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November 12, 1989
Drunk on Duty
The penalty for being drunk on a U.S. merchant ship is not as stiff as the public might believe after seeing Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood led away in handcuffs after the nation's largest oil spill.
A review of Coast Guard disciplinary records for 92 alcohol-related cases in the past five years shows a pattern of wrist-slapping and an almost total lack of criminal prosecution.
The law allows for revocation of a violator's license and even imprisonment, but penalties have been much less severe.
For four tense hours last December, American and British authorities were put on alert that a U.S. oil tanker had been seized by terrorists in the Eastern Mediterranean. As it turned out, the ship's radio officer was stammering drunk and sending false messages. His penalty: suspension of his license for two months and no prosecution.
A ship's officer from Seattle got drunk on three different vessels over a year - this after a 15-year history of alcohol-induced violence and insolence on ships. His penalty: a six-month suspension and probation, with no prosecution. He is no longer at sea, but only because he shot and wounded a man on shore while operating a fishing vessel. He is now in prison, where the Coast Guard has given him back his seaman's papers.
An intoxicated seaman with a long history of drunkenness and violence grabbed a pipe and chased a fellow crewman down the deck of a tanker docked near Anacortes, then floored the chief mate with a punch. The penalty: a four-month suspension and probation, plus a fine for obstructing a deputy sheriff - but no prosecution.
Of the 92 cases reviewed, only five resulted in license revocations. Six were dismissed. The average penalty in the other 81 was the loss of sailing privileges for less than three months.
In 36 cases, the only penalty was probation. In one, the violator was simply admonished.
Drunken drivers of automobiles get tougher treatment. In Washington state, first offenders spend a day in jail, pay a minimum $250 fine and lose their driver's licenses for at least three months, while second offenders spend at least seven days in jail, pay $500 to $2,000 in fines and lose their licenses for a minimum of a year.
The House last week moved to toughen U.S. Coast Guard enforcement, passing a bill allowing the agency to revoke or suspend a merchant seaman's license if he is convicted of a drunken-driving offense or other crime involving alcohol. But the Coast Guard has proven reluctant to use the powers it already has.
Coast Guard officials offer four arguments to explain or dispute what appears to be leniency in their system:
1. The Coast Guard has gotten tougher this year, and not just because of the Exxon Valdez accident in March. The agency has operated since December under other new rules governing the consumption of alcohol on ships.
2. Suspending an officer's license or seaman's papers for three months is a tough penalty for drunkenness on board a vessel. Except in extreme cases where a person is drunk at the helm of a ship, a gentle prod toward alcoholism treatment is often better than stiff penalties, Coast Guard officials say.
3. The Coast Guard is tougher on people who are drunk at the helm of a vessel than it is for other crew members.
4. Alcohol is not a particularly significant problem at sea.
But those arguments don't stand up under review of the Coast Guard's own records.
ARGUMENT NO. 1
Enforcement will be tougher under the new rules.
Alcohol has long been part of the life and lore of seafarers. While British sailing ships once allotted crewmen a daily pint of rum, the standard contract signed by U.S. merchant-marine crew members before joining a vessel says no grog is allowed.
But there was no federal law specifically prohibiting drunkenness at sea until 1984, when Congress called on the Coast Guard to establish a new regulation. And the Coast Guard didn't begin enforcing the new rule until last December.
The regulation says merchant mariners are legally intoxicated when their blood-alcohol level reaches .04, a standard similar to one used by the Federal Aviation Administration for pilots. Recreational boaters are judged by a more lenient blood-alcohol level of .10, the same standard used for Washington state motorists.
The law doesn't forbid use of alcohol on freighters and tankers but says crew members can't drink in the four hours before duty. Violation can mean a $5,000 fine or a year in prison. But penalties can be imposed only in a criminal court, not in a Coast Guard proceeding.
So far, the new regulation hasn't spurred tougher penalties. Fourteen cases heard in the first half of this year by Coast Guard administrative judges resulted in average suspensions of two months, and no revocations. That, in fact, was more lenient than in previous years.
One of the first violators handled under the new regulation was surprised by and thankful for his light penalty.
