MarEx Readers Respond to Editorial that Addresses the Proposed Dismantling of Coast Guard

In last week’s lead article (“Shortsighted Proposal to Break up Coast Guard, if Implemented, will not Serve the Greater Good”), our managing editor addressed the (growing) possibility that coming legislation could alter the substance of the U.S. Coast Guard, what it does and possibly divert certain responsibilities to other agencies. In some areas, the process has already begun. Our position was that this was not a good idea.

The article attracted not only a fair bit of response, but also drove more e-traffic than any other article ever published on this e-newsletter format, both in terms of numbers of “reads” and percentage of total traffic. At MarEx, we were pleased with that, of course, but that was not why we wrote the editorial. This is an issue which is going to become much higher profile; very soon. When it does, the facts and motivations behind what is occurring should be made transparent to all the players -- and the Coast Guard’s customers, who will ultimately feel the effect of such a move, for better or for worse.

Finally, we received word from a well-placed source this week that “this matter will not be going away.” Count on MarEx to be there with breaking news on this matter. In the meantime, here’s what some of our readers had to say:

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Dear Mr. Keefe,

I am unaccustomed to responding to articles such as yours but I just had to in this case. I have no idea of your background except that you are in publishing. I have been around the water as long as I have lived. Even before my graduation from XXXXXX in 1972, I can remember my father (a license Chief Engineer) dealing with CG Inspectors. I have just gone through the renewal process for my Master of Steam and Motor Vessel, Any Gross Tons, Upon Ocean, etc. I feel your article is written from the perspective of a person who has never had to renew or otherwise deal with the Coast Guard as it exists today. The Deepwater project is only the tip of the iceberg. We have, in my over 35 years experience, gone from dealing with knowledgeable people of similar backgrounds to trying to deal with often times rude, bureaucrats who are rarely capable of doing anything correctly the first time.

The Deepwater fiasco is symptomatic of the Coast Guard's growing dysfuntionalism. The Coast Guard is not to blame. The Congress has shoveled on to much to handle. Going back to basics with experience, licensed mariners regulating and policing civilian mariners will benefit everyone.

MarEx Note: The Managing Editor of The Maritime Executive holds a Chief Mate’s License, any gross tons, as well as a 1,600 ton Master’s ticket. He graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1980. He also spent another fifteen years in the marine survey/consulting game, dealing with the Coast Guard often in both roles. He likes his current job in “publishing,” too.

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Thanks for your thoughtful response on the current proposal to break up the Coast Guard. While I can’t comment officially on how the Coast Guard is responding to this news, I can tell you that the Coast Guard senior leadership is listening attentively to this ongoing dialogue and is giving serious consideration to the concerns and opinions expressed by our longtime partners in the maritime industry. I thought I would share with you the recent U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship (file attached). Our Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, released this document in February 2007, and as you will see in both its title, and in its contents, the Coast Guard remains committed to not only our nation’s maritime security, but also to its maritime safety and stewardship missions.

MarEx Note: The writer is an active Coast Guard officer. We took the liberty of shielding his identity. The strategy document he refers to can be found by clicking here.

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Dear Mr. Keefe,

I disagree with your current article. I am a retired shipmaster & Pilot, KP graduate, 9th issue of a currently valid Unlimited Master's license.

The CG can handle the offshore security, harbor security, search and rescue, aids to navigation, ice breaking, etc satisfactorily, even though onboard ship they operate at Sea Scout performance level. As Pilot aboard many CG ships, from the Campbell class cutters to the latest Ice Breaker, I have had the unpleasant experience of trying to keep those amateur ship operators from destroying everything in the harbor.

In my youth, I was interested in joining the CG marine Inspection service. At that time, marine inspection was manned by experienced, professional seafarers, Masters and Chief Engineers. My first 4 licenses were graded by people who understood what I was saying in my detailed written responses.

The deterioration in quality and performance in CG marine inspection is disgusting. There is no professional continuity in marine Inspection and a constant turnover of CG officers. Knowledge of the functionality and operation of ships is totally lacking. When a mariner responds to a CG officer's land lubberly questions, the response is met by a blank uncomprehending face, like trying to describe the operation of a tractor type tug to an Iowa row crop farmer.

I advocate the re-creation of a modernized "Steamboat Inspection Service" manned by professional mariners.

The license upgrade schools in the USA offer assured licensing to anybody with a warm body and a few thousand dollars. They run rote memorization programs with no real teaching. It makes no difference if the question answer is correct or not, memorize the first 5 words of the question and the approved answer is "C". This can only happen because nobody in the CG marine inspection office knows the difference between the roundy end and the pointy end.

I do enjoy reading your publication.


Captain Frederick Hoppe

MarEx Note: A strong opinion, but one taken from a wealth of maritime experience. (Captain) Hoppe says that he stands by his words and granted MarEx permission to use his name. When he did so, he sent another letter -- expressing still more of his thoughts. We’ve included that one, as well, below:

Dear Mr. Keefe,

Thanks for your reply.

