Welcome to our blog, where we comment on a wide variety of topics. Some of them relate to our line of work. Others are more far ranging.
By Jim Rhodes
As you may know, I spent some of my formative years at sea. I joined the U.S. Navy in 1969 at the age of 22. My first assignment was as a quartermaster (enlisted navigator) on an underway replenishment ship carrying fuel, stores, ammunition and bombs. We spent the next several years at sea, working in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific.
My years at sea created in me a strong sense of identification and compassion for the seafarers who for all practical purposes are out of sight and out of mind.
According to the International Chamber of Shipping, there are more than 1.6 million seafarers serving on approximately 50,000 international trading merchant ships. Add to that the many hundreds of thousands who serve on ocean-going commercial fishing vessels, offshore support vessels and coastal cargo and passenger ships, and you have 3 or 4 million souls at sea.
It’s lonely and sometimes dangerous work. I found my years at sea to be similar to the famous (if anonymous) definition of warfare – “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
You doubtless saw the news reports last year of the two Japan-based U.S. Navy destroyers who were involved in serious collisions in busy waterways at night in two separate incidents. In both cases, the damage control teams did their job heroically and saved the ships from sinking, but sailors trapped below decks in their berthing compartments drowned. The story quite rightly attracted intense scrutiny in the press.
What you may not know is that these sorts of incidents are not unusual. Indeed, on any given day of the year, a ship somewhere capsizes, sinks or experiences a fire, grounding, collision or heavy weather damage. More than 1,000 seafarers lose their lives at sea in an average year, and many more are seriously injured. Only a small fraction of these incidents find their way into the mainstream.
As a part of my work I follow the shipping industry trade press closely, including maritime casualty reports. Right now I’m reading about a Panama-flagged tanker that has been burning for nearly a week following a collision with a bulk carrier in the East China Sea. The ship was loaded with over a million barrels of highly volatile condensate ultra-light crude from Iran, while the bulker was loaded with a cargo of grain from the U.S. The tanker is still in flames and explosions have made it impossible for firefighting and rescue ships to get close enough to help. The tanker’s 32 crewmembers are missing and likely dead.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the first week of January, there were more than a dozen ship casualties, with some 20 seafarers said to be dead or missing.
If that’s not enough, there has been a recent resurgence in piracy attacks, especially in Somali and Nigerian coastal waters. Armed gangs are boarding and seizing ships and crew and holding them for multi-million dollar ransom payments while selling the cargos on the black market.
The point I’m trying to make is that these are not isolated incidents. They happen all the time, and nobody takes notice – except presumably for insurance companies and the grieving families.
And people like me who read the shipping casualty reports and breathe a little silent prayer for all the sailors on the sea.
Photo: Iranian tanker in flames in East China Sea – 32 crewmember missing and presumed dead.