The Importance of a Vibrant U.S. Merchant Marine

The value of U.S.-flag ships and the Jones Act cannot be overstated

The civilian-crewed ammunition ship USNS William McLean and RRF cargo ship SS Wright sail in support of the Hurricane Irma relief effort, accompanied by the USS Wasp, USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill (courtesy USN)

Published Oct 10, 2017 4:53 PM by William P. Doyle

With Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, it has been a tough hurricane season, but the U.S. Merchant Marine has once again answered the call. In fact, but for the Jones Act and the U.S. Merchant Marine, things could have been a lot worse. A review of recent U.S.-flag maritime policy and practice demonstrates the importance of Jones Act shipping.

In the early 1990’s the whistle blew and the U.S. needed ships to support our troops, so a massive effort was launched by the U.S. to break out ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet of mothballed ships. We needed mariners to operate the ships. And we needed U.S. companies to fly the U.S. flag in support of the United States’ efforts. During this period the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the six other state maritime academies were called on for support. The state maritime academies are Massachusetts Maritime, Maine Maritime, New York Maritime (SUNY), Texas Maritime (A&M at Galveston), California Maritime, and Great Lakes Maritime. These cadets - college students - were asked to sail ships as part of the crew under a certification program administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. This allowed the cadets to relieve seasoned mariners so that they could be dispatched to the Middle East and Southwest Asia. In addition, the maritime academies were asked to release cadets to their respective regional U.S shipyards to break out ships for the war effort. These cadets attended class during the day and then spent the afternoons and evenings in shipyards helping to break out ships.

Upon conclusion of the Desert Shield/Storm, the U.S. committed to enhance our nation’s sealift capabilities. The Ready Reserve Force Fleet (RRF) of prepositioning vessels was further developed and the Maritime Security Program (MSP) was enacted. The RRF is a reserve fleet of ships owned by the U.S. government, prepositioned around the U.S., contracted to private sector U.S. companies and crewed by U.S. Merchant Mariners. The MSP fleet generally consists of international companies that register and domicile part of their business operations under U.S. Department of Defense protocols and are required to crew their vessels with U.S. Merchant Mariners. Additionally, U.S. companies have continuously worked to re-capitalize the Jones Act fleet of tankers, tugs, barges, container ships, con-ros, dredgers, and ferries, investing billions of dollars in American shipyard construction and modernizing ports and marine terminal operations.

Over the past two decades the U.S. Merchant Marine and its Jones Act companies have responded effectively to every major maritime-accessible conflict and disaster that challenged the United States. By way of example, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, nearly 500,000 people were trapped below the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. There was no way out except to swim or find a boat. The U.S. Merchant Marine went to work. In less than nine hours, Jones Act companies rearranged their voyages and sent vessels straight to the island of Manhattan. Hundreds of thousands of people were rescued and taken to safety by Jones Act ships, mariners and companies. It was largest boat lift evacuation in history – moving more people by boat than in the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, France.

This hurricane season has been no different, and the Merchant Marine is on duty. Crowley Maritime dispatched more than 18 Jones Act petroleum vessels loaded with gasoline and diesel to Florida ports in response to fuel shortages and evacuations caused by Hurricane Irma. The volume is enough to fill the tanks of more than 7 million vehicles. Crowley delivered nearly 800,000 pounds of food, water and tarp materials in the wake of Irma and began pre-supplying the island in advance of Hurricane Maria.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Jones Act carriers TOTE Maritime, Crowley Maritime and other U.S. operators carried more than 11,300 containers of relief supplies — and over 9,000 are still on the way.

The U.S. government-owned ships dispatched this season provide drinking water, electricity, housing, humanitarian aid, helicopter platforms and hospital services.

The Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration activated the RRF vessel SS Wright, which called on the island of St. Thomas. The vessel was loaded with FEMA containers, vehicles, and other stores. Among the cargo was a replacement radar system for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship Kennedy was dispatched to Puerto Rico by the Maritime Administration after it concluded its duties in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Kennedy will remain onsite in Puerto Rico to provide power, food, clean water and berthing to first responders.

The U.S. Maritime Administration has also dispatched the TS Empire State VI to Puerto Rico. The ship is 565-feet long and serves as the training ship for New York State Maritime Academy (SUNY Maritime College). It is capable of housing more than 650 people.

The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship Comfort was sent to Puerto Rico to provide care and hospital services for Puerto Rico. The vessel is crewed by civilian U.S. Merchant Mariners.

I am proud of the U.S. Merchant Marine and their efforts this hurricane season and throughout history. When the bell rings, the U.S. Merchant Marine answers the call. We climb the ladder, we don’t ask why, we ask how high.

William P. Doyle is a commissioner with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission. He is a 1992 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he worked as a cadet in shipyards in Rhode Island and Massachusetts breaking out ships for Operations Desert Storm/Shield. He also served 10 years as an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine. The thoughts and comments expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his fellow commissioners or the Federal Maritime Commission. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.