Get your Act together

At the risk of incurring the wrath of gCaptain and the marine industry in general, and exposing my own naivety at the same time, here is a scenario for consideration:

A US shipping company has a fleet of Jones Act vessels and trading routes between US ports. The ships are aging, (maybe even steam driven), and becoming uneconomical to run. They may be more polluting and un-environmentally friendly than todays newer vessels, just like in the auto industry. Profits could be poor or even negative and government funding might be the only way of staying afloat.

Is this the right way to continue? Is there an alternative solution that can help US shipping become the strong and worthy industry that it used to be?

It seems to me that running the US Merchant Marine as the Country’s 4th or 5th [military] service means that it will never be a viable commercial business, in which case the answer would be to completely nationalize the industry. Take full control, cancel all the lucrative contracts etc. (run as an NPO?), and put all the money into building up the fleet with new tonnage. I guess that could make the Merchant Marine almost like the USPS for example.

Alternatively…find the key to the Jones Act locker and consider a sweeping change or two that might make a difference. And before I go down this road, let me question the reasoning behind the idea.

For many years now I have made a habit of inspecting every label to see where an item is made, as I desperately seek to support my home industry…and to anyone who has the same ideas, you know how hard this can be. For example, my recent choice of reciprocating saw (yes I live dangerously!), was made purely on where the product was made, and I am very happy to report that “Made in Wisconsin” works just fine! Next up, a new pair of pliers with a price of $30 vs $10 for the import, but I will have a US made pair in my tool box.

For a US shipping company, I would recommend a [simple?] change to the act that would allow them to purchase foreign built tonnage for domestic trade. Those vessels would [U]still[/U] have to be flagged in the US and crewed by US seafarers, just as they are today.

This would allow a company to quickly invest in new, perhaps more economical, tonnage. They may even be able to increase their fleet size (two for the price of one?), and thus employ more US seafarers and add to the US flag economy. The same new vessels could easily be used for international trade and switched between both as market demands dictate.

It is very unlikely that this idea would sit well with domestic ship builders and particularly at a time when they are launching whole new series of fine modern vessels. This recent success though must be due in most part to the Jones Act and government funding programs? One can sympathize with these yards and their fine workforce of skilled shipbuilders, but why are they any different to my chosen plier manufacturer? Is it “all about me?”

I do not believe that our shipyards can not compete on the international playing field. The vessels being built now, albeit with some outside assistance, prove this. If the determination and commitment is there, they can succeed. No, I say let the shipowner go out and rebuild his fleet. Let him become strong and wealthy and then tempt him home…where he belongs.

If the Merchant Marine were for some bizarre reason end up being a military service, it would be the 6th. The first four already being in the DOD and the fifth already being the United States Coast Guard.

[FONT=Times New Roman]We simply can’t compete with foreign companies that crew their ships with Ukrainian officers and Filipino crews. That’s it, that simple. Many of the crews work on ships with substandard living conditions, poor food, very long contracts, but never complain, because they are good jobs in their country.[/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]They build their ships in China for a fraction of the cost of what it would cost to have them built in the US or even Europe. The ships are built quickly and cheaply, which is what the shipping lines want. The quality is poor, but they only run the ships until they start to require lots of maintenance. [/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]Could this be fixed, yeah, we would have to amend the Jones Act. Which I am coming to see as well meaning, but out dated and damaging to the American Mariner as it is currently written. Changing the Jones Act would be an almost impossible feat, especially now with the country’s deficit ballooning, economic woes, and the epic pandering to the media that our esteemed representatives in congress engage in. If I could wave a magic wand and change things, this is what I would do.[/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]Eliminate the requirement that the vessel be built in the US. American shipyards are too expensive to create a viable commercial fleet around. I understand that our yards have recently built ships for OSG, Matson, Polar, etc, but (at least for the OSG tankers) they were simply assembled here in the US, like a giant snap together model. The design was foreign and the fabrication was foreign. [/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]Eliminating the US built requirement could mean the end for some US ship yards. But, lets be honest, what American ship yards are making money right now building American commercial ships? The majority of yards that are building ships in the US are building ships for the Navy and/or for the Gulf of Mexico. The Navy is not Jones Act regulated, obviously, and neither is the Gulf of Mexico fleet. Of course the initial loss of jobs and a yard or two could be off set by the increase of shipping in our country. If more ships are trading between our ports, then (theoretically) there would be more vessels that would need repairs in the remaining yards. [/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]Second, I would seriously look at allowing international crews with American officers. This is something that is done everywhere else in the world successfully. Our pool of active unlicensed seafarers is dwindling and aging. When was the last time you had a deck gang with an average age of less then 45? Older mariners do offer more experience and are more skilled, but aboard today’s ships the skills required from them have been greatly diminished. Today, we no longer need a bosun who knows the ins and outs of how to run, rig, and maintain a yard and stay rig. [/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]As mariners age they begin to require more and more medical care and treatment. I have seen more then a few unlicensed people that I know could not fit into a survival suit or a fire outfit in an emergency. Many times these individuals are not only morbidly obese, but diabetic, have knee and back problems, and are just generally not as fit as they should be to live and work aboard a ship at sea. An unfit seaman is a huge liability to the officers, company, and themselves.[/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]Additionally, American unlicensed demand far higher salaries then their counterparts around the world. I recall recently seeing the pay scale for a Filipino crew aboard a bulked and the average AB was being paid 3,000$ month. Typically, the foreign crews are grateful to have a job any job, much less a job aboard a ship that pays well when compared to the salaries that are paid in their homelands. So, they end up with much more motivated crews. It will be very unpopular to say, but the average American unlicensed seaman is over paid, over weight, and under motivated, when compared to their foreign competition. [/FONT]
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[FONT=Times New Roman]I would continue to require that American officers man the ships. It is unfair and biased, however this practice is common aboard European vessels as well. Requiring American officers guarantees that the officers in charge of the vessel will have been trained to our standards, licensed by the USCG, and will be more easily held accountable in American courts (We are criminalizing the mariner anyway). Maintaining the requirement for American officers is more feasible then maintaining the requirement for American unlicensed, simply because there are more of them. [COLOR=black][FONT=Verdana]We currently have seven academies producing 3/M’s and 3/AE’s every year, even if the average sailing career of those graduates is five to seven you will have a constantly renewing supply of officers. [/FONT][/FONT][/COLOR]
[COLOR=black][FONT=Verdana][FONT=Times New Roman]American flagging, I would continue this requirement. Except, there must be a way to make this more economical then it is currently. We will never flag as many ships as Liberia, the Bahamas, Malta, etc. but, we could make our rates more competitive and offer some sort of advantages. I am not an expert on the intricacies of flagging vessels, but from what I understand we make it fairly expensive and difficult when compared to our competition.

