The Matsonia: El Faro all over again?

A couple of weeks ago, a sistership to the ill-fated El Faro, Matson Navigation‘s 760’, 1,727-TEU Matsonia, developed a crack in her hull while docked in Oakland, Calif., after arriving from Hawaii on her regular run. These things happen of course and the vessel’s crew, the Coast Guard and port response teams quickly contained the resulting oil spill. Except for news reports on the incident in trade publications and websites, the incident was largely ignored, but what it portends has far-reaching implications.

After the El Faro sank in 2015, taking with it 33 souls to the bottom, some discussion followed as to why a 40-year-old ship with a history of structural and mechanical problems was still in service (the industry considers 20 years to be the expected service life of a vessel of this size and type). But the National Transportation Safety Board glossed over the political implications in the tragedy, so they remain today. That’s why the Matsonia’s hull crack is significant.

The Matsonia is 46 years old, almost certainly the oldest ship of 760’ or greater carrying current U.S. certificates. All of her sisterships in the Ponce class built by Sun Shipbuilding have now been scrapped or gone to the bottom. One, the El Yunque, was towed to a scrapyard in 2016 after an inspection revealed extensive steel deterioration. In fact, the El Faro had replaced another Sun-built ship, the El Morro, in the Puerto Rico trade after that ship had to be scrapped due to hull condition. So the question is why the Matsonia is still navigating?

The answer is political — the Jones Act. The Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping (the Matsonia’s class society) are susceptible to political pressure just like any government agency or private company (which is what a class society is). There are no more U.S.-flagged ships capable of carrying the Matsonia’s load of containers because the U.S. shipbuilding industry collapsed years ago. The Sun ships were among the last, and the Matsonia is the last of the last. Why did the U.S. shipbuilding industry collapse in spite of the Jones Act requirement that all ships in cabotage trade between U.S. ports be built in the U.S. (in practical effect)? It’s because with the wage and regulatory issues that U.S. shipbuilders face, foreign builders can build ships much cheaper. In important ways, the Jones Act cannot overcome market forces. Today, as the law reaches its 100th birthday, it is having results opposite to the intentions of its drafters.

So how long will the Matsonia keep running? Theoretically, it could become George Washington’s hatchet (“Three new heads and five new handles, but still George’s hatchet”), but the danger to the crew and environment increase with every crack in her ancient hull. The fact that it’s a crack — especially a crack in way of a bunker tank — could be ominous. Cracks sometimes occur after decades of flexing, when the hull’s steel gets tired and brittle. In any event, the vessel will have to go into drydock for repairs, and once again ABS and the Coast Guard may have to balance political reality against vessel condition and the risk of casualty.

Happily, though, the root cause of this situation is not for them to address. It’s a question for the U.S. Congress and, ultimately, the U.S. voter.

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.


  1. Avatar
    Jonathan Feffer on

    Matson has in fact placed an order for new buildings at Philly, but did so many years too late. Pasha has placed orders at AmFELS for similar vessels and has taken delivery of car carriers from Halter. TOTE has built several vessels at NASSCO in recent years, and the Jones Act tanker fleet is mostly of recent vintage, ex Philly and NASSCO. The impediment is the cost of construction which is 3-4 times the cost abroad. Even so, slow speed diesel main engines must be sourced overseas

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    Ed Turkisher on

    I understand your concerns about the Matsonia Mr. Hardberger,
    However, you are trying to take TWO issues, The Jones Act and aging bottoms, and make them one and the same. While related, these are separate issues. I am a firm believer in the value of the Jones Act and what it tries to accomplish for US Mariners. 100 years old or not, the Jones Act is still viable just as is the Constitution…which is a whole lot older and functioning pretty darn well. Aging bottoms can be retired, repaired, or replaced if administrators in positions of authority would stand their ground and do their jobs without caving in to political and bureaucratic pressures.
    It sounds like you are 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. The Matsonia killed no one and is not currently sailing. Find your dominant idea instead of grasping for multiple excuses for undermining the Jones Act. You bring up some interesting points but I respectfully disagree.
    Sincerely, (40 year captain) E Turkisher

