Life in Salt: John Konrad, USCG Licensed Master of Unlimited Tonnage, Author and Editor in Chief of gCaptain
by Owen James Burke
(Photograph by Charlotte Rushton)
“When you’re out in the middle of the ocean…you just have this abundance of time which leads to thought, so I think I think differently than the average person. I forget who said it, but they said ‘All man’s troubles can be narrowed down to the fact that we have trouble sitting alone in a room for an hour.’”
John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master of Unlimited Tonnage, has sailed all around the world aboard merchant ships, and by age 31, was made captain of one of the largest, most complex — and most expensive — ships on the seas. He is also an authoritative expert on maritime industry affairs and the Editor in Chief at gCaptain, the world’s most popular maritime blog.
His highly-acclaimed book investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster, entitled Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, chronicled the story of the people and the explosion of the rig, which resulted in more than 200 million gallons of crude oil spewing from a hole three miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scut: What first drew you into the sea?
JK: I’ve loved the sea as long as I can remember. I grew up on a little fishing island in the Bronx —
Scut: City Island?
JK: You know it?
Scut: I used to work on a charter boat out of there.
JK: We moved to Larchmont and picked up sailing. I had a mentor who owned a shipping company and — my dad was a firefighter, we didn’t have money for the yacht club or anything, but the mentor kind of put me under his wing and taught me how to sail on a big boat. Then I did some dinghy racing, and I always liked fishing with my grandpa on the south shore of Long Island. So, I knew I wanted to do something around boats, and first I thought it was going to be the Navy. Then I looked at the Merchant Marine. I went to the Naval Academy…then transferred to SUNY Maritime and found out what the Merchant Marine was, and the pay was excellent, the travel was excellent, and I signed up and became a ship’s officer.
Scut: How long were you with the Merchant Marine?
JK: I got my captain’s license, so I was at 10 years. First I did tankers up in Valdez, Alaska, then some gasoline tankers on a government ship, and then I decided to go into the oil field. When you look off of Santa Barbara there are the oil rigs there, and they’re attached to the bottom. Now we’ve sucked out all the reserves that are close to shore, and now we have to go farther out. That means deeper water and you can no longer connect to the bottom. Instead of a rig, it’s more of a ship. When I started in the oil field in 2002, there were only 36 of these drill ships. These were the largest, most complicated and expensive ships in the world. There are about 130, now, I believe.
I was a geek in high school, ran track and spent too much time in the computer lab. I always loved computers. These ships are the most technologically advanced. They have to stay on location right above the oil well. You do that with an advanced computer system that connects the GPS with sonar release. Everything on the ship is sensor, and it’s all networked together.
It was a good joining of my interest for the sea and computer science, but back then, no ship had internet. The first time I went out on a ship, we didn’t even have GPS. It was SATNAV — you get your position once every 12 hours and phone calls were $6.00 a minute. Even now, only 20-30% of ships have internet.
Scut: What did it feel like when you first took control of one of those things? It must have been terrifying.
JK: Yes, it was. It’s a big responsibility. You know, there are kind of two sides of it. One is the absolute responsibility, but there’s also the absolute freedom. You don’t realize how dependent you are on everything around us. Small problems nowadays can lead to major highways shutting down, access to goods. At sea, we bring everything with us — food, and we always fish off the ships, but you also have a water maker, a desalinator plant. The entire continent of North America could sink under the water and it wouldn’t affect you. It’s a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of freedom. There are no real laws out at sea, there’s no 911 to call, and you’re doing everything yourself.
Scut: What’s your favorite thing about the ocean?
JK: My favorite thing about the ocean is waking up to the beauty every day. We were shopping for a house in San Diego years ago and there was this one shitty house on the hill. I said, maybe this is the one house we can afford. I went in there and it was $1.4 million. I told the realtor “this house isn’t worth more than $400,000, it’s a dilapidated piece of junk.” She said, “You’re right, it’s $400,000 for the house, and the million dollars is for the view, because every single night you get to see the sun set over the ocean. I looked at her and said, “Well, I get to see the sun rise over the ocean, set over the ocean, and I get paid very well for it.” The gears were turning in her head as if the laws of physics didn’t pertain to me.
