It is time for a MARAD stand down

This week, Senators Roger Wicker and Susan Collins wrote the Secretary of Transportation expressing their frustration with MARAD’s failure to fully restore Sea Year and its poor communications and transparency with “Midshipmen, Congress and stakeholders.”  Disturbingly, the Senators reveal that despite being informed by MARAD on December 23, 2021 that the Sea Year pause cancellation had been lifted without impact on the midshipmen, they had received constituent reports that as of January 25, 2022, “at least 35 students will be 50 days short of the number of sea days required to sit for their licensing exam and graduate on time. The Senators requested that Congress receive weekly updates

“on the current status of Sea Year onboard commercial vessels and on the ability of students to obtain adequate sea days to graduate on time.”

(Emphasis added.)

The emphasized language in the above quote is important. It shows that the message is getting to our representatives in Congress that the Academy’s Sea Year is about training on militarily-useful commercial ships.  No substitute is acceptable. It is that training on militarily-useful commercial ships that allows Academy midshipmen to walk out Vickery Gate and on to commercial ships as Strategic Sealift Officers (“SSOs”) capable of immediately supporting our military in times of national emergency with no further training necessary.

Much as all of the above is important, I find the Senators’ letter interesting because they hit very close to what is likely the only true solution to the issue of SASH in the maritime industry.  After noting that MARAD has provided no documentation as to how how “the feedback of students, unions, commercial carriers, experts, and other stakeholder groups were incorporated into the creation of this document” [spoiler alert: most input was ignored], the Senators state:

“Cultural change and strategic planning to address these serious issues cannot be completed without the involvement of the entire maritime community.”

Please.  Go back and read that quote a second time.  Then think about what MARAD is doing. It is trying to address SASH using a voluntary regime that applies solely to Academy midshipmen during their Sea Years.  MARAD is not trying to address SASH amongst the unlicensed ranks. It is not trying to address SASH by a licensed officer on an unlicensed mariner. It is not trying to address SASH by a licensed officer on a lower ranking officer. It is not even trying to address SASH committed against a state maritime school student who is sailing in the same billet on a commercial ship that was filled by an Academy midshipman before the Sea Year pause cancellation.  

You are not going to fix SASH in any industry by saying “We are going to protect the interns from SASH but not the rest of our employees.”

The Senators recognize that it is going to take the whole industry to address this problem and that is sooo close to the bulls eye. But there is an inherent assumption in the Senators’ admonition to MARAD that explains why MARAD has never succeeded in addressing SASH — it is the wrong agency for the job.  I’ve never been shy about criticizing MARAD, but in this case, the reason MARAD cannot succeed in addressing SASH at sea is because it is completely outside of its mission. MARAD has a limited role to play in commercial shipping. It provides vital funding, to be sure, but it has almost no power to regulate the industry. It has no enforcement power over the industry. It has no role in staffing vessels (other than assigning cadets to berths aboard ships for sea training.) And, after training Academy midshipmen to become future licensed officers (and providing funding and support to state maritime schools to do the same with their students), with very limited exception, it has no further role in any licensed officer’s career.

Other than raising awareness on campus of the evils of SASH and trying to instill in future officers the importance of protecting all from SASH, there is very little MARAD can do. When MARAD becomes aware of a SASH allegation, it can work behind the scenes to try to get a shipping company and/or maritime union to address the problem. And by all reports that have reached me, when that outreach occurs, the companies and unions take it seriously. Because of privacy issues, of course, the steps that MARAD, the companies, and the unions take can rarely be publicized.

Unpublicized behind-the-scenes steps don’t generate headlines. MARAD exists in a political atmosphere and has to answer to the President, the Department of Transportation, and Congress. Thus, when a SASH incident becomes a political issue, there is tremendous pressure upon MARAD to show that it is doing something. When Midshipman X went public with her horrific account, MARAD’s initial reaction was not a knee-jerk, shut-down-Sea-Year reaction. Instead, it promised to take appropriate steps to address the safety of midshipmen and to make sure that input from midshipmen was “a part of any decisions that could potentially affect our Sea Year training program.” Some of that input, such as this letter from 18 female midshipman in the Classes of 2022 and 2023, urged against “removing us from what we strongly believe are the best training platforms for us.”  But, four weeks later, the Secretary of Transportation (who was already being subjected to criticism for the DOT’s response to the supply chain crisis) received a letter from six Senators and Congressmen who gave their opinion that “the USMMA should not proceed with Sea Year this term.” Now MARAD was under pressure to show that it was taking action.