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    The Jones Act is why we still have some shipbuilding left. If congress would quit taking bribes to grant waivers, we might have more shipbuilding.
    Maybe we should have every ship built in China. Cargo, warships, commercial boats and fishing. Maybe they could man them, too. Or better yet have crews from Bangladesh and the Philippines. Never mind the mess they’d make, people killed, oil spilled, sinkings, groundings and so on.
    I think it would be better to fix the regulations and taxes to better match what US shippers face in the competition.
    I think we need something like the British Navigation Act. The purpose was to ensure adequate auxiliary vessels were available in wartime along with sufficient shipbuilding, mariners, and related trades. It made Britain the world center for shipbuilding. Something Asia and especially China has now. Yes, it would cost all of us some money, but to lose a war it takes all you’ve got.

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    Is it possible that us ship building came to grief because operators would rather (and are allowed to) run ancient junk than invest in new equipment? Tugs and barges are retired from petroleum trade when oil terminals refuse to let them alongside, not due to uscg regulation.

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    Ronald Skekel on

    Just curious Max, do you think in this political climate today, is it possible that the government can address this with any positive outcome? Sincerely Ron Skekel

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    Captain Max is being disengenous he is the one being political. Sounds like he is a proponent to get rid of the Jones act. And how many of the “voters” understand shipping and the Jones act?
    His article is written to sound like there is limited service and if the Matsonia is removed from service that the Hawaii route will crash… As for new ships guess he missed the Daniel K Inouye. Arrived first voyage on November 2018.
    What he fails to mention is the heavy involvement of foreign governments in their shipbuilding yards. As for the collapse of US shipbuilding NASSCO would probably disagree. So would Edison Choest North American shipyard, Plus Tama Bay.
    As for the structural issue yes that should be addressed if it is not repairable then scrap the ship. But there are other ships that can pickup the slack until the rest of the “Kanaloa class” ships are handed over, the Lurline fourth quarter 2019.

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    John McDonnell on

    Glad to see you back in print. I’m older than the Matsonia and just left my last ship a week ago in Port Moresby. This is my 57th year aboard ships but the last 18 years sailing foreign flag. My last new ship was NASCO built tanker Mormacsun in1967.

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    George Critch on

    Well, Captain Hardberger is not making any sense to this American Seaman. He apparently is anti-American Jones Act. Matson line recently built, in Philly, container ships for the Jones Act trade. So what is he implying? 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. How much has changed since the efforts of Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio, while investigating the Marine Electric, brought to light the failings of the industry and the regulators? Apparently, very little if this ship is still sailing at her age and condition. It took six years to mandate survival suits after the Marine Electric sank! When the findings indicated that the loss of life would have been substantially reduced if the suits were available. So, Captain place the blame where it rightfully belongs and not on regulations that preserve work within the territorial waters of our country for Americans.

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    It’s an out right shame you would level your attack on the Jones act and the collapse of the US shipbuilding industry (instead of say a corporate unwillingness to support US shipbuilders in certain very specific circumstances)(i.e.not in the case of : USNS, OSV’s,ATB’s ,Crowley etc . We can’t aptly or afford ably build ships in the USA anymore? Better notify the boys in the shipyards all over our nation that they just can’t build the ships we need to maintain our fleet. We are building new classes of ships all of the time and our yards seem to be up to task as noted in the pages of I don’t know say “Workboat Magazine”. Your commentary makes you sound like a spokesman for the foreign flagged shipping groups you are employed by.It is understandable for you to air their annoyance with not being able to operate without restrictions. Although if you look at clean product domestic trade it has come to a virtual standstill in comparison to the recent past ( because of savvy foreign shippers circumventing Jones act restrictions and dealing a real blow to domestic carriers). The late John McCain and supporter Jeff Flake share your views saying if we get rid of the Jones act we can attract all those wealthy foreign investors who can see billions in profits almost immediately (just by getting rid of a fair wage )Then we all can profit from trickle down economics. Just like in other “ flag of convenience” nations ie.UK etc. Myself and 500,000 of my comrades can hang up our oilskins and get on the dole and settle on socialism . For a man in your line of work Max ( ship repo) it’s easy to disparage the Jones act (something to be worked out by Congress)but for a wage worker such as myself I find it a bit harder to swallow.