But, what do I know, I am just a guy bored at work.[COLOR=black]

Until conditions aboard ship are worse than conditions ashore, it will always be easy to hire crews from, and build ships in, third world countries. I don’t know how to fix it, but I DO know we’re headed in a direction that will make us competitive with these shitholes…because we’ll be one.

Let’s see…starving in Siberia or sailing in the Pacific. The ship would have to be pretty bad to be worse than starving. Hell, they could be charging people rent aboard ship before long!

Own’em in India, flag’em in Liberia, crew’em from the Ukraine and Phillipines and run’em 'till they sink.

I don’t think the Clipper Ships were run that way. We’ve gone off course.



I agree with you, to some degree. There are definitely bad actors in the shipping world, but to think that we are doing it right and everybody else in the world is doing it wrong doesn’t make sense. The Germans and English have been able to expand their flags, why can’t we? Conditions aboard many foreign ships are quite good, even better than American ships. I am not saying that there aren’t substandard ships with terrible owners who treat their crews little better then slaves, but we can learn from the rest of the world.

The Jones Act has nothing to do with keeping you or me employed. It has only one purpose: giving American Citizens experience aboard ships in case a country like China starts WWIII.

If American’s do not know how to drive ships, American companys don’t own any hulls and we have no shipyards to build new ones… who will move our tanks and soldiers overseas? Filipinos and Indians? Russian mariners?

I have nothing against foreign mariners but if you ask one to bring supplies to an American war zone they will probably say “Go F Yourself”… which are the exact words I’d tell India if they wanted me to move tanks into Pakistan.

And I’m not saying that China is going to invade the USA but have you heard of the Rape of Nanking? Do you not think that a few Chinese Generals are itching to invade Japan and if they do what is going to be our country’s reaction? Probably War.

China is the reason the USNS Impeccable was in their waters, it’s the reason we are in a rush to build up Guam (and hiring foreigners to do it) and it’s the reason why the Jones Act still exists.

It’s much better to be prepared for the unlikely than find your self at war with no ships or people who know how to drive them!

There are some interesting points brought up, I would like to add to them.
In reference to removing the unlicensed American mariner, What about the Hawsepiper? There are many American officers that gained their license through this process and who provide competent professional service to the American merchant marine. The maritime academies in this country do produce many new entry level officers to the fleet per year,but as we all know many do not stay in the industry very long. I think there is a lot to be said for “coming up through the ranks” Many of us (hawsepipers) didn’t attend an academy for lack of intelligence or pour high school grades; lack of money ( The new yearly tuition to attend Mass.Maritime is now +30,000 a year if out of state ),or lack of knowledge about sea going jobs at that point in our lives probably plays more of a factor than any thing else. I think it would be a mistake to remove this asset.


