It’s been several days since oil gushed out of broken pipeline in the waters off Southern California. While investigators dig into the range of possible causes for the spill, recovery efforts have focused on cleaning up the oil, affected seawater and beaches, as well as caring for the marine life in the area. We sat down with two experts from Cal Maritime: Master Mariner and Professor of Marine Transportation Steve Browne (above left) and Dean of Cal Maritime’s School of Maritime Transportation, Logistics and Management Don Maier (above right) for some perspectives on the incident and its possible causes. We also talked about careers in the maritime industry that events like this bring into sharp focus.

Steve, the authorities quickly zeroed in on the possibility that a cargo ship’s anchor may have been responsible for damage to the pipeline. Why do you think they suspect that?
It would seem to be a logical assumption. A significant amount of force would have been needed to displace the pipeline more than 100 feet. A ship and her anchor is one possible source of that force. And there are many ships in that area, particularly during this time of congestion in the LA / Long Beach ports.

Don, you closely follow supply chain and logistics. We all know it’s a challenging time in this arena. Is it possible that sheer number of ships waiting outside the Port of Long Beach ultimately led to this event?
It’s difficult to say that the number of ships was the ultimate cause. However, the probability certainly increases. The situation could be compared to auto traffic: the more cars are added to any roadway at a given time, the higher the probability of an incident.

Steve, most of the general population doesn’t think all that often about how ship captains set their anchors. Is it particularly tricky to do?
There are many factors that must be considered when anchoring a vessel. When planning an operation, ship captains must carefully examine the navigation charts for underwater hazards such as pipelines, phone and internet cables, power lines and shipwrecks. To be safe, ships should be anchored at a significant distance from any known hazard. In addition, the ship must be well away from other anchored vessels, platforms, land,and floating objects because a vessel will “swing” around the anchor as the wind and current shift. Once a safe anchorage is selected, a ship will slowly approach with the goal of stopping the vessel very near the desired location. This can be challenging because it is very difficult to control the course of a ship when it is moving at slow speeds, particularly if the wind and current are significant. When the ship is at the desired location, the crew will drop the anchor and slowly back down (i.e. move in reverse) to lay out the anchor chain in a line along the ocean floor. It is important to avoid piling up the anchor chain because it will be very difficult to raise later if it is a tangled mess. Ship’s generally pay out a length of chain that is 5 to 7 times the depth of the water. The weight of the chain on the bottom of the ocean keeps the anchor from dragging along the sea floor.

Don, is there any easing of the supply chain issues on the horizon or is this something we can expect to be living with for some time?
I’m fairly certain that the situation will be with us until at least January of 2023. I don’t believe the supply chain is “broken” although it does emphasize how critical the supply chain is in a global economy. We need to keep in mind that what we are dealing with was still caused by a global pandemic. The pandemic caused manufacturing facilities to close, causing inventory levels to reduce even lower. We also had some of the world’s busiest container ports to close or operate at significantly lower productivity. When the valve was opened, ports around the world have struggled to keep up. As the ports move containers, another valve was opened emptying significant volume on warehouses, intermodal terminals, and the necessity for truck drivers. Here again, there has been a crisis in the low numbers of available truck drivers for years, even prior to the pandemic. We also have not investigated whether the sheer volume that are hitting our ports is based on “new” economic growth, or if we are still trying to catch up to pre-pandemic inventory levels. Government intervention and regulations at this point will only cause further delays. In simple terms, we need to elements to occur: more vaccinations in Asia and more patience in the US.

Can both of you explain a little bit about how Cal Maritime trains cadets for both safe navigation and business and logistics?
Steve: We train our cadets at many different levels. They learn the theory in classroom lectures and they put the lessons into practice on our small boats and our simulators on campus. And, during the summer, they sail on our training ship and on commercial vessels, such as oil tankers, container ships, tugs, and passenger ships. Our curriculum is a nice combination of the intellectual and the hands-on. By the time they walk across the stage at graduation, they have already been hard at work in their profession for four years.

Don: Regarding supply chain, our faculty has designed a curriculum to educate our cadets on each element (or link) of the supply chain. From plan, source, make, and deliver, we want our cadets to be well-prepared for a position in the industry upon graduation. We want our cadets to be ready to work rather than needing to learn about what supply chain or logistics is – our cadets hit the ground running from day one. Our cadets are also required to conduct an intense Co-Op or internship that is directly related to supply chain logistics - not just any job, but in a role that they are preparing for as a career. The experience is invaluable as it provides the real hands-on experience, deeper, real-time knowledge of the work environment, and helps develop them as professionals. Where some college graduates may not have direct industry experience, our supply chain logistics cadets do. Our supply chain logistics program requires cadets to participate in a ‘watch’ program. In fact, some of the cadets are selected to operate what we call “Inventory Watch” whereby cadets are physically managing the inventory in our boathouse. Essentially, our cadets are managing the parts supply for some of vessels similar to what they may experience in a variety of industry settings.

Established in 1929, California State University Maritime Academy is the only degree-granting maritime academy on the West Coast. Located in Vallejo, California, the campus serves nearly 1,000 students and offers undergraduate degrees preparing students for careers in engineering, transportation, international relations, business, and global logistics. The new oceanography degree program launched in the fall of 2020. Cal Maritime also offers a master’s degree in Transportation and Engineering Management, as well as a number of extended learning programs and courses.