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    Allen Stevens on

    Capt. Hardberger, I thank you for bringing the plight of the Matsonia to the industry’s attention. These old Sun Shipbuilding ships certainly have a poor history and should be phased out. But you have made some serious mistakes in your article that shed a lot of doubt on your knowledge. The inaccuracies include:

    First these vessels are not containerships as the definition is widely used in the industry but are roll-on, roll-off trailer vessels.
    Second, you state that “the U. S. shipbuilding industry collapsed years ago.” Wrong! Because of the Jones Act, the industry has been kept alive. Long since the Matsonia was built, Matson has almost replaced its entire fleet with U.S. built newbuildings at Philadelphia Shipyard and others. Crowley, Sea-star, etc. the same. Check your facts before you make broad inaccurate statements. All these vessels have been built by private enterprise, even though US construction costs are higher.

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    Cornelis van Schie on

    Where is the United States Coast Guard. On foreign flag ships they are very strict but they ignore their own fleet. It’s a shame. How many more lives this will cost?

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    Rick Chalker on

    I enjoyed your article. I was employed by Foss Maritime (sister co to SeaStar/TOTE) 2005-2017 and was part of their global cargo ops team. For several years 2007-2010 we chartered and operated the El Faro, Greatland and Westeard Venture, all Ponce Class ships from Sun. Although I was land based I did work on the vessels in port during cargo ops in US and Middle East. I gained a great respect for the men and women that crewed these vessels. It was tragic learning of the El Faro, even though I had changed jobs and moved on, the Chief Mate was a fellow I remembered well. I felt extremely sad and frustrated by all the circumstances that led to that incident. Let’s hope the people who regulate will stop the Matsonia before it’s too late.

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    Since Trump has been reducing regulations, perhaps changes can be made. The congress in the past has failed to act and will probably sit on their hands again.

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    David Thompson on

    Since you little to no clue what you’re talking about I’ll try and enlighten you.

    1: Matson is building a replacement for the Matsonia right now, she will enter service this fall and the S.S. Matsonia will be retired.

    2: The new ship is being built in Philadelphia, (part of the U.S.)

    3:There are ships older than the Matsonia

    4:Pasha is also having new ships built in the U.S.

    5: Without the Jones Act there would be no U.S. Flag shipping at all. (which is likely your goal)

    4: Tote is has recently added three

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    Kenneth E Boschert on

    Having been aboard and associated with the “Ponce” Hull 647 and the remaining Sun Hulls for the first 20 years I appreciate your comments. It is unfortunate that the Jones Act has had a lasting effect on the US shipbuilding industry. But today it is not the problem, the problem Jones Act has been in existence for over 60 years since we rebuilt the foreign shipyards after the war rebuilding those shipyards with the latest technology we had after the WWII and not offering the same opportunity to the shipyards within our 50 states. As far as the structure of the “Ponce” class even 25 years ago the class had minor structural issues as did the C-4 vessels that were still in service in the 80’s/ being build for the war effort and converted to carry containers in the 60’s. I would not believe that Hull 670 went down with 33 souls because of a hull “Crack” but from the Cat 5 hurricane which turned SW and did not follow the track that was originally predicted. The vessel could not survive with eternal force from the sea and the downward flooding it was experiencing.

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    Brett Van Drie on

    What about the Aloha-class vessels being built in Philadelphia? Or, is this a matter of the exception proves the rule?

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    This article is wrong on so many points. Cracks happen quite frequently. On the Jones Act, he is just plain wrong. Max Hardberger is not qualified to write an article on ships. What license does ge have to call himself “Captain”? The only thing Max is a master of is self-promotion.

  18. Avatar

    The NTSB investigation and report on the El Faro was flawed on so many different levels it would be difficult to elaborate here. I objected to specific points in the probable cause of the El Faro and sent a letter to Board Member Dinh-Zarr. I never received a response back. This was contrary to the policy of NTSB when I was on staff from 2001-2006. I continue to follow the accident briefs that maritime media are faithful at reporting. Unfortunately, most probable causes are worthless. They are not root or probable causes. Quantity seems to be ruling over quality. Pity.

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