Rebuilding our national mariner corps

One of the most common — and cogent — arguments for maintenance of restrictions on foreign crews on vessels engaged in U.S. cabotage is the national need for trained, experienced seafarers in case of armed conflict.

The shortcomings in our national sealift readiness were apparent in the first Gulf War, and it does not appear that we are any more prepared now. In fact, the news has been that our Navy — including its support ships — is shrinking, which would place even more responsibility on civilian bottoms.

There’s a canard that FOC (flags of convenience) ships can’t assist in a U.S. sealift, which makes no sense. Many FOC ships under Panamanian, Liberian and other flags are owned by Americans — perhaps more than any other nationality — and a patriotic American is always free to put his ship at his country’s disposal. According to the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia, as of 2006 the U.S. merchant fleet had 465 privately owned ships of 1,000 or more GRT and nearly 800 U.S.-owned ships flagged in other nations. Early in the run-up to the first Gulf War, I was port captain for Morgan Price & Co. when our president, the late Jim Maher, a loyal American, offered our two Panamanian-flagged ships to MSC for the effort. For some reason — port captains aren’t privy to that level of information — our ships didn’t participate, but other foreign-flag ships did. No FOC that I know of prohibits such a charter.

Another aspect generally overlooked is that the U.S. has ample cabotage defensive capacity. If we needed to move military cargo by barge from New York to Brownsville, Texas — let’s say to quell an invasion by Mexico — we could do it without a single bluewater cargo ship. And we have many experienced U.S. brownwater mariners to sustain such an effort. It’s our ability to project force across oceans that’s at risk, and it was our difficulty in doing so in the first Gulf War that exposed this deficiency.

But this doesn’t answer the thorny question of how to rectify the situation. There are jobs on tugboats and OSVs — although OSV jobs are currently drying up with the shrinking oilfield — and other brownwater vessels, but in any foreseeable armed conflict, bluewater cargo ships will be essential, just as they were in World War II. And we must have competent seafarers to staff them.

How do we attract the nation’s youth to the sea? We have to start young. The Sea Scouts, a quasi-private organization, is a good place to start. There should be an emphasis on moving the most promising cadets into larger vessels since experience on small, non-cargo vessels won’t transfer easily to large, oceangoing cargo ships. Trade schools and community colleges can start or increase their merchant marine curricula. And the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy could adjust its curriculum to help bridge any gaps.

Some measures are intuitive. A ready reserve — like World War II’s merchant marine — could be formed, with the volunteers paid for their service, like the military reserves’ “weekend warriors.” This is a national defense expense that, if necessary, should be paid for from the general treasury. Although we don’t have enough U.S.-flagged bluewater cargo vessels for hands-on training of a large cadet corps, realistic simulation, training on similar equipment and rotating service as cadets, could help fill the ranks of such a reserve.

But let us not underestimate the power of the American will and economy. We went from a disgraceful unpreparedness for war in 1939 to the industrial and fighting heart of the Allied victory six years later. Henry Kaiser, in a publicity stunt that must have sent chills down Hitler’s spine, once built a Liberty ship in one day. In Britain, men who’d served on lobster boats and gillnetters quickly became corvette crews and masters. Men without an hour of military training pulled off, at Dunkirk, one of the greatest military evacuations in history.

This isn’t to imply that we can be complacent. Since the Jones Act was enacted, our national sealift readiness has plummeted, a problematic fact for the national-security argument supporting its continuance. If Congress does move forward with changes to the Act, it will have to balance a number of important interests, including the need for a robust sealift capacity.

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.

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