Local Tragedy – Global Implications for Seafarers Everywhere
The South Korean ferry tragedy is destined to become another watershed event for the maritime industry – and its seafarers.
As 14 officers and crewmembers of the ill-fated South Korean ferry “SEWOL” were this week convicted of various crimes and sentenced to jail terms of as much as 36 years, the operator’s executives, shipping regulators and other stakeholders still remain on trial on various charges of negligence. There is no argument that much went tragically wrong during the April sinking of the vessel, which resulted in the loss of more than 300 souls.
There’s plenty of blame to go around and some of it probably rests with the crew. Also this week, Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI), an international NGO dedicated to advancing the rights of seafarers, provided an initial response to the court’s verdicts. In that statement, SRI made pointed reference to the “tragedies and sadness” which characterize the casualty but also noted, in part, “The ramifications of this case are far ranging, raising many questions regarding the circumstances of this particular ferry disaster and the ferry industry internationally.” Without a doubt, the ramifications of the case are far ranging – in this case, they extend well beyond just the ferry industry itself.
In a case where the word “murder” was freely tossed at the highest levels of the Korean government about even before the response operation had scarcely begun, the facts of the incident collected and the statements of the survivors taken, the fate of many of the accused was probably sealed. That said; I’m quite sure nobody went to sea that day intending to kill anyone.
Apples to Oranges
Today, maybe 5,000 miles away from the site of the tragic ferry disaster, there is – as a garden variety example – a tanker headed out to sea after lifting a full cargo of number six fuel oil. Everyone, including the 16 seafarers who signed articles on that 649-foot vessel (that two decades ago was manned by as many as 28), hopes that the fictional voyage will be a routine one. They certainly didn’t get up this morning intending to kill a few seagulls and contaminate the pristine beaches of a California seacoast community. But, let’s assume for a minute that this did happen. And, if it did, you can be sure that someone somewhere will be prosecuted for something, even if U.S. federal prosecutors have to roll out the Migratory Bird Act to make the charges stick.
No, it isn’t a fair example to compare the demise of a few birds and seals to the lives of 300+ Korean nationals, many of them barely teenagers. It’s the classic case of comparing apples to oranges. But the premise of how both cases are ultimately handled would be the same. That’s because the job of going to sea has become one which involves no room for error and the presumption of guilt whenever something goes wrong.
Looking Back – 1983
In 1983, I was just 24 years old and in my fourth year of going to sea. On a 75-day on / 75-day off rotation, I’d gotten to know a young lady in Texas during my holiday periods, and we began to date. She’s now my wife of 27 years. In any event, at dinner one night we got to talking about what I did for a living and she remarked to me how much she envied my work schedule. I replied that while it might seem easy, there was a lot of stress that was involved, not the least of which was the time away from home and the monotony of shipboard life. I remember using the well-worn analogy of “hours and hours of boredom, interrupted by fleeting moments of terror.”
She was having none of it. A finance and marketing major in college, she had already earned her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credentials by the time she was 23 years old. And, she told me, she had plenty of stress to think about down at the bank, too. At that point – and I did this gently, which is why we’re probably still married – I reminded her that the reason that they put erasers on pencils was that, in the vast majority of any accounting errors at the bank, the correction typically involved the simple restatement of the numbers. And, as our ill-fated ferry and the fictional tanker crew(s) found out, that’s now rarely the case out at sea.
Still, back then, I had a good life. Even as a Second Mate, I was pulling down almost $60,000 annually with as much as six months in annual paid leave. Today, whenever I visit my alma mater, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, they regale me of stories of third mates rolling out of graduation and into $70,000 jobs. And, I’m sure it’s all true. It sounds pretty good. Actually, today’s numbers – corrected for the consumer price index and inflation – simply pale in comparison to the buying power that I enjoyed back in 1980 when I left the academy.
Back in 1980, just like today, accidents happened, oil got spilled and people (present company included) did stupid, boneheaded things. I have the statistics to show that it happened much more frequently then, than it does now. The industry has come a long way in cleaning up its environmental and safety footprint. On the other hand, the ways in which these events are handled have changed enormously. Errors on board any vessel are rarely settled internally with a written warning or similar punitive action. No; federal and increasingly strident state law enforcement is typically involved. Given those conditions, I would suggest that the current annual compensation of $70,000 for a rookie third mate probably wouldn’t be nearly enough to make me go back to sea.
To be honest, I simply don’t know how today’s professional mariners do it. On this side of the pond, it will soon be impossible to cram the once typical maritime academy education into its familiar four-year timeframe because of all of the STCW requirements that now parallel the usual licensing requirements. In fact, the possession of a U.S. Coast Guard license actually means very little in terms of gaining global recognition that one is qualified to go to sea. Where – back in 1980 – you could walk out the door at graduation and step onto virtually any kind of platform and be considered competent, that’s no longer the case. Each class and size of vessel has its own unique requirements that must be satisfied, both in terms of training and experience. I suppose that’s a good thing.
Looking back at what happened in Korea is painful, but necessary. I don’t know what happened there, whether these people were competent or not or whether they were negligent. That said; someone somewhere certified them all as qualified mariners in an age of stifling and increasingly intrusive regulatory oversight. And, I will tell you that, in (yet another) former life as a tanker expeditor and ship vetter, my impression of Korean seafarers was, by and large, one of good professionalism. Those who would generalize what happened in April on the basis of nationality alone simply haven’t got a clue.
I am in awe of those who go to sea in this day and age. They earn every penny paid to them. For those who earn the credentials to go to sea, I’m not sure what else could be done to prepare them for what lies ahead. And yet, Reuters news accounts say that the South Korean ferry crew on trial have said they thought it was the coastguard's job to evacuate passengers and that they were not adequately trained for that role. Others insist that the vessel was not adequately maintained, it was overloaded, top heavy and unstable and otherwise unseaworthy. Whose fault is that?
As I put this blog to bed, the local Korean prosecutor intends to appeal the decision on all 15 crew members, with Reuters also reporting that he has characterized the rulings as "disappointing," particularly the not guilty verdict against three senior officers including the captain on homicide charges. I guess 36 years just isn’t enough punishment. I don’t know what they deserve and I don’t really feel qualified – despite a lifetime spent in this business – to pass judgment on them. That said; I’m guessing one or two of them, and perhaps a thousand other mariners in other places, are at this moment wishing they’d studied for and sat for their CPA. If so, I don’t blame them. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at [email protected] or at [email protected] MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.