Charles Beaudette was a radio operator aboard the U.S. tanker Falcon Champion as it cruised the Eastern Mediterranean last December. Drunk after nursing a bottle of liquor he had smuggled aboard under his coat, Beaudette hit an alarm that signaled to authorities in England that his 668-foot ship was under terrorist attack.
Because the ship was under contract to the U.S. government, was scheduled to load diesel fuel for U.S. Navy ships in Greece, and was just a few hundred miles from the war zone of Lebanon, hijacking was considered a real possibility.
British radio operators relayed Beaudette's message to the Coast Guard's Rescue Coordination Center in New York. Before the ordeal was over, the Coast Guard had alerted the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI and the White House. Lt. Mark Faller and Lt. j.g. Matthew Wannamaker, the Coast Guard radio operators who handled the emergency, recalled taking it very seriously.
"We could have actually mobilized forces, the way I see it," Faller said.
Records of the radio and teletype exchange with Beaudette show that when he was asked to explain what was happening, he sent a garbled teletype saying: "WAS THREATENED BYU A TERRORIST A TAKE OVER BUT WAS A FALSE ALLARM. ALL SECURE AND SHIPSHAPE OLE BOY. TKS ALL THE SAME."
Pressed for detail, Beaudette told the radio operators the ship's officers were "scared out of their pants" by a threatened mutiny by the unionized crew.
When British authorities asked to speak with the captain, Beaudette pretended he was the captain, saying in a slurred voice that the radio operator was a buffoon, that he was sorry for the trouble, and "God bless your queen."
Faller and Wannamaker saw no humor in Beaudette's antics, and added that they had no idea whether he was drunk or just a nervous hostage.
"We didn't know there wasn't a guy holding a gun to this guy's head. He could have been drugged," Faller said.
The incident ended when the captain of the ship walked into the radio room and found Beaudette drunk at the telex machine with copies of his crazed messages at his side.
In February, Beaudette had a 45-minute hearing before a Coast Guard administrative law judge in Seattle. His sentence: probation and a two-month suspension of his merchant-marine officer's license.
Beaudette, who lives in Port Angeles, had a spotless record, and his employer described him as an exemplary worker. But he could have been charged with a federal crime, fined $10,000 and sentenced to a year in prison for calling in a false radio alarm. And he had clearly violated the Coast Guard rule against drinking four hours before a watch.
Faller and Wannamaker said they were surprised at the light sentence. "For all that transpired that night, I didn't think he'd be coming back to work," Faller said.
Beaudette completed his suspension and returned to the same tanker company as a radio officer. He said he was following an alcoholism-treatment program, and said his prior record justified the light punishment. But he admitted he was surprised.
"A greater suspension may have been in order, to tell you the truth," he said in a radio-telephone interview from his tanker docked in the Far East. "I was just goddamned lucky I was able to walk away from it with my career intact."
ARGUMENT NO. 2
A suspension is punishment enough.
The Coast Guard and its administrative law judges have authority to revoke a mariner's license forever for drinking on duty. In fact, a 30-year-old law requires revocation in cases of drug abuse.
Licenses that are revoked can be re-issued, with good behavior or treatment, in as little as a year.
However, records show that when it comes to drinking on ships, brief license suspensions - or even probation without suspension - are much more common than license revocations or criminal prosecution.
So do suspensions or probations work?
If the story of Michael Norman Bolger is any example, light penalties do little or nothing to discourage repeated drunkenness.
Bolger, who sailed on a dozen tankers, began collecting Coast Guard violations in 1973 when the government slapped his hand with a warning letter for being drunk aboard a ship. He continued in 1981 with an assault of a ship's officer, and in 1984 with drunken insolence.
He never received punishment greater than a six-month suspension of his license plus probation, and all the while rose in rank from seaman to officer in the merchant marine.
He had reached the rank of ship's second officer in 1987 when, during a one-year period, Bolger reported for duty drunk on three different vessels. The Coast Guard let him drop through the cracks.
