By Captain John Konrad
It was early 2002 when the telefax on the bridge of my 564’ exploratory oil ship started spitting out an urgent broadcast to all Americans living in India: The US embassy was being evacuated of all civilian contractors and non-essential personnel. I was very young the last time these warnings proved deadly. The Iran Hostage Crisis happened in 1979, but years later, when I learned about it in school, I was shocked by one simple question our teacher asked: How could 74 Americans be so stupid? The embassy had been taken over once before, earlier that year, and the State Department had issued plenty of warnings urging Americans to get out of the country. So why did the 74 risk their lives and stay? Is any job worth the risk of torture and death?
Just over 20 years later, my embassy was urging me to evacuate the country while a voice in the back of my head attempted to put my brain in high alert by flashing the pictures of those hostages in my brain. But I didn’t run. The threat that year was aimed at India, a nuclear standoff between the country and it’s bitter rival Pakistan. Some experts predicted the tension between the two countries had passed the point of no return and nuclear war was eminent. On July 4th 2009, while building a ship in South Korea, I found myself in the same situation again when North Korea began launching missiles in my general direction. The embassy was not evacuated this time but many civilian contractors left the country. And again I stayed.
The reason for standing my ground was not self denial, rather it was that my feet where not affixed to the ground; I was floating on a ship.
The key factors to surviving an nuclear attack, as taught in Chemical Biological Radiological Defense (CBRD) training taken by most US mariners, are time, distance and shielding. You want to maximize the distance and the amount of heavy material between you and the impact zone while minimizing the amount of time you spend in the area. And for this, a ship is your best option.
Modern ships are constructed of heavy steel which provides a strong physical barrier between you and fallout contaminates. Ships can also be sealed shut by heavy watertight doors which prevent not only water from entering, but also air. To let workers breath and prevent mold from growing within the hull, ships force air through ventilation ducts and down into large cargo compartments. But in the event of a nuclear attack, the ventilation can be secured which makes the internal rooms essentially large, oxygen rich, air tanks.
But the amount of oxygen in these “tanks” is limited to a few days, so it’s still important to get far away from the center of an attack. During 9/11, authorities immediately shut down all trains and bridges then secured the air space making it impossible for most residents to leave. There was only one way off Manhattan–by boat. And in just 9 hours that day, over 500,000 people where evacuated from the island by an armada of ferries, boats and small ships. To date it remains the second largest evacuation of history, surpassing another maritime success: the World War II evacuation of dunkirk. Leaving on a ship is both fast and effective so it should be considered a primary means of escape for all who live near the water.
This method has a few other advantages. Even if you don’t live on a populated island like Manhattan, when Shit Hits The Fan, the roads will quickly become congested in one direction, away from the city, but should be clear for those heading towards the water. Ports also contain a high degree of trained professionals, equipment and resources for handling disasters. They are self-contained, meaning, if all emergency personnel are called into a disaster zone, the port authorities will always stay behind to keep the port open for incoming military relief vessels. With police occupied elsewhere, city streets will be open to looters but, behind the high fences of a secured port, the police will likely have little to do beyond manning the perimeter.
Prior to 9/11 the perimeters of a port that were open to visitors, most had fences. But a simple lie could get you past private security guards. Today the fences have an extra layer of razor wire and gates are manned by heavily armed police and military guards. You can still enter, though, if you have a Transportation Workers Identification Card (TWIC) and seamen credentials. Both are available to every American Citizen.
The process of obtaining these credentials start at a Coast Guard regional exam center. Located throughout the country, these offices are government help desks for people looking to begin a career at sea. The process is not for everyone. The Coast Guard is a military organization and will take your fingerprints to conduct an FBI background check, but if privacy is not your primary concern, then getting seamen’s papers is a simple process of filling out a few forms and waiting for your documents to arrive. The seaman’s papers look like a passport and are accepted as such in many maritime countries. The TWIC card is issued by the TSA and looks like a drivers licenses, allowing you into any port in the country. It also provides special privileges in airport security lines and at small airports nationwide.
Once inside a port you will need to know which ships are departing soon and which may be detained by Coast Guard units. It’s important to have a handheld VHF radio. Available for around $100, a good VHF will give you access to channel 16, the communications frequency of the Coast Guard, and the port’s working channel. It will also pick up NOAA weather and emergency broadcasts as well as reports from vessels already out at sea.
The remaining problem is getting aboard a ship. One option is programs provided by the US Maritime Administration, know as MARAD. The Mariner Outreach System is a government database of mariners who are willing to help in the event of a national crisis. Registering for the program is simple and comes with no obligation. And there is one major advantage: If a crisis happens, you will be called to help move ships out of the port. MARAD also has programs for volunteers interested in emergency management but your best option is the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The auxiliary is best know for providing boaters awareness classes and assisting yachts within the confines of a harbor but all members have access to two critical things: boats and uniforms. The uniform of the auxiliary looks very similar to that of a navy officer and will pass as such to all but the trained eye so walking up the gangway of a ship, in uniform and willing to help, is an excellent way to get a free ride out of town. And if the big ships won’t let you aboard, you can commandeer a boat to assist in the evacuation efforts.
If government cooperation isn’t an option for you, consider volunteering at the port’s seaman church. Each major port has a recreation room and kitchen sponsored by a local and national religious organization which give foreign seaman a place to relax and make phone calls home. In the event of a terror strike, these organizations will be busy getting bibles and last minute supplies to the ships departing. They are also an excellent hub of information about each ship and the people who work aboard them.
Useful Information Links:
- Navy CBRD Manual
- Getting Seaman’s Papers, FAQ
- Getting A TWIC Card
- Mariner Outreach System (MOS)
- Seaman’s Church
- Coast Guard Auxiliary
Captain John Konrad is Co-founder of gcaptain.com, the world’s leading maritime blog, and author of the book Fire On The Horizon. He holds the US Coast Guard’s highest license, Master Unlimited, and has sailed ships from ports around the world. John currently lives in Morro Bay, California, with his wife and two children.