El Faro loss stokes debate over age of US bluewater fleet


Launched in 1975, the U.S.-flagged El Faro was 31 years older than the global average for ships of its size and design use. After the ro-ro sank in October with 33 crewmembers aboard, critics were quick to point to the vessel’s age and said it highlighted a wider problem: the vulnerability of the U.S. bluewater merchant fleet.

The reality, according to shipping industry officials and the U.S. Maritime Administration, is that the fleet is being renewed and its age is comparable in many categories to foreign-flagged ships. Furthermore, the officials say, the age of a ship does not directly correlate to how safe it is at sea.

According to IHS Maritime, a London-based consulting group, oceangoing cargo ships in the world fleet average 21 years old — the same as their counterparts in the U.S. Jones Act fleet. The average for non-Jones Act cargo ships in the U.S. bluewater fleet is 30 years old.

The numbers vary widely between ship categories, however, and the fact that El Faro was 40 at the time of its demise — a ro-ro of similar capacity in the global fleet averages 9 years old — has stoked a new debate.

Many of those contending that the U.S. fleet is at risk lay blame squarely on the Jones Act, with the assertion reaching a flashpoint on Oct. 12 in the National Review. In an article widely condemned by American shipping officials, the authors blamed the cabotage law for making the U.S.-flagged fleet “the oldest of any developed nation in the world.”

“The ban on intrastate transportation using foreign vessels means that if you want to take a car from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico, it will have to be on a ship built in the United States,” wrote Eftychis John Gregos-Mourginakis and Joshua Jacobs. “The rub: Regulations have strangled domestic construction to the point that it’s nearly impossible to build a vessel in the United States.”

The authors, who are co-founders and members of the board of the Conservative Future Project, cited the expense of building in the U.S. and a lack of shipyard capacity. They wrote that despite two refits by shipowner TOTE Maritime, “there is simply no way that El Faro’s hull design and structural integrity could provide the type of commonplace safety and environmental features that vessels today have, even ones built in China.”

The 790-foot El Faro, en route from Florida to Puerto Rico on Oct. 1, lost propulsion and sank off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. There were no survivors. Search crews using a remotely operated vehicle located the ship’s hull and navigation bridge on Oct. 31 in 15,000 feet of water, but they could not find the voyage data recorder. At press time, TOTE faced six lawsuits in connection with the loss of El Faro’s crew.

While declining to talk in detail about the sinking due to the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), U.S. Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen said there was “a lot of misinformation” in the media about the condition and age of the U.S.-flagged bluewater fleet.

The new TOTE ship Isla Bella during its April 2015 launch.

Courtesy General Dynamics NASSCO

“There have been things that have been said about the safety of the fleet that I vehemently disagree with based on talking with the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS),” Jaenichen told Professional Mariner. “I think some of that has been borne out in some of the press statements from the NTSB with regard to when inspections were conducted and what the condition of (El Faro) was.”

The NTSB reported on Oct. 20 that El Faro successfully completed ABS class and statutory surveys in February. “All deficiencies identified were rectified prior to completion of the surveys,” the board said, adding that none of the deficiencies were associated with El Faro’s main propulsion systems. The ship’s annual U.S. Coast Guard inspection was completed in March. In June, an ABS surveyor “examined and tested the main, auxiliary and emergency systems as part of the continuous machinery survey program and found them to be satisfactory,” the NTSB said.

Krispen Atkinson, principal maritime analyst at IHS Maritime, said a bluewater ship’s life span is generally between 20 and 25 years. El Faro was 40 when it sank and was being refit for additional duty, which is “very unusual,” he said.

“In parts of South America and Africa you have ships of this sort of age, but the thing is often they’re not being watched and they’re not being put into dry dock every two years to be surveyed and have inspections carried out,” he said. “(Standards) are a lot more stringent in the U.S., and you would expect these ships to be a lot safer as well.”

