Matsonia redux: Point, counterpoint

In my March 7 blog, (The Matsonia: El Faro all over again?) I opined that the appearance of a crack in the hull of the Matsonia, sistership to the ill-fated El Faro, was symptomatic of the effect of the Jones Act on vessel inspection and certification, and on U.S. shipbuilding.

The comments to my blog were predictable, except to the extent that they agreed with my premise. Some of the comments deserve a response.

Jonathan Feffer pointed out that Matson has placed newbuilding orders, “but did so many years too late.” He continued: “The impediment is the cost of construction which is 3-4 times the cost abroad,” which, of course, corresponds with the point of my blog. He also makes an important point that I didn’t address, that there are no U.S. manufacturers of the slow-speed diesel engines required by ships of this size. He noted that “slow speed diesel main engines must be sourced overseas.” This is an issue that must be addressed by U.S. engine manufacturers. It’s not a political issue, but a matter of design, metallurgy and engineering.

Ed Turkisher accused me of “trying to blame the Jones Act for the crack in Matsonia’s hull and the sinking of the El Faro. Sorry, the El Faro went down because of an arrogant captain.” However, my blog’s only comment on the El Faro disaster was “. . . some discussion followed as to why a 40-year-old ship with a history of structural and mechanical problems was still in service.” My comparison of the two vessels was to the fact that they were/have been in service for twice the normal life of vessels this size.

M. Dicello noted, “As for the collapse of U.S. shipbuilding, NASSCO would probably disagree. So would Edison Chouest North American shipyard, plus Tampa Bay.” However, Dicello doesn’t address the apparent fact that without the Jones Act, and with the “3-4 times cost” mentioned by Mr. Feffer, none of these yards would be cost-competitive with foreign yards, or that fact that the thrust of my blog was that the question of the Jones Act’s effect on U.S. shipyards is a political one.

George Critch wrote that the “fact that a ship of that age is still sailing isn’t a political anomaly, it is a failure of regulators and insurers living up to their responsibilities and caving in to those that they regulate.” This appears to correspond with my blog’s note that ABS and the Coast Guard are being forced to allow political considerations to affect their findings.

Frank Jope wrote, “Max Hardberger is not qualified to write an article on ships. Cracks happen quite frequently.” Of course, as a marine surveyor to the major P&I clubs for over 20 years — dealing with ships the size of the Matsonia — and as a federal court-admitted expert on hull condition, I hope that I am qualified to write a blog on the subject. Cracks may happen “quite frequently” on the ships on which Mr. Jope serves, but as a former class surveyor for the Panamanian flag, I can state without reservation that cracks do not happen quite frequently on ships carrying valid certificates. The presence of a crack caused by wastage is a serious matter and may even bring a suspension of class pending drydocking and an ultrasound inspection of the entire hull.

On a personal note, my friend and colleague Hendrik F. Van Hemmen wrote, “Max, this mixes and matches various issues to draw an unrelated conclusion.” However, since Hendrik didn’t explain further, all I can say in response is that the core issue addressed by my blog was the effect of the Jones Act on vessel safety and the maritime industry. And since my conclusion was that the solution will be a political one, they do seem related to me. But it’s always good to hear from a friend of so many years.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Capt. Robert J. Russo on

    The El Faro is a complicated issue. Certainly ABS and the USCG could have been more forceful in regulating the ability of the ship to sail. Also certainly a deceased Captain made horrible decisions. Many factors were also listed like the open lifeboats. However it was on the shoulder of Tote Maritime to make the business decisions to keep the vessel in service.

    I think the error chain in this event has many links and looking for one solution is not realistic

    All that said, I have a hard time blaming the Jones Act.

  2. Avatar

    Well said sir. My view on this has changed over time from one that blamed the Jones Act to one that posits inspectors need to enforce strictly so the old ships go to razor blades and there is a resulting demand for new ships. So they cost more. Slightly higher shipping rates small price for consumers to absorb for national security.

