Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top 10 Stories Of 2009

Note: an earlier draft of this post, including a different photo, was posted here yesterday by mistake. The text remains the same except for for some fixed typos and clarifying edits. Sorry for any confusion and Happy New Year.

As a new year begins, the mainstream media look back at the top stories of 2009. The maritime media are no different, and it's interesting to compare the two, as it may indicate the level of awareness by the media and thus the public of maritime affairs. The trade journal Work Boat does an excellent comprehensive year-end review, so let’s take a look at their Top 10 maritime stories of 2009 and see how the same stories fared in the national media (for Work Boat's complete year-end analysis of these stories, click here.)

Weak economy hits barge operators. The economy was the big story in the mainstream media, but few outside the trade and business journals took note of the (in some cases) 30-percent drop in barge demand and rates. With so much of the nation’s trade, especially commodities, shipping by barge (see my post on the Economics of Tugs), this is an often-overlooked economic indictor. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin took note of this story in a larger series about the collapse of the state's economy.'s Paul R. LaMonica alludes to this in a generally upbeat post about shipping stocks taking a hit, then rebounding dramatically.

Recession, drop in commodity prices hits OSV operators. OSVs are the offshore supply vessels that run crew and supplies to drilling rigs and other “oil patch” operations, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil prices, new exploration, and the economy in general can have a huge effect on OSV “day rates” and thus one of the most important sectors of the US maritime economy. A few mainstream media outlets followed the story, all of them in the affected communities. Business Week followed the rise and fall of oil prices closely.

Some improvement in mariner licensing. Mariners have been hit with a double whammy in the last few years: increased screening and credentialing requirements resulting from post-9/11 legislation, and the US’s decade-long effort to bring US mariners “up to code” internationally in training and certification standards. The Coast Guard, suffering it’s own increased workload due to its increased homeland security role, has had trouble keeping up. This tends to be a very 'inside baseball" type of topic and got no coverage in the mainstream media.

Hawaii loses Superferry. The super-fast Superferry (pictured above) fought everything from hostile legislation to blockades, but was ultimately done in by insufficient revenue. This got a little more coverage than most of the other stories on the list, with significant stories by the Los Angeles Times, among others.

Stimulus package pumps money into shipyards. About $100 million was appropriated to assist US shipyards and their workers, mostly through government contracts. As might be expected, the major coverage was in areas home to shipyards expecting stimulus dollars. The Toledo Blade covered the topic, as did

Bankruptcy filings pick up steam in '09. The failure of GM and other large companies tended to dominate the mainstream media, although again local outlets like the Snohomish County (Washington) Business Journal noted local shipyard bankruptcies.

Navy awards additional LCS contracts. The new Littoral Combat Ships are designed to operate by stealth in the shallow coastal areas traditional combat ships can’t always access. The program saw massive overruns (in the neighborhood of 300-percent) and was cancelled after the launch of the USS Freedom in 2007. It was revived in 2009. This received little notice outside the maritime and business press, although Reuters did an interesting article on it.

Delta Queen steamboat grounded. Built in 1890, the Delta Queen has been operated ever since by a series of owners. The 176-passenger paddle wheeler had also needed a series of exemptions from construction and safety regulations that came into force in the ensuing decades. Although still functioning as a hotel, legal battles over those exemptions have kept the Delta Queen tied to the dock. The story received more attention than most on this list, partly because candidates Obama and Biden had promised during the 2008 election to work to extend the vessel's exemption, a promise they subsequently dropped. Good coverage by both the New York Times and the Marietta (Ohio) Register.

More funding needed for inland projects. Lock and dam repair and construction in the US is seeing some of its lowest funding levels in years, despite Obama Administration commitments to infrastructure improvement and hard times in communities that rely on inland waterways trade. The Riverside, California Press-Enterprise ran interesting articles about this, which also received coverage in papers and websites serving farm communities in the Dakotas. See also my post on Locks and Canals.

"Green" boats get real in 2009. The commercial maritime industry is already several steps ahead of the automotive and aerospace sectors, with many working vessels already using biodiesel, hybrid technology, and even solar power. Good coverage from Business Week, as well as a local take from the Wilmington (Delaware) News-Journal.

It's interesting to note that two maritime stories from 2009 that received a lot of attention in the mainstream news did not make Work Boat's list: the seizing of the Maersk Alabama by pirates, and the launching of the world's largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas.


  1. Great story - however you might want to amend the Hawaii Superferry story. The company was put out of business by an adverse ruling by the State of Hawaii Supreme Court that put an injunction on the ferry until completion of an EIS that reinterpreted the State's Environmental Protection Act to require not only direct, but also (undefined) indirect environmental effects.

    The indefinite sidelining of the ferries and the company's (and now MARADs) inability to charter the vessels during the recession meant the company could not cover the mortgage costs on the vessels, thereby forcing bankruptcy.

  2. The court specifically ruled it unconstitutional to grant a single entity, in this case the Superferry, an EIS exemption. The Superferry web site cites this decision as the reason the Superferry had to stop running and why it subsequently went out of business. Fair enough: a vessel can't make money if it can't operate. On the other hand, plenty of vessel operators without such exemptions had troubles, up to and including bankruptcy, in 2009. The Work Boat article states that "...ridership had been growing after a slow start. But the most important item, revenue, never reached financially sustainable levels before the service was shut down after a decision from the Hawaii Supreme Court last March." In other words, the Superferry had financial problems before the court's decision.