John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: August, 2022

Captain Joseph Hazelwood

On the morning of Saturday, July 23rd, I received the following message from my buddy, Geoff Jones: “You will probably want to see the story about the late Capt. Joseph Hazelwood.”

Geoff’s message found me sitting on the back porch of our house in Marlow, New Hampshire enjoying my breakfast. I took a sip of coffee, then lowered my cup and murmured “You poor S.O.B., I hope you are at peace.“ I opened the lead story in a maritime daily blog known as, gCaptain Daily, whose headline read: “Captain Joseph Hazelwood, Former Master of the Exxon Valdez, Passes Away”

Mike Schuler, the author put the captain’s age as 75 and noted that he died on Friday, July 22nd   Hazelwood was born on September 24, 1946, one of the first Baby-Boomers.

Geoff’s understatement that he thought I’d probably want to see this notice, made me smile. My career at Marsh & McLennan and in the marine insurance market was defined by the disaster that began in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil causing one of the worst environmental disasters that impacted over a thousand miles of shoreline devastating the virgin shoreline and millions of creatures that swim in the sea and fly in the air. The only good news was no human lives were lost.

Curiously, we were also in residence in our Marlow house when the Valdez stranded on that Good Friday. I still recall receiving a call from Mike Kern, an insurer with whom my team had placed a portion of the Exxon program. “Am I screwed?” he lamented.

“I don’t think so, Mike. The biggest spill to date cost $100 million and you sit excess of $600 million.” Satisfied, he hung up to enjoy his Easter weekend. Little did we know that the enormous clean-up costs, the resultant reparations, claims by the fishing industry, the people of Alaska, the state of Alaska, Uncle Sam and all of the lawyers and others would result in Exxon going through that $600 million like the Accela goes through Metuchen, New Jersey.

Capt. Hazelwood was treated like a rented mule in the press. Big bad Exxon quit on him in a New York minute. He lived in Huntington, NY and, when he arrived back home, a despicable District Judge compared Joe to Hitler and set a punitive bail treating him as a flight risk. He was accused and convicted in the newspapers, not just the rags, but also The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, of having been inebriated while navigating his charge, the Exxon Valdez, outward bound from the port of Valdez to the open sea.

The only people and institutions that stood by Hazelwood were his SUNY Maritime, his Alma- Marta and his classmates who had become maritime lawyers and came to his defense.

You may ask, “Why should I believe the tale you are telling?” The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Since I had to spend eight years of my career as the primary witness for Exxon in their dispute with their insurers, I developed a unique insider’s understanding of what transpired that fateful night on the bridge of the Exxon Valdez.

Once the captain maneuvered the tanker into the outbound shipping channel leading to the Gulf of Alaska, he received communications from the Coast Guard advising him that there was ice calved from a local glacier in that channel. In response, he asked the USCG if he could cross over inro the incoming channel that was free of ice?

The USCG confirmed that channel was free of incoming traffic so the Exxon Valdez could make passage there.

Paper work was then, as it is now a great burden for ships’ captains. Hazelwood had to bring his own log up-to-date documenting the Exxon Valdez’s departure, so he turned over the watch to the third mate with specific instructions when to move into the incoming lane, how long to stay and when to return to the outgoing lane.

The next significant thing Captain Hazelwood experienced while working in his cabin was that the tanker had stranded on Bligh Ridge…and so it goes. Hazelwood immediately called Coast Guard to report the accident.

Blame fell on Hazelwood and to Sperry, makers of the navigation system.

Perhaps human error? During my long ordeal, gathering evidence, discovery and multiple depositions, I heard several times from different sources that there was another explanation. It seemed that the third mate, male, and the helmsman, female, had a thing going that may have caused them to take their eyes off the road and the Sperry navigating machine.

When asked about this years later in a CNN interview, Captain Hazelwood replied, “If you want to find the real story, it’s easily available.”

As far as I know, he never expanded on this. Joe was a real man. He was the captain; the safe navigation of the ship was his. He sucked it up, took responsibility for being in command and took the real story to his grave.

Curiously, not one single newspaper carried his obituary. Perhaps that’s a blessing?

