Oil-tanker crew member chronicles struggles with drinking, drugs

Seattle Times
April 1, 2009


By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

After the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, alcohol was found in the blood of the tanker captain, Joe Hazelwood.

Hazelwood was acquitted in court of operating the vessel under the influence of alcohol, but a National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that his judgment was likely impaired by drinking. The finding spurred the Coast Guard to step up oversight of alcohol abuse by licensed mariners.

Twenty years later, a new memoir by Darryl Hagar, a veteran licensed mate of Alaska’s oil-tanker fleet, offers a disturbing look at how one mariner managed to keep his Coast Guard license in the post-Exxon Valdez era even as he struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.

Hagar said the Exxon Valdez oil spill helped curb shipboard drinking in the tanker fleet but that he and other addicts continued destructive binge drinking on shore.

Again and again, Hagar would arrive for tanker duty, sickly and hung over. He once boarded a tanker in California with cocaine still in his system.

“Each time I went back to sea, it was with untreated addictions and a chaotic mind and personality,” Hagar wrote in his autobiography, “The Man Overboard.”

“I was both the hardest-working guy on board and an untreated alcoholic and drug addict,” Hagar wrote. “I lived a double life.”

Even after Hagar’s Maine driver’s license was pulled in 2000 for a third conviction of operating under the influence, he didn’t report that suspension to the Coast Guard. So Hager was able to avoid an investigation that could have led to revocation of his mate’s license.

“You are not required to self-report,” Hagar wrote. “And I would have been stupid to do so.”

Hagar, in promoting the book, has compared his struggle with alcohol to Hazelwood’s, who also had his automobile driver’s license suspended at one point during his career.

Hazelwood, in a bristling e-mail to Hagar, said the two men have little in common. “I’d appreciate it if you would stick to your story and leave any comparison to my seagoing or shore life … alone,” Hazelwood wrote.

Much of Hagar’s work was aboard ships operated by Alaska Tanker Co., a firm with four double-hulled vessels that ferry crude from Valdez to Washington state refineries and other markets.

Alaska Tanker officials say the company has an outstanding safety record and conducts unannounced testing of licensed crew, as well as testing of individuals who appear intoxicated. .

“Alcohol and drug abuse is a very serious problem throughout society,” said Anil Mathur, president of Alaska Tanker. “That’s why we put very strict measures in place.”

Coast Guard officials say captains, mates and other licensed crew must apply for renewals every five years. As part of that renewal, the Coast Guard now does background checks that should pick up drunken-driving convictions or other criminal behavior. “Basically, if you are not competent to hold a driver’s license, then why should we entrust you with a Coast Guard license?” asked Lt. Cmdr John Park, a senior investigative officer in Seattle.

Parks said his office typically handles only a handful of investigations each year dealing with alcohol and drug abuse by licensed seamen.

Hagar’s downward spiral ended in 2005 when he turned himself in to a company personnel manager. He checked into a rehabilitation program, emerging as an outspoken crusader against alcohol and drug abuse.

“I’m making the case that people can recover, no matter how serious the problem,” Hagar said. “I’m the living example.”

For more information about Hagar and his book, check out his Web site at http://www.themanoverboard.com.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

~ by fredfelleman on April 1, 2009.

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