Sea News for Inlanders

I started thinking about the sea recently and how news of the maritime world is largely absent from most American news outlets. Unless there is a local oil spill or something happens to or on a cruise ship, most news outlets just consider anything out of sight as not news.

It is difficult to get video at sea, and, of course, the rule of television is: no video, no interest.

Well, the world’s seas are still heavily traveled, and there are still pirates at work. In 2004, there were 325 pirate attacks at sea, and 30 crewmen were murdered by these buccaneers, according to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre.

Most of the attacks occur in Indonesian waters, writer Joseph Conrad’s old sloshing grounds (Conrad was a merchant seaman for years before he began writing novels). The waters off Nigeria and Somalia are classified as the most dangerous in Africa for pirate attacks.

I also discovered that from 1980 to 1994, 149 bulk carriers and combination ships sank with the loss of 1,144 lives. Bulk carriers tend to be vulnerable because of their long length and heavy cargo. Meanwhile, some German researchers, using satellites, have discovered that rogue waves, some nearly 100 feet high, are more common than previously believed.

After the Valdez oil spill, Congress, as usual, rushed through legislation that was not well-thought-out. Double-hull tankers are soon going to be mandatory because of international regulations. A professional merchant-marine officer, however, wrote an interesting article pointing out the dangers of double hulls.

Oxygen and oil fumes can form an explosive mixture, so oil tankers pump in waste exhaust from the engines to keep the oil tanks oxygen-free. The space between the tanks and the hull, in double-hulled ships, contains oxygen. He said it is only a matter of time before oil leaks into this space, and then a hull-piercing collision will cause one heck of an explosion. A larger safety problem is the greedy owners’ cutting back on the size of the crews.

Most of us, I guess, have contact with the sea only at the beach and from novels. Nevertheless, the maritime industry and the world’s navies are as important as they’ve ever been. They are beset by problems that require more visibility, at least as much as Tom Cruise’s latest squeeze or the Michael Jackson freak show.

A longtime problem is ship owners who register their ships under foreign flags to evade U.S. regulations and union crewmen, a practice that causes both pollution and safety problems, not to mention diminishes the ranks of our merchant seamen.

The use of foreign flags was probably the very first instance of outsourcing American jobs in order to operate cheaply and avoid safety and environmental regulations.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the sea. I’m glad I crossed the North Atlantic twice by ship, once in good weather and once in very stormy weather. There’s nothing like being at sea to put the human being in proper perspective. The immense oceans are hostile environments to us folks. Without the steel corks we float on, we could not survive. One feels properly small when at sea.

Even though I’ve lived in Florida most of my adult life, I’ve never been that fond of beaches. For one thing, I covered the police beat in a seacoast city for years and consequently associate the beach with drowning. Most of the people who drowned were "good swimmers," because bad swimmers like me don’t take chances in the water.

Here’s one final tidbit of sea news. Daytona Beach, Fla., has the largest number of recorded shark attacks in the world (who knows what happens in places where they don’t keep statistics). But don’t worry. Florida sharks don’t like the taste of tourists, so they take one nip and spit them out — most of the time.

Well, that’s my potpourri of sea news for all you landlubbers and inlanders. If you want more, you can Google "maritime industry." There is, believe it or not, a world not reflected on the television screens.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969 to 1971, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.