So that you can better identify me, I am KP 1958, formerly an USNR officer, served as Master of the SS Thomas M, a 624' tanker, I retired as a Senior Panama Canal Pilot (18 years) -full retirement 1986. I served the PCC and the American people as Canal Pilot, Panama Canal Port Captain and as Pilot Training Officer (during the transition to Panamanian control). Then I had a second 18 year career as a State of Hawaii Port Pilot, finally retiring again in 2004, including 2 years as President of the Hawaii Pilots Association.

What I wrote to you is how most senior level US Merchant Marine officers feel about the USCG Marine Inspection Service. Most US harbor pilots who handle USCG vessels have a poor opinion of the operational capability aboard USCG vessels. The Coast Guard routinely hides the frequency of marine casualties of USCG vessels.

This is not the way my observations of the CG have been during my long career. Until about the 1980s, the USCG operated ships as well as comparable USN vessels.

When I was subject to retaliation from the CG as a Pilot and during license renewals, I would have never dared to expose the Keystone Kops performance level that I observed in the USCG. Even former USCG officers are embarrassed by todays Coast Guard.

You have my permission to use my emails including my permission to use my name in your publication. I still have hope that somebody cares enough to fix these problems and not just hide them. Truth is truth, I'm not a politician. I stand by my words, intact.

I will not go through the personally degrading experience of renewing my USCG license, even for "Record Purposes Only". Most other senior officer retirees are also preferring to avoid dealing with the the USCG marine Inspection and are not renewing for RPO. This is a great loss to our country, because if the need for experienced ships officers ever develops again like during WW2, there is no way to track and recruit retirees.

It is likely that we have mutual friends. I invite you to check my bona fides.


Frederick Hoppe

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Hello Joe:


What can be done by the US Merchant Marine to influence congress on this abysmal idea?

I am a former Coastie and former SUP union member who has worked in the Merchant Marine during this latest Iraqi police action. - Name Withheld

MarEx Note: An opinion and a question from someone with his feet on both sides of the equation.

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Mr. Keefe,

The following are my own views and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the Coast Guard, DHS or any other element of government.

Having been (the **** information omitted at request of sender ***** for Admiral ***** when he was Commandant, and for Vice Admiral ******), when he was Chief of Staff under him, I had the opportunity to examine some of the issues at play in the issue of the Coast Guard’s mission set. In particular, even though a very extensive Coast Guard Roles and Mission Study had just been concluded, I was tasked with doing a thought-piece on where the Coast Guard best fit in government.

Some history is in order.

From its founding under that name and in the Treasury Department in 1915, the CG has moved between cabinet level agencies a total of 6 times. These were to the Navy for WWI, back to Treasury after the war, to the Navy for WWII, back to Treasury after the war, to Transportation when DOT was created and now to DHS as that department was created. I don’t believe any other agency has moved as many times.

Prior to the current effort and in addition to the actual moves, there have been at least 21 serious efforts to move the CG or to radically change its mission set. These can be grouped, somewhat chronologically, into three major categories based on the rationale, for lack of a better word, behind the effort. The three groupings are (1) a fundamental misunderstanding of the Coast Guard’s missions; (2) a misguided search for economies that aren’t there to be had; and (3) Congressional belief that the Coast Guard did not receive fair treatment under the budget process and rules established by the Congress (i.e., in Function 400 -- Transportation, the CG did not fare well when competing against the grant programs administered by DOT -- too much pork in highway construction grants). This last rationale is particularly interesting. In essence, members of Congress were proposing to reorganize the executive branch in order to fix a problem generated by Congress’s own internal workings. It was as if, like the psychotic killer whose actions scream “Stop me before I kill again!” the Congress was saying “Reorganize yourself before we appropriate unwisely again!”

The CG’s history is one of an under-funded service perpetually scrambling to undo the damage done to one mission by a failure-driven redirection of resources from that newest failed mission to the immediately previous failed mission (e.g., the flow of resources into marine environmental protection after the EXXON VALDEZ).

What is going on with Deepwater is just the most recent consequence of that perpetual underfunding. The CG has, over many years, gutted its organic contracting and engineering capabilities in order to fund operations. As a result, the Coast Guard lacks the skills and capabilities required to effectively manage a contract and procurement effort as complex as Deepwater on its own. In fact, the skills and capabilities required to oversee the initial contractor-managed Deepwater effort are actually greater than those required to manage the effort in-house. The CG was horribly out-gunned in that regard.

The outsourcing problem is not unique to the Coast Guard. The capabilities of government to do its own work have been gutted across government. This has been going on for a long time, under administrations of both parties. As a result, the taxpayers are being ripped off across the board by contractors who know how to pull the wool over the eyes of federal employees who lack either the time or the skills required to effectively oversee them. All you need to do is to look at the quality, or the lack thereof, in the contracting work done in Iraq. Many millions of $ gone to build, from scratch, new piles of rubble that were supposed to be buildings.

Returning to my original rant -- the idea of improving the Coast Guard as a security-oriented service responsible for ensuring security in marine transportation by severing its ties with that very industry is ludicrous.

Keep up the good fight. This is a bad idea and we need to make sure that its time has not yet come. -- name and position withheld.

MarEx Note: A response written from one particular point of view, but a well-articulated one, nevertheless. Now, what do YOU think? E-mail us at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com.