You have a good point about the ability of the US Merchant Fleet being able to provide sealift capabilities during a conflict. However, as things are right now the US fleet does not provide 100% of the saelift that occurs. Foreign ships are chartered by MSC for military cargo; example, the MV Beluga Skysails, was just chartered by MSC. I agree with you that if we ever got into a real knock down drag out war that there could be problems getting foreign mariners to sail into a war zone with US military cargo, but as things are right now the US flag could not conduct the necessary sea lift for a large scale war. Also, remember that many of the ships now trading under the Jones Act are very specialized. A Jones Act tanker would not do much good at moving armored vehicles or supplies, with the exception of fuel. Same holds true even for a container ship, container ships are very efficient at moving containers, however much military cargo cannot be containerized and container ships require devloped port facilities to be able to operate. You can’t back a container ship up to a beach and start dropping containers on the beach. And what good would a container ship be if the enemy bombed the gantry cranes?

Another thing to consider is, if a large war did break out and the Government took control of just 30% of the Jones Act ships, what ships would carry the cargo that those vessels would no longer be trading in? For example, supposed the military took over a few of Matson’s containerships to carry military cargo. What company and what ships would then be able to legally trade between the US West Coast and Hawaii? Yes, in a time of war the Jones Act could be waived, but if that occured wouldn’t we then be allowing foreign mariners with foreign ships to conduct the very commerce we are trying to protect?


The Government has been doing their best to slam shut the hawsepipe. More and more training is being required, none of which is cheap and much of it difficult to schedule around a sailing career. You can no longer simply sail for a few years, get the experience necessary, take the exam and become a mate or an engineer. With the advent of STCW and other regulations you must now attend approximately two months worth of training. It isn’t impossible to hawsepipe anymore, but it is much more difficult and much more expensive than it once was.

I would not be in favor of explicitly banning or doing away with the possibility of hawsepiping. However, the majority of new officers entering the merchant marine are from Academies. I am not saying that an Academy education is better or worse then a hawsepiper’s, there are just simply more of them. We all know many good mariners from both sides of the fence, I was taught a lot by hawsepiper 2/M when I was a cadet and I will forever be greatful to him for his time and patience. Unfrotunately, it seems to be a tradition of the sea that is going the way of liberty ashore, it is becoming harder to do and almost too much of a pain in the a** to be bothered with.

You do make a good point about the duration of the careers of Academy graduates. Anecdotally, I agree that our careers are typically shorter, but there are enough graduates that do stick around to fill the senior officer ranks. There are less C/M and Captain positions then 3/M and 2/M positions, so even as the numbers dwindle in the pool of mariners there would still be enough to sail the ships.

There is another facet to this discussion as well, there is a world wide shortage of senior officers. Lets face it, who the hell wants to work on a container ship trading in four to five major US ports on the East Coast in a week and a half, deal with customs/USCG/agriculture/security in every port, never get ashore, never get caught up on your paper work, stand a watch, oh and when you make a mistake because you are overworked and under rested the company will not stand beside you and there is a very good chance that you will now be facing criminal charges. The world of the mariner is becoming increasing hostile to the mariners of the world.

I unfortunately know all to well how hard it is to come up through the pipe, I quit Mass.Maritime because of lack of money and family issues. I didn’t worry to much; I could just do it the Old Fashion Way. HA! after sailing for a couple of years the new STCW regs came out and I had to take all those classes, spend all that money, and spend more time away from my wife and kids. From what I can see I am in a small small minority. I would like to see it be more affordable to attend Maritime Academies and also most of America doesn’t even know this job is available to them. For those who want to upgrade from an AB there is almost no aid for them to cover the 20,000+ in classes and lodging, In Florida you can take a wielding class for free but not STCW classes, I once spoke to someone with the state and they had no idea, and keep asking me if I was a fishermen and why would I need classes for that.
There are many issues that need addressing and I hope that am doing my part ( writing my representatives ) I get the feeling that we are all pissing in the wind. I wont keep hoping that it will get better though.

It’s hard to generalize. Every case is different. However, in general, it’s my perception that academy grads enter the real world with a great deal of knowledge. Most of it is gained from books. Some is imparted by instructors with real shipboard experience. Very little is accumulated from actual on-deck experience.

Given the choice of getting in my bunk with either a hawsepiper or academy grad on watch, I’d take the hawsepiper every time.

I’m not slamming the academy grads. They have a great foundation upon which to build. Hawsepipers already have a building on that foundation.

Just my opinion.


Sorry for the absence but away on business for a few days…not hiding thankfully, which is where I thought I might have to go.

So this Jones Act is heavy reading. Has anyone (other than a lawyer) actually read it, and stayed awake and understood it? I am certainly having trouble, so thank goodness for the Internet where everything you read must be true!

