Captain Joseph Hazelwood

by John Delach

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.