National Maritime Day: New Awareness, New Hopes
National Maritime Day is separated from Memorial Day by just three days; recognition of the importance of both events is still worlds apart. Industry officials work to change that reality.
“NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 22, 2009, as National Maritime Day. I call upon the people of the United States to mark this observance by honoring the service of merchant mariners and by displaying the flag of the United States at their homes and in their communities. I also request that all ships sailing under the American flag dress ship on that day.” It sounds pretty good when you read it in print on the White House Web site. If only the words were matched with actions on the part of the American people, our elected officials, the regulatory machine and, yes, those of us who toil in the maritime industry itself. But, it turns out that there is a small window of opportunity here to change all of that.
The close proximity of this year’s observance of both National Maritime Day and Memorial Day got me to thinking. Notwithstanding the fact that Memorial Day is a national holiday (except for in the case of my kids who this year had a snow “make-up” school day instead) and National Maritime Day is not, the perceived importance of both days also couldn’t be more different. And, whereas many Americans view the last Monday in May every year to be no more than a good reason to fire up the barbecue and take the day off, the national counterpart of this celebration for mariners is almost completely ignored, outside of the maritime industry itself. To a large extent, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The maritime industry as a whole has traditionally been a poor messenger in getting out the good news about what we do, with notable exceptions. This year, the scourge of piracy has brought new light on the collective vehicle that transports virtually 90 percent of everything we consume on this planet. And, while we probably would have liked for the “good news” to be conveyed on the strength of something more positive, we’ll take what we can get. The heightened awareness of the national conscience as to what the merchant mariner means to our daily lives is a good thing. Clearly then, this is the time to strike while the proverbial iron is hot.
Last week, I spent a couple of days trolling around the beltway. Two events in particular were worthy of your attention and, I think, both properly highlighted the importance of the world’s merchant fleet. Last Thursday’s National Maritime Day Seminar at the National Press Club, entitled, “Security and the Seafarer: A Cautionary Tale,” was a fitting event to showcase the problems inherent today’s commercial shipping equation.
At the event, sponsored by NAMMA and NAMEPA, Industry notables such as the MM&P’s Captain Tim Brown, Coast Guard RADM James Watson and Captain Robert Fay of International Registries, Inc. (and others) all weighed in on a host of subjects. Moderated by IRI Managing Partner and NAMEPA / NAMMA founder Clay Maitland, the session covered many hot-button issues, including labor concerns (access to shore leave and criminalization of mariners), and piracy/maritime security (and the legal implications of proper protection for crews), just to name a few. Perhaps it was Captain Fay who put the proper perspective on all of those discussions when he called for shipowners, regulators and managers to provide “Support, respect and protection to all seafarers.”
Immediately following the Security and Seafarer seminar was the USCG AMVER Awards Reception, graciously hosted by Fairplay Publications. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Ben Strong, in charge of Amver Maritime Relations, gave an eloquent overview of what Amver means to all of us at sea and then yielded to a very fine multimedia presentation of Amver participants in action. As a perfect example, Strong told his gathered audience that the Rescue Coordination Center Australia, on the day of the ceremony, requested Amver data and diverted the M/V SCARLETT LUCY, which rescued 2 Americans from a sinking sailboat off Australia.
Amver, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, is a unique, computer-based, and voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search and rescue authorities to arrange for assistance to persons in distress at sea. Originally known as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting (AMVER) System, it became operational on July 18, 1958. With Amver, rescue coordinators can identify participating ships in the area of distress and divert the best-suited ship or ships to respond. Amver's mission is to quickly provide search and rescue authorities, on demand, accurate information on the positions and characteristics of vessels near a reported distress.
A total of 438 US ships represented by 81 companies earned Amver participation awards in 2008. At least nine of those companies were on hand to receive awards – with congratulations given by soon-to-be-retiring Coast Guard VADM Vivien S. Crea – at the first such ceremony to be held since the late 1990’s. Plans are in the works to do it again next year.
With Maritime Day now in our distant wake, there is more to be done. In the near term, the U.S. Congress holds the key to answering Captain Fay’s call with at least two pending matters. First, and almost 65 years after the end of World War II, the merchant mariners who endured enemy attacks to bring the Arsenal of Democracy across two oceans to theatres of war could be a little bit closer to receiving much-deserved but never delivered compensation in the form of veteran benefits. Denied for more than a half-century, this proposal could provide monthly stipends to qualified surviving merchant mariners. The legislation (HR 23), entitled the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Marines of World War II Act of 2009 has cleared the House and is being considered by the Senate.
Of the 250,000 Americans who went to sea in the Merchant Marines during the war, some 9,300 did not return. Another 12,000 were wounded and these numbers represent some of the highest casualty rates of any group in the war effort. Without a doubt, they did their part and more. They deserve to be compensated in a manner consistent with other veterans. Sadly, the rapidly-aging group is dwindling in numbers every day and the payments, should they come at all, will come too late for most.
At the same time that HR 23 is winding its way through the legislative process, lawmakers are also trying to figure out a way to legally empower American shipowners to provide armed protection aboard their merchant vessels as they transit pirate-infested international waters. Ironically, the Department of Defense continues to resist the call to place naval assets on board these ships, something that would only mirror the WWII policies that provided Navy gun crews for a similar purpose. The Coast Guard, fully capable of providing this type of service with their much-acclaimed port security units, hasn’t been asked to step up and further seems reluctant to step on the toes of their DOD counterparts.
In the end, Industry is left to beg for protection as they navigate between the potential legal pitfalls and liabilities of doing it themselves. Reportedly, the real work is being done behind closed doors and the myriad of congressional subcommittee hearings – although entertaining to watch – are mere window dressing for the real process being played out elsewhere.
It was only fitting last week that National Maritime Day fell in closer proximity than usual to its higher profile cousin, Memorial Day. It is about this time of year that Americans get gently scolded for going to a barbecue or perhaps a motor sports event instead of attending a gathering intended to commemorate U.S. men and women who died while in military service. The same admonition could arguably be directed towards Congress and countless past administrations for the same thing as it refers to honoring similar service for merchant seaman. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is also up to us to bring about the necessary changes. And, the need to get out the good news about the maritime industry has never been more important. – MarEx.
Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at [email protected] Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685>
Read H.R. 23 by clicking HERE.
Amver on the Web: www.amver.com