Sea turtles are my absolute favorite animal, because you’re a thousand miles out, haven’t seen land for a week, and here’s this turtle just paddling really slowly. You can walk faster than a turtle powers, and you wonder, how the hell does he get out here. It’s not a beauty you can really see in a picture. In the middle of the ocean, you can’t take a picture — the color of the ocean is because of the depth. The light’s traveling through depth, and the camera only takes the surface color and you miss the third dimension. There’s a beauty there you can’t capture on film…You can photograph the Grand Canyon, but you can’t photograph the ocean. It’s just the daily beauty…
I love fishing and sailing so much, but that’s the problem with the merchant ships. It’s not the same as boating. You’re one step away from the water.
Scut: You can’t reach over and wet your hands, no.
JK: Or jump in the water.
Scut: How has the sea changed you since you were young?
JK: It’s had such a profound effect since as far back as I can remember, growing up on City Island and fishing at a young age, it’s always been part of my life. I think it gives me different perspective. There’s a lot of nervousness and fear in the world and people are stressed out. A lot of that stress is — well it’s probably because of bloggers like us — but there are so many new and interesting things going on and so many problems that we didn’t have access to before the telegraph came. There was nothing to stress about…Well, when you’re out in the ocean, there’s the isolation and there’s also this independence: the world is having problems, but I can also take care of myself…it gives you a strong independence and everything isn’t so critical because at the end of the day, it really eliminates arrogance…When you get out in the middle of the ocean, you’re dwarfed by everything…It puts things in perspective: the one thing in our lives that everyone lacks, that’s truly precious, is time.
When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, there’s not much to fucking do. So, you just have this abundance of time which leads to thought, so I think I think differently than the average person. I forget who said it, but they said ‘All man’s troubles can be narrowed down to the fact that we have trouble sitting alone in a room for an hour.’
When you’re on a ship, you’ll be the only one in the room for weeks straight, and it really gives you time to think through problems, without being bombarded by blogs and the latest trends. So I think the sea really teaches thought. I think it’s a college education in just sitting down quietly and contemplating.
Scut: Paid solitary confinement, huh?
JK: Ha, yeah.
Scut: What’s the most frightening thing that’s happened to you at sea?
JK: There are two kinds of frightening. There’s frightening that’s kind of slow to develop, like a good horror movie which always starts out pretty innocuously, and then starts building and you get to a point where you want to get out but you can’t — that’s a storm at sea. A bad storm can last days, or a week, and on that supertanker I was on, it was a thousand foot ship, you could see the whole ship turning as it hits a wave. If I never see another storm at sea, I’ll be happy. It’s a pretty miserable experience, but it’s kind of a dull fear. There’s nothing there that hits you, it’s just a) being miserable, and b) being there’s nothing you can do to escape a storm. If you get in trouble here on land, you can just kind of press a button on an iPhone and an ambulance will come and it will be okay. At sea, there’s no one coming and there’s nothing to do. That’s the dull fright.
The most acute fear, though, was a rogue wave I hit off South Africa. The book The Wave talks about rogue waves and how they form. We hit a rogue wave off the tip of South Africa where the warm Indian Ocean current hits the Antarctic Ocean and it rises, which creates these massive waves, which are pretty rare. People have spent 50 years at sea and never seen one, but I had the opportunity to see one in person and it scared the shit out of me.
Scut: Can you tell me a little more about this rogue wave experience?
