The Book of the Week is “Until the Sea Shall Free them” by Robert Frump, published in 2001.
This wordy, repetitive, yet suspenseful book tells the detailed story of the February 1983 shipwreck of the Marine Electric, among many other briefly described maritime catastrophes. The scurvy old 605-foot bulk carrier transported coal in the North Atlantic Ocean from Boston, MA to Norfolk, VA.
The investigation of what happened conducted by the Marine Board– a panel of industry officials– was subject to the vagaries of the maritime legal system. Safety inspections of ships were performed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. The National Transportation Safety Board was yet another regulatory body of maritime matters.
The Marine Board generated reports on shipping accidents. In rare cases, its recommendations might include Justice Department investigation and prosecution of a shipping company executive, or a review of the license of a ship’s captain; the latter, for criminal law violation, like for negligence in putting men’s lives at risk for failure to follow safety procedures.
A ship’s officers were usually blamed for disasters because ship owners and builders had a friendly relationship with the federal government. Political contributions helped elect candidates who turned a blind eye to regulating safety in marine commerce.
The ship’s top officers were under tremendous pressure to go on a voyage despite safety violations. Whistle-blowing behavior might get them fired. There was always the threat that a rival union would be awarded their current shipping contract. Some men waited more than a year before they could be assigned their next job on a ship.
For years, disasters were waiting to happen, due to the “rationalization, denial, greed and stubbornness” in connection with repairing and mantaining of decades-old ships. In the mid-1970’s, more than one fifth of all deaths from shipping accidents were due to structural failures of the vessels.
Heartbreakingly, during a winter storm at sea, some crew members die when they are so close to surviving. The lifeboats are buffeted about by rough waves and dashed on rocks or into a seawall, or men who lack protective clothing and proper safety equipment, fall into the freezing water while trying to board a rescue boat.
As in many other industries, shipping is one in which the big companies care more about money than seeking to reduce dangerous conditions. Despite poor safety records and the expenses of lawsuits and damage to their reputations, the large players stayed in business through the decades of the twentieth century. On the flip side, in accidents, numerous greedy seamen abused a lenient system that awarded them big bucks in personal injury cases.
Read the book to learn the fates of the parties associated with the Marine Electric after its fall from grace.