RIP Captain Joseph Hazelwood, you paid your dues.          

OBX 2021 and 2022

Dear readers, I realized that at some point in writing my two OBX pieces, I would need to explain my relationship with the beach and the ocean. I have always hated the beach, but, as a kid, I found joy body surfing in the Atlantic Ocean. Most Sundays in July and August, Mom and I would attend the 7:30 Mass at St. Aloysius R.C. Church, rush home after mass and pack up for our ride to the beaches in Far Rockaway. My Aunt Mildred would pick-us-up in her 1950 Dodge. I would occupy the back seat with my cousin, Patty, two-years younger than me.

One quarter admitted us to a municipal parking lot with access to the beach so long as we arrived before 10 am. We hauled our stuff over the boardwalk, back onto the sand and toward the surf. We planted the umbrella and established our beach domain with wooden folding chairs and blankets. I attacked the surf ASAP where I lived most of the day. The surf is where I learned to swim on my own and ride the waves on my belly…glory days.

My memory of that time plus the continued love of a beach vacation by my family motivated me to first go to the Outer Banks in 2019. We celebrated Mary Ann’s 75th in 2020 at the house called Run-A-Way Bay, liked it so much that we renewed this house in Duck for 2021 and 2022.

As for me; I hate the sun, the sand, bathing suits, and lately, the surf. But still, I find the sound of the mighty Atlantic crashing against the shore irresistible, and I sit on the deck in the shade as I listen to the surf and smell the ocean as I recall those long-ago days in Far Rockaway.

Run-A-Way Bay fit us like a glove. The second floor featured an inside dining room and an outside picnic table that was perfect for the eleven of us. An unexpected extra was access to a full-size swimming pool about one-quarter of a mile from the house. Part of a separate resort called, Sanderling, apparently, our rental included the use of their facilities. The pool provided all the access to swimming that I needed.

We again avoided crowds and eating in restaurants during both our 2021 and 2022 stays. Mary Ann and I made one exception in 2021 when we ate on an outdoor patio one night.

Drew announced that he would not wear shoes during that stay and he kept this commitment. His closest call came when we went to Five Guys for take-out. No shoes, no service, but I delivered his burger and fries to the car.

What the hell, we renewed Run-A-Way Bay, for 2022.  Another great beach vacation despite a troubled extended weather system that parked itself along the coast from Key West to the Carolinas. It produced daily forecasts of doom and gloom, but, lucky us, the awful weather never made it as far north as Duck.

Late in the summer of 2021, Mary Ann and I came across a clearance sale of beach paraphernalia at an Ocean Job Lot store in Newport, NH. A open sided gazebo caught our eyes that came with four weights (price extra) to keep it steady in moderate wind. Fortunately, its dimensions fit into our SUV and we brought it down to Duck where it became one of the hits of our vacation. It survived to make the return trip north.

Drew had just graduated college and a new job kept him from joining us. It became clear that this would be our last OBX vacation. At our arrival pizza dinner, I announced that I would take as many who would come to Kitty Hawk to see the Wright Brothers memorial, exhibits and the museum. In the end, Cace, Marlowe, Tom and Mary Ann signed on.

As Cace and I walked through the exhibits we came across a photo box that showed the images  of famous American aviators and astronauts. The screen in the center changed the images every ten-seconds, but on either side, there were permanent images. On the right side, Orville and Wilber Wright. On the left, a color photo of Sally Ride.

My 15-year-old grandson looked down at me and asked: “Why is her photo on display instead of Neal Armstrong’s?”

“Cace, she was the first American woman astronaut to go into space.”

“C’mon Grandpa, Armstrong was the first person, ever, to walk on the moon!”

Point made.

I rewarded Cace, myself and all of us for their loyalty in joining me to see Kitty Hawk by having  take-out lunches from a nearby Five Guys.

Early on Saturday morning we joined the seemingly endless convoy of vacationers making their way back to the mainline. Between traffic and needed senior stops, we made it home in just under twelve hours.

Once again, we broke even. Back home in Connecticut, Jodie texted Mary Ann: “My favorite vacations, ever. I wish I could spend all summer on that beach.