TOTE was planning to remove El Faro from its Caribbean run and redeploy it for service between Washington state and Alaska. To prepare for the change, the company began to make modifications to the ship while it was underway last summer. Work was done by welders and machinists over many voyages, including the ship’s final voyage, according to the NTSB.

El Faro was being moved to the West Coast as part of TOTE’s shift to liquefied natural gas (LNG) to power its domestic cargo ships. The first step was for Isla Bella, the world’s first LNG-powered containership, to replace El Faro in the Jones Act trade between Florida and Puerto Rico. El Faro could then take over for the 839-foot Midnight Sun on the Alaska run while it was converted to dual-fuel propulsion over the winter. The sinking has delayed that project for a year, however, and also has pushed back the conversion of Midnight Sun’s Orca-class sister, North Star.

The Marlin-class Isla Bella, delivered in October by General Dynamics NASSCO, is among more than a dozen Jones Act ships recently delivered or in the pipeline. It will be followed out of the San Diego yard in 2016 by sister Perla del Caribe, with NASSCO also working on three Jones Act tankers for Seacor and five for American Petroleum Tankers. In Philadelphia, Aker delivered the tanker Ohio to Crowley Maritime in October, the first of four for Jones Act duty, and cut steel on a pair of dual-fuel containerships for Matson. In Mississippi, VT Halter Marine delivered the con-ro Marjorie C to Pasha Hawaii in May and is building two LNG-powered con-ros for Crowley.

Jaenichen said the activity shows that the U.S.-flagged bluewater fleet is getting younger and that the nation’s approach to shipbuilding is working. He cited the Federal Ship Financing Program, better known as Title XI, which currently has a $1.5 billion portfolio of loan guarantees to help U.S. shipowners obtain new vessels from U.S. shipyards. The program also helps U.S. yards modernize their facilities. TOTE obtained a $324 million loan guarantee through Title XI to build Isla Bella and Perla del Caribe.

Among the new U.S.-flagged ships is Ohio, the first of four Jones Act product tankers for Crowley Maritime Corp. The vessel was delivered in September 2015 by Aker Philadelphia Shipyard.

Courtesy Crowley Maritime

“The policies that we have in place are working if we allow them to be used properly,” Jaenichen said. “You may remember that we did have a construction differential subsidy, it was last done back in the ’80s. Typically what ends up happening is when you have a subsidy like that, folks will overbuild. So we’ve actually seen situations, especially in the inland industry, where we’ve overbuilt as a result. If you’re building to the cargo demand and make sure that what you build is economically viable, the policy works. You recapitalize the ships when they have to be recapitalized.”

Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, said critics questioning whether U.S. shipyards have the capacity to meet the demand for bluewater cargo vessels underestimate the industry.

“What you have is the shipyard industrial base meeting market demand and also meeting market demands that weren’t there six years ago,” he said. “When there was a need to ramp up when the oil and gas industry was booming, when we had oil prices over $100 a barrel, what did U.S. shipyards do? They stepped up with the next fleets of tankers that are being built and have been delivered. So the capacity is there. Do we have additional shipyards that are in excess of what the market demand is? No, but we have shipyards that meet the demands that come up, and they continue to come up.”

Kathy Metcalf, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Shipping of America, said the decision to build new tonnage or refit an older ship “necessarily takes into account the cost and degree of the retrofit” versus the cost of a new vessel.

“Overlaying the decision is … the absolute fundamental that any ship, new or retrofit, will be constructed in accordance with legal requirements, and will be operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner with all the legally required certifications from both the flag state and the classification society,” she said.

While the safety of ships is age-related to some degree, Metcalf said, it is really the result of “the soul and safety culture” of the owner and the people who operate, manage, maintain and crew the vessels.

“Safety is not a negotiable item and its primacy over all other commercial considerations, including costs, is indisputable,” she said. “I would argue that newer but mismanaged ships are inherently less safe than older ships (which are) owned and managed by the maritime professionals I have the honor of representing (at the CSA).”

By Professional Mariner Staff