  3. Avatar
    Captain Kelly Pulsifer on

    1. Panama Registry is not a Class Society. Rather, it is the flag registry for a major maritime flag that, in fact, does not require class on it’s vessels (some flags do, some don’t; class is not mandatory under many flags. The statutory documents are issued by the flag. You were a flag inspector for Panama, not a class surveyor–as was I, in another life). This comment in no way discounts your qualification to write the article–which stand on their own merits.
    2. Rather than expect U.S. engine manufacturers to enter a new market (which already has quite enough highly successful manufacturers), it would make more sense to authorize them for supply to US flag ships–exactly to your point.
    3. A point often missed in this conversation is that in the absence of the Jones Act, US domestic trades (USWD-HAWAII, ALASKA and USEC-PUERTO RICO) could purchase excellent existing (used) tonnage to bring under US flag (or not) and with US crews, to be repaired in US yards and trading US cargoes between US terminals. The only change from current operations would be modern, state-of-the tonnage and a vastly reduced average age for the fleet.
    4. It is US shipbuilding cost that is prohibitive, not US crew costs, or terminals, or stevedore costs, etc. The trade is contiguous, not foreign, the cargoes are US, as are the ports, terminals and customers. Cure the cause, don’t treat the symptom.
    5. There is no rational defense for the established argument (fear) that “foreign” owners will bring cheap, inadequate tonnage into domestic Brown Water trades, or into the offshore oil industry (any more than already established in offshore oil). The NW tanker trade could be a target, but our present participants are / could be very competitive as all against challengers. Competition is healthy.
    6. In summary, the Jones Act does not preserve US maritime presence; it prevents growth in the three trades indicated above and tremendously increases commodity costs to the consumers. It does not restrict our robust brown water operations such as towing, small pax vessel, dredging, marine construction trades and construction / repair of those vessels. Nor would repealing it adversely affect that inland marine industry, in my opinion.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion alive.

  4. Avatar

    all this chatter does not set aside the fact that these large vessels that are getting into trouble, SHOULD NOT be sailing under the severe weather conditions that are forecast well in advance.

  5. Avatar
    Hendrik F Van Hemmen on

    Hi Max,
    I included a link to a blog that discusses how people can draw conclusions based on how things may look at first sight, but on closer examination it becomes evident that the symptoms are not related to the conclusion. The Faro sank for one reason and the Matsonia had a crack that is not necessarily related to anything that occurred to the El Faro.

    I can go on from there, but it is pointless to have such a discussion if at first you cannot establish that the crack in the Matsonia and the noncracks and the hurricane on the El Faro are related.

    Your discussion of the Jones act and old ships may be valid, but the Matsonia is not proof of anything that strengthens your discussion of the Jones Act, it is simply an unrelated fact.

  6. Avatar

    Max,
    Is this about the Jones Act, or is it about Max the maritime attorney rebutting snippets of information from your responders who may not agree with you, so that you can appear more intelligent than them? Seems like the latter to me, and that’s not a fair way to manage your column.
    The Jones Act covers a comprehensive group of issues, not just that the ship must be built in the USA, but also the operation of the ship must be by American crew, and a few other things too numerous to list here.
    If you do some research on nations where commercial shipbuilding is competitively priced, there are two main factors that stand out: 1) low labor rates and 2) heavy historical government subsidization of shipbuilding programs. Both are important but the latter is most important because those shipbuilding countries have received decades of major support from their governments in the form of subsidies and grants.
    You may reply that American shipyards receive considerable support from the federal government. However, that is not true for commercial shipbuilding. Military shipbuilders do receive a lot of government support, but not usually the type that benefits commercial shipbuilders.
    So, bottom line is, do we want to give away another segment of our industrial skilled trades to other countries – domestic commercial shipbuilding and commercial vessel operations? My view is that we’ve given away too much already.

  7. Avatar

    Max is a great writer and I hope he continues to write. But I strongly disagree on the issue of the Jones Act. I’ve worked in shipyards, on US ships and boats and owned US vessels from small ships to large commercial boats. Whether an employee or owner, I’m in the greatest market in the world, and it’s exclusive. I had more opportunity, got better wages or made bigger money than I would have anywhere else in the world. All of that thanks to the Jones Act. The cost of vessels or labor is a moot point. It’s the same for everyone within the confines of US waters. The competition is limited to US mariners and US ships. Matson doesn’t have to compete with foreign ships or shipping rates between US ports and today there is very little competition.
    And then there’s the national security issue. Because of the Jones Act, were have skilled shipyard workers and mariners with the knowledge necessary to teach and train others in the event of a war. Without the Jones Act, none of those skills would be in America. I’d would have never worked in a shipyard, or earned enough for my first vessel (even though it was “3-4” times more than foreign).
    And we’d have even more oil spills, wrecks and groundings on our coasts from dangerous ships and unqualified mariners. We have enough now.

  8. Avatar
    Steven Oravets on

    Max,
    It’s obvious you favor repeal of the Jones Act after reading your articles over the past few years. With the expertise you claim as a shoreside Captain, (“as a marine surveyor to the major P&I clubs for over 20 years — dealing with ships the size of the Matsonia — and as a federal court-admitted expert on hull condition, I hope that I am qualified to write a blog on the subject.”) Perhaps you could do a public service.

    Please publish a comprehensive list of your objections to the Jones Act, your proposed alternative solution to each item, and the benefit each of your solutions offer the average American Citizen.

    Steven Oravets

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