In July 1987, Bolger was warned for sailing the freighter Sea Fox five miles off course. Three weeks later in the port of Santos, Brazil, he staggered up the gangplank of the Sea Fox an hour late for duty and intoxicated after a night of swilling what he says were very strong drinks. The captain fired him.
The Coast Guard in Philadelphia learned of Bolger's drunkenness from the ship's logbook and, noting Bolger's past record, an investigating officer told him he could surrender his license and get it back after completing alcoholism treatment. Bolger admitted to being an alcoholic, but refused treatment and said the Coast Guard was being unfair to him.
Bolger got his case transferred to his home port of Seattle and promised Seattle's chief investigator, Lt. Cmdr. Douglas Lentsch, that he wouldn't drink if he could make another voyage.
Two days later, while the Coast Guard was still deciding what to do about his antics in Brazil, Bolger was back at sea, as boatswain in charge of the deck crew of the freighter Philadelphia.
On Nov. 6, 1987, he was inebriated as the Philadelphia was preparing to sail from Kodiak, Alaska. He endangered the men he was supervising during the raising of the gangplank. The chief mate ordered him to his quarters, and when he refused, the captain fired him.
The Coast Guard learned again that Bolger had been drunk on duty, but his case remained backlogged in Seattle's Coast Guard investigations unit.
In June 1988, with two cases of drunkenness still pending against him, Bolger returned to sea aboard the freighter Westward Venture. He says he got drunk before boarding ship.
"I got drunk ashore in Tacoma. . . . They noticed it, but at that time we weren't in a hurry. We weren't leaving," Bolger recalled.
In August 1988, the Coast Guard finally convened a hearing to settle Bolger's case. Bolger didn't even show up.
The judge said Bolger had "little or no regard for the standards of behavior and conduct expected of crew members serving on U.S. flag merchant vessels."
But Bolger was given the same sentence he had received in 1981: suspension of his license for six months.
Bolger took himself out of action in late December by shooting and wounding a crewman on a fishing boat he was operating in Oregon during his license suspension. Fishing-boat captains don't need licenses.
Bolger's officer's license has expired, and because of the shooting incident, he's unlikely to get it back. But as he serves his prison term in Salem, Ore., for first-degree assault, the Coast Guard has returned his seaman's papers, which would allow him to work on tankers when he gets out.
"This is the most soberest I've been in my life," he said in an interview from prison.
ARGUMENT NO. 3
The Coast Guard is tougher on people who are drunk at the wheel of a vessel.
George Jordan, adviser to the Coast Guard's chief administrative judge, says that although he has no figures to prove it, he believes the agency has imposed stiffer penalties on violators who were drunk at the helm than it has on support-crew members.
The Times' analysis shows that, in fact, the penalties for drunken operators have not been significantly tougher.
Indeed, three of five license revocations over the past five years involved ship operators. But nine operators were only suspended, given an average of four months plus probation.
And that average would be just three months if not for a case where a towboat captain's license was revoked and the helmsman's papers suspended for 12 months after they and the crew got drunk while refueling at a dock on the Arkansas River. The reason for the stiff penalty? After the vessel left the dock, a drunken crewman fell overboard and drowned. He had wrapped himself in aluminum foil, an impromptu costume designed to scare the ship's pilot.
Other inebriated operators got lighter treatment:
In 1988, police removed the operator of a small, passenger-carrying river ferry near Sacramento, Calif., and found his blood-alcohol level was .25, 2 1/2 times the California threshold for a drunken-driving conviction. He also admitted imbibing before work on other occasions. His penalty: a two-month suspension and probation.
In 1987, a drunken tugboat captain was steering his 80-foot vessel so wildly in Hawaii that the barge he was towing smashed into two docked pleasure boats and ran aground. His penalty: a two-month suspension and probation.
In 1985, a drunken pilot of a towboat on the Mississippi River ran aground a barge that was carrying hazardous chemicals. His penalty: a three-month suspension and probation.
ARGUMENT NO. 4
Alcohol isn't a big problem on ships.
Less than half of 1 percent of all Coast Guard disciplinary cases involve sailors and officers charged with inebriation. Coast Guard records show that alcohol and drugs were the known causes of only 158 out of 29,000 marine accidents in the U.S. during the past six years.
