Maitland: 'We must rebuild' U.S.-flag merchant fleet


Clay Maitland was a recipient of a 2013 Plimsoll Award for his advocacy of safer handling of nickel ore to prevent liquefaction. In accepting the award during the recent Connecticut Maritime Association's Shipping 2013 conference, Maitland delivered brief remarks emphasizing the importance of the U.S.-flag commercial fleet to the nation. The following is an extended version of his prepared speech:


I am deeply honored to have received Professional Mariner’s Plimsoll Award. I specifically wish to thank John Gormley and Dom Yanchunas of Professional Mariner.

Professional Mariner is a staunch advocate of the U.S. Merchant Marine, particularly the towage or “brownwater” industry. In recognition of your service, and a commitment that we all have to a healthy maritime industry, I would like to say just a few words in its support. 

I believe that the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine, and that includes, but is not restricted to, the reserved coastwise trades, is worthy of the support not only of Professional Mariner (the magazine), but all of us professionals, ashore and afloat. 

This, to me, means more than just lip service.   

This year, I will observe (if not celebrate) 45 years in the shipping business. 

Frankly, although it should be obvious that a healthy “bluewater” merchant marine is in the national interest, and books have been written saying exactly that, neither our government nor our “private sector” has paid the proposition much more than lip service. 

Yes, there are success stories. The Kirbys and the Crowleys are important exceptions. But, up to now, they have flourished in the protected inland, western rivers and coastwise trades. What I am speaking of today is the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine engaged in international commerce. 

These are the trades in which two major foreign flags, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, have flourished. Both of these foreign flag administrations are run by Americans and based in the United States of America. 

You will of course hear it argued, as it has been since the rapid growth of open registries after World War II, that the U.S.-flag registry itself has been the victim of their success.  In fact, I would suggest that if the administration of the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine — Jones Act, unionized labor and all — were run in the same way that the two open registries, that I have just mentioned, have been run since 1948, we could turn things around and the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine, crewed by merchant mariners, many of them graduates of our merchant marine academies, would revive and start to grow again.

But we all know that no such thing is about to happen. 

I began working 45 years ago in lower Manhattan, for a maritime law firm, the week that Richard Nixon was elected president. It was during the first Nixon term that the last attempt was made, by congress and a U.S. administration, to significantly improve the competitiveness of the U.S.-flag fleet. A shipping act was passed. However, since that time, and it has been nearly 45 years, I can’t remember a single piece of federal legislation that, even on its face, could be said to have significantly contributed to the creation of jobs for Americans in the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. 

As I have said, there have been bright spots. These, however, have been almost entirely the result of private initiatives by private companies. And, as far as “bluewater” shipping is concerned, the results have been very sparse indeed. 

I do not condemn the American maritime unions. They have been politically marginalized, and they’re not the only ones.  Other things have also contributed to the decline of the U.S.-flag fleet:

1.  The abolition of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee;

2.  The failure of successive governments to reform or modernize the Jones Act itself — the single most outdated maritime law still on the books (and, please note, I am not going to be foolish enough to recommend the repeal of that holy of holies);

3.  The virtual collapse of the once-healthy Title XI loan guarantee program, along with most of the other operative provisions of the Shipping Act of 1936;

4.  The decline — or perhaps I should say growing insignificance of the Maritime Administration. The deplorable present state of MarAd needs no description from me, but is symbolized by the fact that the present administrator, himself, has no background in the industry whatsoever. He was, until his appointment, a railroad regulation specialist on Capital Hill, and, when first appointed, his cell phone ring was a train whistle.  As they say, you can’t make things like this up!

5.  The failure of government and industry to adequately support our state and federal merchant marine academies;

6.  It is of course also true that until recent years, the maritime industry, including supporters of a strong U.S.-flag Merchant Marine could turn to legendary figures in the senate and house of representatives with names like Magnuson, Long, Stevens, Breaux and Inouye. We mourn their passing. However, it is very largely their own fault that we have not replaced or reinforced their ranks;

7.  What we have done is, each of us in our own little sectors, carefully defended our own, quite small “rice bowls.” There’s one for every conceivable sector of the industry. As the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine has declined, its partisans on the hill, and in the lobbying community, have disappeared, been reduced in strength, or been neutralized by conflicting pressures and policies;

8.  There is therefore now no specifically U.S.-flag lobby left. Like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, eventually not even the smile will be left;

Can our fragmented “private sector” ever be convinced that there is a point in saving the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine? 

Today, there are in many places in our country a number of cadets and students at maritime academies and schools.  Will there be U.S.-flag jobs available for them? I believe there can be if our industry as a whole, that private sector of which I speak, the maritime unions, and the federal government will unite in the support of the above. 

Up to now, the attitude of our industry has been reminiscent of what Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,”  “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

I believe that a partnership between the private sector and government is possible.

I also believe that we can have a congress that is willing to listen to the maritime community as a whole.

I believe that the failure of leadership that I describe can be remedied. All it takes is the right people. 

I also believe that there are legislative solutions to many of the problems that have retarded, and even crippled, the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. 

However, and it is a big “however,” it is necessary to also believe that the barriers that exist between our industry and Congress — in other words our political leadership — can be overcome. 

What I am suggesting, and it is absolutely against the nature of governments and unions, is that they start listening to people who actually have succeeded in creating and running a system that works. If you compare the legislation that is in place for Liberia or the Marshall Islands with the antique provisions of Title 46 of the United States Code, you can see the glaring difference between modernity and obsolescence.

This is how far behind we now are in the United States! 

So, there are solutions to the afflictions and indignities suffered by the U.S.-flag fleet. We can rebuild. I would suggest that we must rebuild.

Clay Maitland is a maritime industry leader who is Managing Partner of International Registries Inc. and Founding Chairman of the North America Marine Environment Protection Association. He can be reached at or through his website/blog at

By Professional Mariner Staff