It is true that US law requires that a ship, permitted to trade coastwise, must be built in a US shipyard.
It’s also true that it would cost about four (or more) times as much to build a containership, like El Faro, in one of the few remaining US yards, as it costs to build the same ship in China.
And it is certainly true that the sea, like most of life, does not always forgive errors of judgment. We ignore risks at our peril; in the end, as Captain Felix Riesenberg of New York’s Maritime College long ago observed, the sea gets around to punishing the optimists among us.
So maybe, with a hurricane approaching, the ship should not have sailed from Jacksonville. And maybe the ship might have fared better if it had not been 40 years old; and if it hadn’t lost propulsion at a critical time.
And maybe, as Bill Clinton put it, about a different circumstance, “mistakes were made”.
The National Transportation Safety Board, and the Coast Guard, will come out with findings of fact and conclusions to be drawn. We will be left with the reality that 33 lives were lost.
Can we make the cost of construction, and the capital expenditure, feasible for the building of a modern Jones Act fleet? I think we can, if we embrace a return to a construction subsidy.
For that to happen, will we have to wait for pigs to fly? Or as the Russians say, for shrimps to whistle? Probably.
Could our representatives change the law, to let in foreign-built ships? Given the fact that American shipyards have strong support on Capitol Hill, I’d say: don’t wager the family farm on it.
In the fever swamps of American maritime policy, where is a vision for the future? Clearly it is time to replace the elderly Jones Act fleet with new ships, built at a rational price. The US yards now have a rare opportunity to show what they can do. Thanks to Title XI and other provisions of the Shipping Act of 1936, some financial resources are already available. Could more be done by a reluctant Congress? Pigs may fly before that happens.
Author: Clay Maitland
Clay Maitland has worked in the shipping industry since graduation from law school in 1968. Clay has been employed by International Registries, Inc. for 39 years and is now a managing partner of the company, which administers the Marshall Islands Ship Registry – the third largest registry in the world. He is President of the Trust Company of the Marshall Islands (TCMI), the statutory Maritime Administrator of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Prior to the year 2000, Clay held similar positions with regard to the maritime administration of the Republic of Liberia.