The St David in rough seas by Pun Woo - click for source
Ever read Macbeth? Then you'll remember the famous ghost scene where Macbeth's old comrade Banquo, whom Macbeth has had murdered, appears at a banquet. Only Macbeth is aware of him; no one else at the table can see him or hear him.

Isn't Banquo's ghost a little like the role played by the U.S. Merchant Marine, as our nation talks about budget and priorities? You wouldn't want to take the parallel too far; but with regard to our invisibility at the national table, I'd say we bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the famous ghost.

As a career American merchant mariner, this "broadcast" on Maritime TV caught my eye. It's an interview with Denise Krepp, former MARAD Chief Counsel, and Tony Munoz, Editor of Maritime Executive magazine. Both have written articles recently about actions the U.S. government has taken - and failed to take - that they maintain have not only weakened the U.S. Merchant Marine, but may actually threaten its existence.

In Tony Munoz's editorial, Administration to Dismantle U.S. Merchant Marine? he criticizes the Administration's plan to change the U.S. food aid to starving countries scheme: first cutting, and now possibly eliminating, participation by the U.S. merchant fleet. 

A few months ago the Administration  slashed cargo preferences (the percentage of the cargo that would go in American ships) from 75% to 50%. Now, as part of its deficit-reduction plan, the White House wants to stop sending food shipments, period. Instead, the food aid to starving nations will be sent in the form of cash, partly to NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) outfits like OXFAM America, who will oversee distribution of the money and the purchasing of food in the countries of need. 

I'm no expert in overseas relief, but in the past large numbers of dollars pumped into poorly-governed areas have had a way of slipping through the cracks, leaking away through obscure, sometimes invisible channels. Would cash-based aid feed people more efficiently, or just add to the corruption rife in many of these areas? I don't know - but whatever the answer to that question, this action represents a damaging blow to the U.S. Merchant Marine. 

Tony also details several other actions that effectually weaken the domestic maritime industry, including this Administration's paltry allocation of stimulus funds or other support to maritime initiatives such as dredging ports in preparation for the larger Panama Canal, and Short Sea Shipping. I think he makes some good points.

Denise Krepp's article is headlined The End of the U.S. Merchant Marine? and baldly predicts that "The U.S. Merchant Marine fleet will be dead in ten years." 

She lays out a persuasive argument comprising political indifference, the almost non-existent presence of the domestic maritime industry in the national debate about spending decisions, and the dire consequences to American readiness that result.

Both articles, as well as the Maritime TV page, recommend action and point American sailors to resources for raising these crucial questions with their representatives. This is an issue that cuts across both political parties and all branches of government, so there's no easy Good Guy or Bad Guy in this fight. It's basically our maritime industry - you and me - vs. indifferent lawmakers and a clueless public. And it won't be resolved favorably unless our voices are raised, and the public & politicians are made aware of the stakes. 

Do you work in the U.S. maritime industry? Then you've got a dog in this fight - and you'd better get busy! Speak out strongly yourself, and educate and motivate others. Find your Representative here, but don't stop there - call or email your Senators, the White House, and even your local officials - they all need to know that their constituents regard this as important. If they know that, they will act - but if not, they'll regard the issue as disposable. We are not disposable!

Click to go to Waterways Council site
On a more positive note, the Waterways Council, Inc. has enthusiastically endorsed the legislation known as WAVE 4 - “Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act of 2013”. This legislation would modernize the lock and dam infrastructure on the inland waterways system, which carries the overwhelming majority of American farm and bulk products, much of it destined for export through the seaports at the ends of those waterways. This isn't just an inland issue, it benefits us all.

So while you're calling and emailing, get onto your lawmakers about supporting WAVE 4. Not only is repairing waterways infrastructure good for everyone in the country - but successfully passing WAVE 4 will focus more attention on the entire U.S. Merchant Marine and its role in our national life & our national security.

Use the links above and your telephone to raise your voice - against harmful measures, and for good ones - so that Banquo's ghost can be heard by the whole table. And comment to let us know of other things we all can do. 

We may all be ghosts if we don't speak up!

"Distraction" by Rick Belden - click for his site
Distraction - it's the enemy of an officer on watch; it wreaks havoc on connected thought and orderly progress. Along with manning, fatigue, and safety culture it's a buzzword at industry conferences. 

Distraction has been my special companion for the last several months. First there was the holiday season; then in January several time-consuming extracurricular activities kicked in. It's been five weeks since I've posted on this blog, for instance, and I can't tell you where the time has gone. 

Many of you may know that although I spent my life at sea and on tugs, about eight years ago, at the age of 59, I swallowed the anchor and came ashore to a job in the office. A lifetime of living one particular way can get under a man's skin - it becomes part of his view of the world. So coming ashore full time, later in life as I did, was a serious adjustment. It's one I'm still making.