Unfortunately, MARAD has so few options for addressing SASH that when it needs to show action for political/media purposes, the only option that is readily available is to stand down or pause cancel Sea Year with the caveat that Sea Year will resume when MARAD has come up with yet another bureaucratic protocol that it hopes it can persuade the shipping companies to voluntarily adopt.  The stand down or pause cancellation punishes the entire class of victims and potential victims it is designed to protect. It does nothing to solve the problem of SASH within the industry and, if anything, diverts attention and resources away from addressing SASH on an industry-wide basis as shipping companies must suddenly devote huge resources to addressing the Sea Year pause cancellation.

And talk about missing the forest for the trees: The rape of Midshipman X was not evil because it happened to a midshipman. It was evil because it happened to a human being. We need to address SASH in the entire industry.

But, a Sea Year pause cancellation allows MARAD to report to Congress and the media that it is addressing the problem. Let’s face it, in any bureaucratic hive such as MARAD, something that gets Congress and the media off of your back is a “solution.”

Now think of how perverse this “solution” is: Because MARAD’s response to SASH during Sea Year is to stand down or pause cancel Sea Year, MARAD is creating a disincentive for a midshipman to come forward and report SASH to the Academy/MARAD. A midshipman victim knows that not only will s/he be victimized a second time by being denied Sea Year (and possibly a timely graduation), but also the reporting of SASH will likely harm another 400 or so midshipmen who are suddenly stranded without a Sea Year. MARAD’s “solution” of standing down or pausing cancelling Sea Year is horrible policy. 

Contrast MARAD with the U.S. Coast Guard. The USCG has regulatory control over, and a duty to help safeguard, all crew members aboard a ship. It can adopt rules and regulations (after public comment, thereby ensuring all stakeholders can offer input) that govern ship board operations. It can prescribe procedures to be followed when someone aboard a ship reports a sexual assault (for example, procedures governing evidence collection; when and how SASH must be reported; and protection from retaliation). It has trained criminal investigators that it can quickly deploy to meet a ship anywhere in the world to investigate a crime and preserve evidence. The USCG’s law enforcement status and license disciplinary power lends immediate gravitas to any investigation it undertakes. The USCG has the regulatory and subpoena power to compel the maritime unions and shipping companies to cooperate. (Compelled cooperation is a good thing because it protects the unions and shipping companies from litigation for privacy breaches if they report a member or turn over evidence to the USCG because they are compelled to do so.) The USCG is ideally suited to be the exclusive agency for addressing SASH in the maritime industry.  And, with the task assigned to the USCG instead of MARAD, midshipmen would no longer need to fear that reporting SASH would result in the draconian“standing down” or “pausing” cancelling of Sea Year to the detriment of an entire class of victims and potential victims.  

MARAD is the wrong agency for the job because it lacks the requisite power over the industry.  Congress should require MARAD to stand down and it should direct the USCG to take charge and develop a plan that is designed to address SASH in the entire industry and protect all members of the industry from SASH.


  1. This culture of criminal activity has to be treated as such. The last 2 paragraph outline perfectly what needs to occur. The ability to report SASH must be easy to do. Response must be immediate and with law enforcement conducting the investigation (USCG) with the needed authority to do so. Prosecution must happen for those were evidence can support. Follow up support must be available to the victim. Training on SASH must be continual and as a provision of employment. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY a command leadership modeling in continued support of zero tolerance for SASH. As stated perfectly by Mr Conlin (from a previous article). The answer is not rocket science, the right resources have to be brought to bear to smash this awful culture that unfortunately has resided on so many vessels. DO THE RIGHT THING FOR ALL OF THE MARINERS!