But statistics can mislead.
For one thing, Coast Guard investigators rarely go to accident scenes to interview participants or test them for alcohol and drugs. In nearly nine out of 10 U.S. maritime accidents, the only Coast Guard investigation was a minimal review of the accident form filled out by the vessel owner, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Tom Purtell of the agency's statistics-keeping bureau.
In addition, unless there is an accident, the Coast Guard learns about tippling crew members only from ships' logbooks, which by regulation are mailed to the agency after each voyage.
Captains who get drunk are expected to log their own behavior, but Coast Guard officials concede that's unlikely.
Once a non-officer crew member gets his seaman's papers, he never has to re-apply for them - removing a key opportunity for the Coast Guard to check on driving records and other documents that would indicate a drinking problem.
Not that it would make much difference. Thousands of merchant-marine officers must re-apply for their licenses every five years, but the Coast Guard says it doesn't have time to check records of drunken-driving convictions.
Congress would like to give the Coast Guard access to a national register of driving records.
Such potential changes have been inspired by the case of Hazelwood, who is awaiting trial on charges of operating a vessel while intoxicated and may have given the nation its strongest argument that booze and ships don't mix. But it doesn't take an oil spill to demonstrate the dangers of drinking on ships.
In many cases, drinking has led to violence, which is such a danger in the confines of a ship that one U.S. judge wrote that a seaman who assaults shipmates is more of a risk at sea than a frayed rope or defective hull.
But that risk didn't seem to sway the Coast Guard administrative law judge who handled the case of Gorton Ferrell Jr.
Ferrell, a tanker crewman, had a record of drinking and assaulting crewmates when in August 1987 he boarded a Texaco tanker near Anacortes staggering drunk and hours late.
The captain fired him and Ferrell responded by chasing the ship's pumpman down the tanker deck, brandishing a steel pipe and threatening to kill him. When the chief mate intervened, Ferrell slugged the officer and knocked him to the floor.
Skagit County sheriff's deputies took Ferrell away, and witnesses said they thought they would never see him at sea again.
The case was handled by a Coast Guard judge. Ferrell was described in court papers as a chronic and assaultive drunk.
The law clearly would have allowed the judge to revoke Ferrell's seaman's license forever, and the prosecutor could have charged him with assault and battery.
Instead, Ferrell's seaman's license was taken away for four months, and he was placed on probation for six months. Skagit County authorities dropped assault charges and fined Ferrell $125 for obstructing a public servant. Ferrell, who was unavailable for comment, still has his merchant-marine papers.
"I don't think he should have ever gotten his seaman's papers back, because he wasn't dealing with a full deck," said Texaco dock worker Sylvia Caywood, who witnessed the assault.
"If somebody else thinks it ought to be revocation, maybe they ought to be judge," said Coast Guard Judge Roscoe Wilkes. "I call them just as I see them."
SIGNS OF CHANGE
The evidence indicates that drinking can be dangerous on merchant ships, and that the Coast Guard's handling of cases has done little to dissuade it.
But there are also signs that things could change. The Exxon Valdez accident has inspired high-profile reforms.
Arco Marine Inc. is giving its tanker captains breath-alcohol tests before each departure. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. guards are testing anyone suspected of being drunk at the gate of the oil terminal in Valdez, Alaska.
Nineteen seamen have failed the test so far, said pipeline officials.
Alcohol tests aren't regularly administered at other tanker ports, including those in Washington state, where crew members spend more time ashore than at Valdez. Dan Palmer, a cab driver in Ferndale, Whatcom County, near the Arco and BP refineries, says a dozen crewmen who are regular customers of his are also regular drinkers who return to their tankers "obviously impaired."
It remains to be seen whether reforms will make a difference in the apprehension and prosecution of drunken mariners. But there is little doubt that alcohol will remain a part of life at sea.
As tanker consultant Arthur McKenzie puts it: "Show me the man that can sail on a tanker with a very difficult social life and not drink, and you have a very remarkable person."
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