JK: I was alone on the bridge of a ship in absolutely calm water. It was one of those days where the ocean looked like a mirror it was so calm. A beautiful day, and absolutely nothing going on. We’d just rounded Africa, there wasn’t anything within a 50 mile radius, and it was a beautiful but monotonous days at sea. I was second mate on the ship then, so you had the unlicensed guys — who steer the ship and do the maintenance — and then you’ve got the officers. You graduate maritime academy, then you’re third mate, second mate, chief mate, and then captain. I was second mate, and the chief mate (my boss) came up and we were talking and I had my back to the window. His face turned ghost white, and I said, “What’s the matter?” He didn’t even talk, he just pointed. I turned around and off in the horizon was this enormous wave. So, we didn’t have a helmsman, no one to steer the ship, no one to do anything. So I said, “Dan, I’m going to turn the watch over to you. You’ll be in charge, I’m going to steer.” So, I’m this unlicensed guy who’s going to steer the ship, and I put the ship in hand steering. I steered up the side of it like I would a dinghy, you know, a small boat.
Scut: Like a 45-degree angle?
JK: Exactly. We went up the side and — my camera was right there and I didn’t take a picture. I didn’t think of anything except, holy shit. I was 60 feet above the water where the bridge was and I was looking up at this damn thing. Then there were three waves after it which were about half the size and then the water turned into probably 25-foot seas. Everything that wasn’t tied down well went. We had this 200-ton piece of drilling equipment, which had been welded to the deck. Our captain at the time had told the drilling crew, “We’ve got to chain this down.” They said, “Hey Captain, this is welded to the deck. It’s secure.” He said, “It’s not secure enough,” and they didn’t believe him. That whole 200-ton thing broke loose of its welds and started acting like a cue ball in a pool table. It just started bouncing off the inside of the derrick. There was a two-foot-tall steel I-beam that was so heavy itself that we couldn’t move it with a crane. When this piece of drilling equipment hit into it, it bent it like a pretzel.
Scut: But everyone was alright, huh?
JK: Yeah. There were cuts and scrapes and bruises, but everyone was fine. No serious injuries. We were lucky. There are all these ships and you don’t know why they sink, again because we don’t send ships into the middle of the ocean to recover these black boxes, it’s just something that society’s not willing to pay for for whatever reason…A ship sinks in the ocean every week…these stories get underreported. It’s an enormous environmental disaster.
Scut: Speaking of environmental disasters, what made you decide to write Fire on the Horizon?
JK: Well, I had worked for Transocean, which is the company that owned and operated Deepwater Horizon, and I blew the whistle in the Gulf a year before the disaster. They were having some problems with fire safety…I was subsequently fired from the company…Then I went to work for BP afterwards, and I met a lot of the BP people, so I knew a lot of the people who were onboard the rig. So, I had their story, and I also had access — through gCaptain — to the Coast Guard and the corporate side.
So I went down to the trial, and I was in the press box sitting next to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and they’re talking about hydraulic failures on the BOP pod and the journalists were saying “What’s going on here? I don’t understand it?” So I sat down and explained it all to them…I was trying to help the NYT journalist and he just handed me his laptop and said, “Can you just edit it?”
Joe Shapiro, an investigative reporter for NPR, said “John, you know more about this than any single person,” and he suggested I write a book. My instinct was, who am I to write a book? but I just bit my tongue and said I’d do it…I thought it was an important story.
We tried to eschew the environment and the politics and everything and just bring it down to the fact that these are people…I can count the number of times I’ve been asked to pump in the water, and I’ve refused to. No one wants to work on an oil rig, yet there’s tremendous beauty and opportunity to really do good. And, there’s the fact that the oil companies really want to hire people who care about the environment. No one who drives a Prius will volunteer to go work on an oil rig, but the companies actively recruit those people.
I was captain of a billion-dollar ship at the age of 31, and I did that by walking into the interview and saying, “I’m an environmentalist, I care,” and they love that, but it’s not socially acceptable. We really have to do more and understand that it’s a beautiful job that’s very well-paying and you can make a difference, but nobody wants to do it. I really wrote the book so people could understand the human element of these stories.
Scut: I think that needed to be done. What’s an average day like for you?
