is probably the most accurate, with many scenes lifted right from the Bounty’s log.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Merchant Mariners at D-Day

The Liberty ship Jeremiah O'Brien is the only surviving merchant ship from the D-Day armada.Photo by Mike Hofmann
Every man in this Allied command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage and fortitude of the officers and men of the Merchant Marine. When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.-- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

From the hot deserts of Africa to the icy waters north of Russia, American merchant mariners saw some of the most hazardous duty of World War II. When the long-awaited Allied invasion called D-Day finally came on June 6, 1944, merchant mariners were there, too.

Ships Without Ports. Some merchant ships began their preparations weeks before the actual invasion. Pulled off their regular runs, these ships cruised the waters around Britain waiting for a pre-arranged rendezvous to pick up cargo and men before heading to the French coast. These “ships without ports” were intentionally kept away from land to avoid enemy planes and ships spotting any concentration of vessels. Many of these vessels continued to shuttle between Britain and the European mainland up until the end of the war. In the first week alone, merchant hulls carried a large portion of the 326,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment and supplies necessary for the invasion.

Operation Mulberry. The night before the Normandy invasion, a force of civilian-crewed US Army tugs lead a fleet of concrete-hulled ships from the Isle of Wight and out into the English Channel. On the night of June 5, 1944, about the time that Allied paratroopers were landing behind German lines in Normandy and several hours after the largest invasion force in history had set out across the English Channel, a fleet of civilian-operated U.S. Army tugs pulled away from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. As they approached the French coast, the ships were intentionally sunk; creating breakwaters for huge artificial harbors that would serve as disembarkation points until a natural harbor could be liberated from the Germans. More than 1,800 merchant mariners manned the tugs and “blockships”.

High Merchant Marine Casualties. One in 26 American merchant mariners in World War II was killed in the line of duty, a ratio higher than any other branch of the military. Fourteen of those mariners died near Normandy, and are buried there alongside their comrades from the other services. But because they were not in the armed services, and despite Eisenhower’s praise, none were recognized as “veterans” for more than 40 years. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the WWII Merchant Marine Service Act, providing merchant marine veterans with veterans’ benefits.

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