My dad sailed on commercial vessels as an able seaman and boatswain in the 1950s and 1960s, including several T2 tankers. I remember he told me that on a tanker bridge watch there were two able seamen and an ordinary — a helmsman, a lookout and a standby to relieve them. Even though the ships were smaller and carried only about 50 percent of the petroleum cargo modern-day product carriers do, there were 30 to 40 crewmembers on a typical T2 tanker back then.
In 1989, 25 years ago this year, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. Television news reports showed pictures of the 11 million gallons of North Slope crude fouling the pristine Alaskan waters, polluting more than 1,000 miles of coastline, killing sea life and claiming the lives of four cleanup workers. As the details of what happened began to come out, many were shocked that this 987-foot ship had a crew of only 20, and that the U.S. Coast Guard had approved it. What the public did not know was that Exxon Shipping Co. had plans to eliminate even more crewmembers when the disaster occurred. As the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s final report pointed out, before the oil spill the president of Exxon Shipping stated that the company’s goal was to have just 16 crewmembers on its new tankships such as Valdez. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigative report, one of the major probable causes of the disaster was a fatigued crew with not enough people to safely operate the vessel.
Three years before the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, the Coast Guard approved a reduction in the crew, allowing the company to eliminate three positions — bringing it down to the 20 who were on board at the time of the accident. The NTSB investigation of the oil spill found the decision to reduce the crew not only reckless, but “without apparent justification from the standpoint of safety.” The way it looked to the NTSB, Exxon Shipping Co. eliminated crewmembers just to save money, without fully considering the risks involved.
After the oil spill there was a lot of talk among mariners, hoping that companies would increase the number of crewmembers on oil tankers. The only change most ships running crude oil from Valdez, Alaska, made was to add an additional third mate position. Then many, including the tanker I was working on, got rid of the radio operator and had the mates sending messages during their off-watch time — so there was essentially no increase in crew size. Even though the NTSB clearly stated that a lack of sufficient crew was a major probable cause of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I know of no new official regulations to increase crew sizes on U.S.-flag ships implemented in the 25 years since the accident.
Crew cutbacks haven’t been limited to deep-sea ships; smaller vessel crews have been cut, too. When I was with a large West Coast towing company early in my career there were six in our crew. Fifteen years later, I was hired for an emergency relief job, because the previous mate had run the boat aground on the way up the Columbia River. When I arrived in Portland, Ore., I was surprised to see the same tug I had worked on all those years earlier with a new name, the boat having been sold to a different company. After just those 15 years there were now only four crewmembers on board — a 33 percent reduction.
While shipping companies have reduced crew sizes, the workload for the mariners on board has increased. I recall when I was a mate on a ship running between Valdez and the U.S. West Coast. In addition to eight hours a day on the bridge standing watch and four hours of deck maintenance, I was also the medical officer. Because the company had been allowed to eliminate the qualified radio/electronics officer and I had a general radiotelephone license, I served as the “radio officer” as well.
On top of all my regular jobs that trip, I dealt with two sliced fingers, four pus-filled boils, a metal shaving in an eye, inventorying the entire ship’s medicine chest and sending dozens of messages by radio and satellite for the captain. And of course I filled out any official logs and forms therefore required. I often worked 14-hour days, and that was before the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 and the International Safety Management Code came into effect, both of which have piled on even more tasks for mariners at sea.
In 2012, industry leaders testified before Congress about the squeeze being placed on mariners these days by multiple responsibilities. In my opinion, after it’s been determined just how much time all these extra job responsibilities are taking, the information should be used to determine new manning regulations for commercial vessels. It was 46 CFR 15.715 that allowed the Coast Guard to justify cutting 15 percent of the crew manning on Exxon Valdez because of increased automation. It follows then that there should be no problem officially increasing crew sizes when extra regulatory duties necessitate it.
Reducing crew sizes on commercial ships and boats is more than just an economic consideration. These decisions have real-world implications, ones that could either help prevent or cause a disaster. While we will never know, it is possible the Exxon Valdez calamity may not have happened had those three eliminated crewmembers remained part of the crew. With even more national and international regulations coming into effect over the next few years, it’s past time for the size of ships’ crews to accurately reflect the actual workload of the mariners on board.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.