JK: At sea, it’s fairly boring. You wake up very early in the morning and you work for either 12 hours on the oil rigs, or on the ships it’s four hours on watch, making sure you don’t hit anything, which is pretty hard to do in the middle of the ocean because there’s not much there. Then you do four hours of work on deck or whatever your specialty is, then you have four hours more on watch, and then you have eight hours to sleep. So, it’s a very simple life.
Here at gCaptain, everyday is different. I wake up in the morning and see what’s happening in the oceans in the world and try to find the stories that matter. What I love about being a blogger the most is calling very interesting people and getting amazing opportunities to talk to the smartest people in the world about large problems and breaking news. My core passion…it took me many years to find this out, is that I really love to learn. Being a blogger gives you the opportunity to go to college everyday, except I get to call whoever I want. Being the largest, most visited maritime website in the world has the advantage that they usually return my calls, which wasn’t always the case.
Scut: What’s your favorite book about the sea?
JK: Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad. I think it’s a great primer. It’s a really short book and it talks about a ship going into a typhoon and it what it was like to be on a ship in this storm. Like I said, in a rogue wave like I hit, there’s a lot of intensity and a lot of adrenaline rush, but the real danger or fear, and the real opportunity to coalesce as a crew…happens when you’re strained over a long period of time and pushed to the limits. If I never see another storm at sea I’ll be happy, but that’s a book that really puts things in perspective.
Scut: What’s your favorite gadget to have at sea?
JK: It used to be that if you were in the middle of the ocean, you were in a hole…you just sent your report to the company via radio signal once a day and that was it. And now with this iridium network satellite communicator [by Delorme], it can GPS-track you and you can send text messages…the last time I was in the middle of the ocean, I called a buddy up and he said, “Hey John, come over, the Yankees are playing.” I said, “I can’t really do that, I’m in the middle of the ocean now.”
Another gadget that’s related is this personal locator beacon. It’s kind of a miniature EPIRB. You press one button and wherever you are in the world, the Coast Guard sends people to come get you. If you’re in the middle of the ocean and you press the button, it may take a couple of days to reroute a merchant ship to come get you, but they will come get you. And, you can link it to all sorts of different services. I have this one service, Global Rescue, that hires former navy seals. You press this button and it’s like having your own personal seal team come to your rescue.
Scut: What else have you got going on? What’s happening with gCaptain?
JK: We’ve tried to expand in a lot of different areas, and we came to the realization about a year ago that what we do best and better than anyone is the news. We have better sources…The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and all the major papers used to have a dock reporter — a guy who just walked the docks everyday and talked to captains and longshoremen. Now, with budget cuts and, again, it’s probably the blogger’s fault, those specialists are no longer there. Most of the journalists are generalists. So, when a ship crashes, there’s no in-house maritime expert who knows people and has been down to the dock. A lot of what we do is helping news organizations get the story right.
There’s the story that’s published in the newspapers and magazines, and then there’s the story at the captain’s table. When something big happened and I was home for my time off, I used to always ignore it and say, ‘let me get back to the ship and talk to the other captains, and then I’ll find out what’s really going on. Well, gCaptain has really launched the lightbulb idea of ‘why don’t we publish what’s being said at the captain’s table?’
Ships are the most environmentally effective means of transportation by far. There are a lot of opportunities to use ships more in the world and the ocean is right in my backyard but I talk to people everyday in Morro Bay and I’ve met very few people who’ve gone more than 10 miles out, into international waters…That’s where our push has been lately: helping the major media get the stories right.
Amidst the realm of degenerate journalists and bloggers (I say with a cheeky grin), the maritime industry — and the ocean at large — would do well to have more John Konrads and gCaptains on its side.
Today, John Konrad lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife, where he operates gCaptain from his office: a 43-foot custom-designed cat-ketch, which he sails almost daily.
Built in Taiwan in 1981, his cat-ketch-rigged S/V gCaptain was the first sailboat to have freestanding carbon-fiber masts, designed for singlehanded circumnavigation. If they ever find a lull in their schedule, Konrad and his crew may put her design to the challenge with an ocean crossing or three.