Norwegian Embassy, Washington, DC

Feb 23, 2007

SS Henry Bacon Remembrance
Sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy

Washington, DC
Delivered February 23, 2007

Douglas B. Stevenson
Director, Center for Seafaers’ Rights
The Seamen’s Church Institute

Ambassador Vollebaek, Mr. Carleton, Admiral Masso, merchant mariners, ladies and gentlemen:

We are here today to honor the crew of the SS Henry Bacon who, sixty two years ago this very day, heroically confronted the extremes of nature, the attacks of a determined wartime enemy, the failures of equipment, and they were confronted with the highest human calling: to sacrifice their own lives so that others might live. These merchant mariners were not supermen. They were in many ways ordinary men with human strengths and weaknesses. But, on their last voyage on the SS Henry Bacon, when confronted with extraordinary challenges, they responded heroically.

We are honoring the SS Henry Bacon’s crew for their extraordinary seamanship, bravery and sacrifice. We remember them for what they accomplished sixty two years ago and for what they represented.

Their actions remind us of the heroic allied merchant mariners and naval personnel who braved the world’s most dangerous sea route to keep vital supply lines open between the United States and Russia during WWII. Mariners who made the Murmansk Run encountered the extreme Arctic weather and regular submarine and air attacks to take necessary supplies to the Russians, enabling them to hold out against a resolute Nazi invasion.

Because of these men we are reminded that more than 243,000 Americans served their country as merchant mariners in WWII and more than 8,400 of them were killed in action. American merchant mariners suffered a higher rate of casualties in WWII than any of the United States military services.

And, by the SS Henry Bacon’s crew’s hospitality and sacrifice, we are reminded of the strong and enduring ties of family and friendship that continue between Norway and the United States.

I am most grateful to Ambassador Vollebaek and his embassy staff, especially Counselor Kirsten Hammelbo and Captain Jon Meyer, for organizing this afternoon’s remembrance ceremony. We are indebted to the SS Henry Bacon’s crew and the other merchant mariners who served in WWII - and it is important for us to remember them.

Today’s ceremony is a call to us to recognize the often unsung, unrecognized, unnoticed, and anonymous contributions merchant mariners have made – and continue to make – to our economy and our quality of life.

Like the unsung heroes of WWII, merchant mariners today do not receive the recognition that they are due. Very few of us appreciate that when we drink our morning coffee, when we drive our cars, when we heat our homes, or when we use almost anything in our daily lives, that these things were brought to us on ships by merchant mariners. More than 90% of everything that we consume today has traveled on a ship. To demonstrate this, let me recommend an exercise for you to try. The next time you go to the mall, look for the country of origin on the labels on products for sale. You will see that most of them originate in other countries, and they most assuredly got here on a ship. Maritime transportation is reliable, efficient, and economical - thanks in large part to skilled and dedicated merchant mariners.

Our economy is absolutely dependent on marine transportation, and it is therefore essential that our ports, merchant ships and merchant mariners be protected from terrorist attacks. Since 9/11 the maritime world has been preoccupied with security. We know that there are not enough police to guard every part of every ship and every seaport. Maritime security depends, therefore, on implementing the concept of “domain awareness”. In other words, security depends upon everyone pitching in by knowing their environment, by recognizing unusual or suspicious activity, and by reporting that activity to the authorities.

And, who is better able to recognize suspicious or unusual activity on ships, on the waters surrounding them and in the seaports than ships’ crews?

National and international maritime security regulations recognize merchant mariners’ unique capabilities, and they rely on them to assure shipboard and port security by being vigilant on their vessels and the areas around them.

Both the global economy and maritime security depend on merchant mariners. We need merchant mariners;

And, they need us.

But let me be perfectly clear. Merchant mariners should not be pitied or treated as objects of charity. They are highly skilled dedicated professionals who deserve to be respected and honored.

They are capable professionals, but they are also very vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and discrimination. The highly mobile nature of their work takes them from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and outside of any jurisdiction. Mariners are often far away from the institutions that provide stability, predictability, and the protections that land-based workers take for granted. They are strangers and friendless almost everywhere they go. They are usually foreigners in the ports they visit. They are often treated with suspicion and they are not protected by local port elected officials who represent their voting constituents, not visiting merchant mariners.

It is because of their vulnerability as well as their importance to commerce that maritime law has for centuries provided extraordinary protections to seafarers. Protecting mariners was one of the principal reasons for developing maritime law.

The first written maritime codes that appeared in the 11th to 13th centuries provided remarkable protections for ship’s crews, even by today’s standards. These codes probably followed commercial practices that had developed in Mediterranean shipping in the pre-Christian era. For example, seafarers’ ancient right to medical care is almost the same as today’s seafarers’ right to medical care, and it is still better than modern land workers’ medical care rights. The ancient codes guaranteed that ship’s crews would be repatriated to their home at the end of their voyage. The codes also required that ship’s crews be provided decent lodging and sustenance (by the standards of the day). The medieval Barcelona Code, for example, required that seafarers be provided bread every evening, meat three times a week and wine twice a day. (I guess that in some ways the ancient laws were even better than today’s.)

It is important to understand that the ancient seafarers’ legal protections were not enacted by enlightened lawmakers. They were not developed by magnanimous, charitable or human-rights motivations. Such concepts didn’t exist in the middle ages. The protections for seafarers were developed out of the self interest of maritime commercial enterprises. In simple terms, if you want your ship and its cargo to get to its destination, you need attract and retain skilled and reliable ships’ crews. Seafarers were the astronauts of those days. They were adventurous explorers working in a dangerous and unknown environment. They were honored and respected, and the laws reflected the importance of taking good care of them.