Early in the transition, I began to think of working life ashore as "life through the windshield" - another name for the constant distraction. Shore folk spend a lot of time in their cars, and most of it's not quality time, either. While driving you worry about the day's issues, take calls (in defiance of the law), and intermittently mumble curses at other drivers. When you arrive at your destination, focus is similarly difficult to achieve; your omnipresent smartphone peppers you with emails and messages, along with the occasional phone call. 

Now, at your office, when outside influences invade to interrupt your chain of thought, that's to be expected. The disconcerting thing about shore life is that you never escape from that. Work pursues you home, phones ring at night, and email must be responded to at all hours, or you risk being judged careless. Don't drop the ball!

And even worthy "spare time" and charitable activities exert their own stress, though they certainly deliver rewards, too.

This isn't a litany of complaint - I'm richly blessed, and very grateful. I guess it's just a description of my less-than-complete adjustment to shore life here in the United States, where life is a little crazy and distracted anyhow. I do sometimes miss the orderliness of being at sea. (And maybe I also miss my youth - but not much can be done about that.) 

But is life at sea today still the cloistered, orderly existence I remember?

When I would report aboard a ship back in the '70s and '80s, I used to put my mind in a work groove, and zero in on that - I'd write letters home of course, and call home when I had a chance, but my main focus was my job. When on watch, I did my job - period. No other activity was supposed to interfere with watchkeeping on the bridge in my day - we were even prohibited from sitting down. When I wasn't on watch I ate, slept, exercised, studied and read. In that monkish life, my world ended at the horizon. 

The horizon expanded sometimes at night, via sessions on the shortwave (do seamen still do that?) My radio would range the night sky searching for scratchy news of the unending human scrum, and the things they talked about seemed very far away indeed from our bubble of racket and light, our little human island in the immensity of the sea. 

I read things I could never muster the time or discipline to read ashore; the only Tolstoy and Dostoevsky I ever read were at sea. I lived in those books - I regretted each book's end. I read, and when I got done had to sit down and write about what I'd read. Letters to friends, or to girls - foolish things, but keenly felt.

Tugs were different. I was older and married by then, and separations were shorter. When I first joined, "20 and 10" - 20 days on, 10 days off - was the norm. We worked in the harbor mainly, so we got to the phone on the pier quite a lot (no cell phones then), and once in a while I even made a quick trip home for a few hours. But the fundamental work time vs. home time division still held sway; on the boat, work was serious and took most of my attention. 

Nowadays I read a lot about distraction invading shipboard life. Distraction, fatigue, and the paperwork overload have been mentioned as factors in many accidents and groundings - including instances where the mate on watch, probably overworked and short of rest, simply fell asleep.  Crews are smaller, too. In the 30,000-some GT tankers I sailed in, a typical crew was 32 persons; today, I hear of crews for much larger ships numbering half that.

A Master is now expected to be a "manager" - and that distinction also seems to involve an erosion of his authority, as the office takes advantage of 24/7 connectivity to intrude more than ever into the Master's affairs. On the modern ship, does a day go by without colloquy with the office - how different is the Master's job from mine ashore, today?

Well, there's one big difference between distraction ashore and distraction at sea, certainly: ashore, distraction may be irritating, or result in my failing to return a phone call. But at sea, a tired or distracted watch officer can be the cause of accidents or even deaths. Distraction - like many other things in our seagoing environment - carries more serious consequences at sea than it might in other settings. Do the folks who create these demands - many of whom don't work in our environment - understand that?

CORVUS J after collision with BALTIC ACE - click for gCaptain story
You hear talk about how to address it, but it always seems to come back to money: perhaps sailors of Nation X, although very well-qualified, have "priced themselves out of the market". Or, training crews properly and thoroughly isn't worth the expense when crew retention is so dismal. Crews have been inundated with growing piles of paperwork, because that's seen by the office as the cheapest way to handle it - even if officers end up having to do some of it while they're on watch. But how cheap is it if a distracted officer fails to see another vessel and a collision results? 

We don't know the cause of the collision caught on video below (or click the link just above), but it would seem likely that inattention - whether caused by distraction or not - might have played a role:

There is even a discussion on LinkedIn now about driverless ships - they've been advanced as a solution to the problems of crew training, crew retention, crew fatigue, and safety incidents. From that point of view, the solution is simple - just get rid of the crew. There is an EC-funded multi-million Euro project in progress now.  See also this link about a conference in February that covered the same subject.

Certainly, people are complicated. But many of those problems are actually caused by distraction and work overload - like having to do paperwork on watch. Surely some of those problems could be mitigated by things like treating crews with respect for their professional skill; providing adequate manpower for the work that needs to be done; and fostering company loyalty with fair treatment. 

And here's one very good use for that 24/7 connectivity - how about moving some of that paperwork burden back to the office

I think most "crew" problems aren't just problems with the crew. Many of them sound more like problems with crew management; they begin at the top, not at the bottom.

How do you view the problems of distraction and fatigue? Are you with a company that has dealt with them successfully - or do you have personal strategies that have helped you to cope? Share your wisdom and experience in the Comments section!