With hope all but gone for the 33 men and women of the El Faro, government agencies turned to the task of investigating its sinking in Hurricane Joaquin, on the ship’s run from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The investigation – and more immediately, speculation over why the ship sank – could refuel advocates of repealing the Jones Act, with arguments that U.S. shippers and shipbuilders are not up to the task of modern commerce. It’s not just about blue water shipping, but could reverberate into the workboat industry as well.
Whatever the National Transportation Safety Board uncovers – with help from the Coast Guard and the Navy’s remotely operated vehicles – may bring new rules for making U.S. mariners safer. On Friday Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., spoke of potentially amending the Jones Act to update lifesaving equipment on U.S. cargo ships, such as replacing the gravity davit-hung lifeboats on older vessels with fully enclosed, rapid-launch SOLAS lifeboats.
The El Faro’s last American Bureau of Shipping and Coast Guard inspections and certifications were completed in February and March, according to the ship’s owner TOTE Maritime. In 2016, the 790’x95’ ro/ro containership was to be replaced by TOTE’s new pair of liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled ships, the 764’ Isla Bella and Perla de Caribe, the first of their kind in the world, The ships are being built at the General Dynamics NASSCO yard in San Diego.
Despite TOTE’s investment in its Sea Star Line, an older storyline is emerging, with news accounts quoting former crewmen complaining about deficiencies they saw in the 40-year El Faro: “rust bucket” U.S.-flagged ships that keep operating on Jones Act life support from Congress and the law passed 95 years ago to promote U.S. maritime trade and security.
The sinking happened just weeks after U.S. Maritime Administration chief Paul “Chip” Jaenichen assured a shipping forum in New York City that the Jones Act retains strong support in Congress and the Obama administration.
Still, Jones Act critics are rumbling, and the El Faro loss may contribute to it. Attacks on the law include the grotesque: a YouTube animated cartoon of dubious provenance that blames the sinking on the Jones Act, and mocks the U.S. shipping industry.
Other more high-minded attacks come from conservative and libertarian think tanks, builders of the intellectual superstructure for deregulating maritime trade. Those opinion columns keep popping up, despite repeated defeats of Jones Act critics in Congress and the courts.
Maritime writer Bob Frump, who covered the last disaster of this scale for the Philadelphia Inquirer after the 605’x75’ coal carrier Marine Electric sank in 1983, doubts that the NTSB investigation into the El Faro will address deeper problems in the U.S. fleet.
“But lost in the review, almost certainly, will be an inquiry into whether very, very old ships like the El Faro should be left in service,” Frump writes. “It’s a good question because so very, very much of the American merchant marine is composed of so many very, very old ships.”