But, what happened? What happened was the 17th and 18th century European exploration colonization that required a lot of sailing ships and a lot of seafarers. 17th and 18th century shipping required many more seafarers than were willing to go to sea. Jails were emptied, drunks were shanghaied, and many other deceptive methods were used to get warm bodies on the ships. The merchant ship crews in that era were tough, unruly and unwilling workers. Shipowners and ships’ officers resorted to extremely oppressive measures to maintain control over their crews. The horrible abuses lead to the 19th century reformers. For example, my own institution, the Seamen’s Church Institute of NY & NJ began its efforts to improve seafarers’ conditions in 1834.

The most famous individual seafarers’ rights reformer was a Norwegian American, Andrew Furuseth, the great “Emancipator of Seamen”. In the 1890’s until his death in 1938 he fought tirelessly for merchant mariners’ rights. He led the maritime union movement on the west coast of the United States and pushed through several significant American and international laws reforming seafarers’ rights and status. Because of his efforts, the abuses that developed in the 17th and 18th century were largely eliminated.

In many ways, however, today’s seafarers’ conditions are similar to those that gave rise to the ancient seafarers’ protections. Motivations for protecting seafarers remain as relevant today as they did in ancient times. Seafaring is still a demanding and dangerous occupation requiring long separations from home. Ships still need skilled and reliable crews.

In fact, what I am hearing from ship operators, the biggest issue in the maritime industry today is the crisis of recruiting and retaining skilled and reliable mariners. There is already a shortage of qualified LNG tanker crews, and the worldwide LNG fleet, which demands only most highly trained and skilled mariners, is going to double by the end of the decade.

Ironically, at this time when the maritime industry needs to retain experienced mariners and to recruit more and more new mariners, port policies are discouraging good people from going to sea.

Some examples include:

  • Seafarers are increasingly vulnerable to criminal prosecution for actions that would not be criminal in any other occupation. Merchant mariners who are involved in a maritime accident are at risk of going to jail, even when the accident was caused by no more than simple negligence. Visiting seafarers make convenient scapegoats when things go wrong in ports.
  • Seafarers are expected to assume maritime security obligations, yet in some ports they are treated with suspicion, as if they were terrorists themselves and are restricted to their ships while in port.
  • There is a persistent tendency by some lawmakers who do not understand the special requirements of sea-going work to impose uniform land-based workers’ codes on merchant mariners thereby depriving mariners of their traditional seafarers’ rights.
  • Similarly, merchant mariners are increasingly denied access to courts and remedies that they need to protect their legal rights.

What can we do?

Time does not permit me to discuss all of the ways in which we might recognize and honor mariners, but as a starting point I can recommend actions on two initiatives, one which was the product of Norwegian leadership, and the other was the product of American leadership.

First, merchant mariners need to be recognized as the skilled professionals that they are. This can be accomplished by putting in place a uniform and reliable international seafarers’ identification system that would positively ascertain their identity and acknowledge their status as professional mariners. The mechanism for this is the International Labour Organization’s Seafarers’ Identity Document Convention (ILO-185). We are grateful to Mr. Georg Smefjell from Norway who with great skill chaired the deliberations at the International Labour Organization that produced the Convention. Widespread ratification of this convention would greatly enhance merchant mariners’ status, would facilitate shore leave formalities for mariners, AND it would provide significant improvements in maritime security. Unfortunately, very few countries have ratified ILO-185. We need to convince those countries that have not yet ratified this important convention of the importance of doing so.

My second suggestion also involves an ILO Convention. Bruce Carleton has already acquainted you with the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (ILO-186). What Bruce didn’t tell you was the vital role that he played in getting agreement on the Convention at the ILO. Bruce chaired the working meetings that fashioned the compromises that enabled the diverse interests at the ILO to reach a consensus on the Convention. I attended all of the preliminary ILO meetings that led up to adopting the Convention, and I can confirm to you that Bruce’s leadership, persuasion and diplomacy in chairing the meetings were the keys that opened the door to agreement on the Convention. (Did I mention that both Bruce and I are from Michigan?)

ILO-186 is the most significant development in the long history of seafarers’ rights law. It provides in one convention a comprehensive statement of seafarers’ rights that reflect both seafarers’ rights that have withstood the test of time as well as modern shipping realities. The Convention is easy to understand, is capable of ratification (unlike most ILO maritime conventions that preceded it), and it is enforceable. The most important aspects of the Convention are its underlying principles of respecting and honoring merchant mariners.

We should encourage all maritime nations to ratify this Convention at their earliest opportunity so that they might recognize merchant mariners’ contributions to their economy and security and to affirm that protecting seafarers’ rights and well-being is not a matter of charity or pity, but it is a necessary part of promoting maritime commerce.

Ratifying these two conventions will be a fitting remembrance to the SS Henry Bacon’s brave crew and a tribute to the long line of merchant mariners who preceded and followed them.

We are here to commemorate the courage, sacrifices, and contributions that the crew of the SS Henry Bacon made sixty-two years ago today, and we are recognizing the merchant mariners who have followed their example by continuing to serve us with skill and dedication. Let us never forget the debt that we owe to Merchant Marine veterans and our obligation to repay that debt by honoring them and those mariners who followed them with our recognition and respect.