  2. I fully agree.

    Unfortunately, it appears that a consistent undercurrent in all of the USMMA SASH shipboard incidents (and likely many at KP itself) involve excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Apparently one of the barriers to reporting this type of SASH incident is the potential for disciplinary action taken by KP for violation of Midshipmen regulations regarding consumption of alcohol. Having consumed any alcohol before an incident aboard ship has always been a quick way to lose your license. Perhaps KP isn’t making this point strongly enough to the Midshipmen. Any sort of alcohol related incident is sufficient to kill a career for any member of the military, let alone drugs. The point is that while we all knew folks that drank aboard ship, and may have done so ourselves, we all knew what the consequences would be. SASH may be an additional consequence of violating this standard.

    Further, it would appear that an actual rape/assault aboard a merchant ship is a Serious Maritime Incident as defined by 42CFR4.03-2 which includes the following: “(2) An injury to a crewmember, passenger, or other person which requires professional medical treatment beyond first aid, and, in the case of a person employed on board a vessel in commercial service, which renders the individual unfit to perform routine vessel duties;”

    If this is not sufficient to deal with SASH aboard ship, then the USCG could, through their rule making procedures, add to this portion of the CFR to include it. Some might argue that doing so would encourage shipboard personnel to “cover up” any incident. However, the penalties for failing to report an SMI to the USCG are severe. Thus, there would be significant legal consequences for a ship owner/operator who is found to have failed to report such an incident.

    In addition, as a result of an SMI, the USCG requires alcohol & drug testing of the individuals involved and the ship owner/operator is subject to civil penalties for failure to do so.

    Clearly MARAD/DOT has none of these regulatory powers, and “voluntary” efforts will not succeed. Since this issue has become a major safety interest to the Congress it is time to put its solution in the hands of the regulatory agency that is actually responsible for the safety of merchant mariners, and not the agency whose sole function is to dispense driblets of government cash to the industry.

  3. Andy

    Nice to see you are posting again. I have been watching the unfolding situation. Incredibly frustrating for all involved. I agree with your post on focusing on the interns vs solving the underlying issue. Solving the underlying issue seems like a bridge too far for the USCG. I have ultimate respect for the CG but their ability to investigate in a timely fashion ( before degradation of evidence occurs ) seems to be a serious challenge. Its like saying NYC PD will investigate a incident in Mombasa. I know, I know, that’s their role. But I think the change really needs to happen at the employer and union levels. Everyone talks a good talk but culture takes a long time to change and requires a lot of reinforcement to stick. Until we get everyone to buy into an aversion to SASH in all forms on all ships, the USCG will have a hard time solving a lot of cases. Before everyone starts throwing stones about the company’s actions to date, take a look at the reports. Its not a Kingspoint Midshipmen issue. It’s an industry issue and we need to find a way that doesn’t punish the mids as we work to solve this. My fear is it will take a long time with many bumps in there road going forward.



  4. As with the Safe Tank Entry protocol, the Master of a ship should be obliged to complete a detailed SASH report for his management and the USCG, before either arrive on board ship. If he has been made aware of such an incident (and maintained confidentiality), but fails to report it in this manner through established and secure channels, in writing, he may be sanctioned by being fired. Keeping the accused in detainment would also be allowed, if such a person poses a continued risk or there is a preponderance of circumstantial or physical evidence. If a doctor is on board, he or she should supplement such a report with a medical examination and retain any available physical evidence.

    This principle should extend to all forms of violence and criminality on board the vessel and the lives the master is supposedly responsible for. In this fashion an unmistakable message is sent to all persons on board, particularly the officers, who would be engaged with similar reporting obligations and duties.

    It took one year, but I successfully had a Staff Captain on a Panama-flagged cruise ship disciplined for sexual harassment in just this manner, after I wrote several letters directly to shoreside management, although I was not in command. I circumvented the captain, who I knew would have deep-sixed it otherwise! At the time, I felt very strongly about this, so much so, that I felt ashamed to be wearing the same uniform …

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