I was the third mate on an 890-foot crude oil tanker berthed at Long Beach, Calif. We had finished the discharge of North Slope crude and were preparing to load “dirty” ballast into several of the cargo tanks utilizing the No. 1 main cargo pump. The procedure that I had been taught was to keep the sea chest closed when starting dirty ballast until suction on the pump could be verified. That way, if it tripped for some reason there would be no chance for any oil to flow out and cause a spill. My problem was that the chief mate wanted me to open the sea chest before starting the pump. “Time is money,” he said, “and my way’s much faster.” I questioned the wisdom of his order and told him so. “What about the chance of a spill? Is it worth saving five or 10 minutes?” He persisted. “I run the show here, Mr. Mate. But maybe you didn’t hear me, so I will make myself clear: I want you to commence loading dirty ballast my way.”
I thought to myself, “If I do as he asks and have a spill, he will probably never admit that he gave me that verbal order and I’ll get all the blame. If I ignore him, he can tag me for failing to follow a legal order.” I worked around the problem when I turned to him and asked, “With all due respect, would you mind putting that in writing?” He stared spitefully at me for a long time in silence and then walked out of the control room. Without his written order, I figured that I could start dirty ballast operations with the sea chest closed. Everything went well, although I paid the price for doing it my way. From that moment onward, the chief mate cut me off of extra overtime — which cost me thousands — but I managed to stay on board until I finished my work tour and paid off the ship a few weeks later in San Francisco.
All of us who hold a U.S. Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) have officially sworn to uphold the Merchant Mariner Oath, the last sentence of which states, “I will faithfully and honestly carry out the lawful orders of my superior officers on board the vessel.” Anyone who has been at sea for any length of time will tell you that, sometimes, following that part of the Merchant Mariner Oath is easier said than done. As a junior officer, one of the things that made the faceoff with the chief mate difficult for me was that, while his order was a lawful one, in my opinion it was also a questionable one. That is why I challenged him about it. Although there is no official definition of a questionable order, from my experience it can be described as a lawful command that goes against common sense or the practice of good seamanship — with consequences that can range from a minor snafu to a life-threatening situation.
Recently, the written transcript of bridge conversations recorded on the U.S.-flag cargo ship El Faro, which went down in the Caribbean on Oct. 1, 2015, with all hands lost, was released by the National Transportation Safety Board. The transcript revealed that the two junior deck officers expressed doubt and concern about the captain’s order to follow a track that would put them dangerously close to Hurricane Joaquin. Despite their apprehension, those bridge watch officers navigated their ship right into Joaquin’s path, complying with their superior’s lawful orders in accordance with the Merchant Mariner Oath. May God rest their souls.
There is a legal procedure detailed in the regulations that permits a mariner to overrule a superior’s authority, but it only applies when a ship is in port and is ready to depart on a sea voyage. 46 U.S. Code Section 10902 gives the chief mate and second mate, or a majority of the crew, the right to petition a judge with a claim that their vessel is unseaworthy — even if the master disagrees. The complaint must be restricted to tangible deficiencies such as inadequate crewing, hull problems or equipment malfunctions, and once the ship actually leaves port this right is relinquished. At that point, the tenet of the Merchant Mariner Oath mandating that subordinates follow the lawful orders of their superiors once again takes precedence.
As it stands now, failure to comply with a lawful order on board a merchant ship is a criminal offense, punishable per 46 U.S. Code Section 11501. “Willful disobedience,” even saying “no” just one time, can result in shipboard confinement, loss of four days’ pay and 30 days in jail. “Continued willful disobedience” of a lawful order can result in a mariner being put on rations with a limit of 1,000 calories a day while confined to the vessel, giving up 12 days’ pay and spending 90 days in jail.
Personally, I am incredulous that a set of punishments that sound like they came from a time when mariners were flogged with a cat o’ nine tails is still U.S. law. As civilians, there should be no criminal penalties for the offenses listed in 46 U.S. Code Section 11501. Being fired or relieved of duty are appropriate consequences; getting thrown in jail for three months is not. After all, it’s their career, their credential, and maybe even their life that is at stake. Today’s mariners are not rowdy hooligans who need to be kept in line with threats of being starved and incarcerated. They are professionals risking their lives in a dangerous job, and they deserve to have the same workplace rights as any U.S. citizen.
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 email@example.com.