I also met a well informed gentleman recently who educated me that the Jones Act was adopted to protect the railways (and later truckers), and not protect the US Merchant Marine industry that it has gradually morphed into, and what we “believe” it is today. And yet train engines and trucks are not required to be US built…mmmmm so long as “I’m alright Jack”, I don’t care about anyone else.

And now I see these issues with hawsepipers being what, unfit for officer positions…is that how I am reading it? Or is it just the training and taking of exams?

Perhaps that should be where MARAD step in with some funding…there seems to be plenty of $$$ available in other (and I am not going to say wasteful!), areas.

I feel that I am peeling away the layers of a big rotten onion and realizing at the same time how little I know about the US Merchant Marine…which makes this such a great site because all of the comments here are truly enlightening. Thank you!

Whoa! I never said and certainly didn’t mean to imply that hawespiper officers are unfit. Hawsepipers and Academy graduates, both literally come from different schools of training. Each one has its own strengths and its own weaknesses and that is discussed thoroughly in different threads.

I have not read the Jones Act and only know what I was taught at school, I readily admit that I am not an expert. But, I think there are things that our government could change about the Jones Act to make the US flag more competitive.

I do not believe that the government should dole out any more subsidies then it already does. Subsidies do not make industries efficient and competitive, it just keeps them alive in a grey fog between success and failure; i.e. GM and Amtrac. If the goal of the Government was to simply have ocean going ships ready to haul military cargo when needed, then they should expand the Prepositioning Fleet.

What good has MARAD done the US fleet? The US Fleet has been shrinking since the 1960’s (approximately) and yet MARAD has been around since 1950. I do not contend that they are responsible for the decline, but it does not appear that they have ability to correct the problem or more accurately, the people running the country aren’t interested in increasing the size of our merchant fleet.

I have not heard anything about the Jones Act being connected to trucking or the rail roads. Although, with the continual growth of our country and world commerce we are rapidly heading towards a future of constant congestion on our interstates. The solution seems obvious, shipping, but no one has been able to sustain a profitable company shipping between continental US ports. That said, a tug and barge company just started moving company between Texas and Florida.

I may be wrong in my observations, but I have worked for a Jones Act tanker company for 4 of the last 5 years.

I have seen this company stretch their credit to the limit to build Jones Act tankers. These cost at least 45% more to build in San Diego or Philadelphia than they would in Korea or China. At the same time, OPA 90 is phasing out perfectly good tonnage that will require replacement. During all of this, the last 2 presidential administrations did nothing to shore up the Jones Act or at least issue a policy to give some assurance that these American hulls would not be worthless due to repeal of the Jones act.

This causes money to be tight for construction and forces customers to shy away from long-term charters when they might be able to charter a foreign built ship at much lower rates.

This would not cost anything from the Economic Stimulus money, just a little presidential stationery.

Interesting debate, which like much in this industry will not be solved online. It will be solved when the situation becomes so intolerable that no one will do it or to many people get killed.
As for the Hawsepiper, I have found out after many years in this business that the hawsepiper keeps the school boy from getting killed so the school boy can hire the hawsepiper down the road.

Well done the crew of the Maersk Alabama! Well done for leading the way by example and courage, and not letting your vessel be taken. You can all be so proud!

Now tell be again why the Maersk Alabama with its proud, faithful and courageous crew, flying under a proud flag can not carry a cargo from San Francisco to Tacoma?

It can - it’s a U.S. flagged ship.

The Maersk Alabama can’t because it is not US built. A vessel built in any country can be US flagged provided it can pass USCG inspection but they can only operate in foreign trade (including carrying cargo for the DoD).

It is a particularly unfortunate rule because if foreign built vessels could operate in the coastwise trade, it would create many jobs for US mariners but at the expense of shipyard workers, Since however there are painfully few merchant vessels being built in the US these days, I have always believed that there would be a net sum gain for jobs if we were to allow foreign built vessels to get at least a temporary coastwise endorsement provided that the owners build an equivalent ship in the US within a certain number of years to replace the foreign vessel?

Isn’t is one of the old Sealand ships that Maersk acquired when they bought them out? I thought all of the Sealand ships were U.S. ships (built & crewed)?

Sorry brain fart.

No, the Maersk Alabama was built in 1998 as the Alva Maersk at the China Shipbuilding Corp in Keelung, Taiwan. She was entered into the Maritime Security Program, reflagged and renamed the Maersk Alabama in 2004.

Concerning the old Sealand vessels, I do not know how many Maersk took when they bought Sealand but I do not believe it was many since most were antique streamers which Horizon kept because they were Jone’s Act qualified. Some Sealand ships were foreign built in both Germany and Japan in the early 80’s and were only used in the foreign trade (I think they were the D9 class ships). They also had the infamous SL7’s built in the 1970’s and would have buried Sealand if the US Navy hadn’t taken them off their hands to turn into the next to useless FSS class.