Episode 4: John Konrad
In this episode, we invite John Konrad, founder and CEO of gCaptain and author of the book “Fire on The Horizon.” He is certified to captain the world's largest ships, has sailed from ports all over the world, and has built some of the world's most advanced ships and handled billion-dollar offshore construction projects in some of the world's harshest maritime conditions. Today, John discusses the need to trade critical daily products and services to keep our industries running and create jobs.Listen now (01:05:08)
Full episode transcript
- Captain John Konrad is a veteran oil rig captain and a former employee of Deepwater Horizon owner Transocean, and the founder of the world's leading Maritime blog gCaptain. So in today's episode we're going to be talking to John about working in the maritime industry and what drove him to eventually starting a media company that has earned millions of eyeballs. Hello again, I’m your host Blythe Brumleve, and I'm proud to welcome John as one of our first, official guests of Maritime Means, a podcast by Spire Maritime dedicated to building a community of innovators. John welcome into the show!
- Thanks for inviting me Blythe, I’m excited to be here.
John aspired to be a combat pilot. However, he needed to be closer to home after his father's death. He subsequently opted to transfer from the Naval Academy to the Merchant Marine School, New York Maritime Academy. He traveled to several locations on one ship, which led him to fall in love with ships.
- We're happy to have you. So for folks who may not, you know, be aware of all of the work that you do especially in the media landscape. Can you kind of give us an eagle-eye view of when you knew that working in Maritime was the industry for you?
- I didn't know. I loved sailing when I was a kid. But then I saw the original Top Gun, and I wanted to be a fighter pilot, so I went to the you know. I studied really hard, ran a lot of track to get those varsity letters and get into the Naval Academy. And unfortunately my dad passed away and I had to get closer to home in the Bronx. So I transferred from the Naval Academy to the New York Maritime Academy, which is Merchant Marine and then I still wasn't too interested in ships but the whole school goes out on one ship for the whole summer. Right now they're they're heading to Europe, Ireland. But I just fell in love with the ships there at the school and outside of the biggest moving objects built by man. And it's funny cuz we always have the debate, me and Craig Fuller, CEO of FreightWaves, which is better: the ships or the planes? And I got to say I came from planes, and then I transferred to ships. So ships are definitely better in my book.
John was a computer geek in high school, so he was recruited to an offshore oil project to find oil in India's Bay of Bengal. John then met the Ambani brothers and obtained a Guinness World Record for the largest oil and natural gas discovery in the world at the time. After some time, John became involved with social networking sites and the internet revolution, which finally led to the formation of gCaptain Media.
- It's interesting you say that because I did see that kind of back and forth on Twitter, with both of you guys, you know, active as being industry veterans. And then also owning a media company seeing that sort of interaction, that back and forth is awesome within this industry, because this is such a new landscape that I think a lot of us find ourselves in where traditional media has existed for so long. And then you have some of these new digital platforms that are coming in and sort of just dominating the space, and really dominating in coverage. So that leads me into my next question. With the media side of things for you with gCaptain, so you're working in Maritime, and so you're in New York, and how do you decide that media is next for you? Did you spend a lot of time being a merchant mariner? Tell us a little bit about that transition for you.
- Well, I would say, I'm embarrassed to say, but I was a computer geek in high school. So I didn't, you know, when I ran cross-country track, right? So, you can imagine, I didn't have a robust social life at that point. I don't even think I kissed a girl until college. So it is kind of embarrassing. But most people get into maritime because they're kind of getting away from society in the digital, especially back then we didn't have satellite internet. And I was this computer geek. So, I was recruited to this offshore oil project to discover oil in the Bay of Bengal India. And because I knew the computer system that we needed to run this new type of ship. And because I had that license. And there I met the guy running the project. They were the Ambani Brothers, Mukesh and Anil Ambani, and they were big entrepreneurs. Their father had put all the family money into a chemical plant to do the bright colors on like the Indian sarees. They made the chemicals and then he leveraged that entire company for an oil refinery. And then he releveraged the entire oil refinery, to find this oil and gas and they needed guys who knew computers on ships. So we found, we got the Guinness book of world records for the the biggest oil and natural gas find in the world at that point. And they were very excited, and they were like, you know, if we were American we would move to Silicon Valley because that's where the excitement is. So moving there. And I started getting involved with Facebook and this website dig which was like the first social media website and I was 6 months off from shipping. So you work 6 months and then you're off 6 months and during the six months off I was right in the middle of this kind of tech revolution and we started ski websites first and then snow and they were very successful. And then, in the summer, the snow melts and I already had the server and everything run up and I was like let's start a marathon website so that was the beginning of gCaptain.
Initially, supplies were generally shipped by placing them in pallets lifted by the shipboard crane, which takes a long time. Shipping containers were soon after the one invention that lifted more people out of poverty in the developing world and improved the lives of everyone in the developed world, particularly in the marine industry.
- That's unbelievable. And I really want to dive into what, you know, all of what encompasses, with gCaptain and the editorial strategy, and, you know, sort of social media and how you really use that. So, we'll get into that here in a little bit but before we talk about present-day, or let's talk about present-day using, you know, the historical knowledge. Because you're a big history buff. I enjoy reading all of your materials and following your insights on social media. And one of your interviews that you were talking about you were really enthusiastic about the invention of the container. And how that revolutionized shipping just in general. But for the folks who may not know how impactful the invention of the container was, can you give us a landscape of what shipping looked like before the container and how that just dramatically impacted the industry?
- Well everything before the container was palletized. So trucks would show up at the dock, a forklift very much, like an older warehouse would be today. But then you know a ship isn't like a warehouse square, it's got the rounder profile. So it has to be taken off, the pallets lifted by the shipyard crane and stowed down and then you're stowing it kind of in this profile. So a lot of expertise. But a tiny ship, these were relatively small ships by today's standards and they take a week to load and then on the other side a week to offload. And a truck driver, an American truck driver Malcolm McLean from North Carolina, was sitting there in this line saying: “Man, this is taking so long, I just wish they could just lift the back of my truck off with this crane instead of doing things on pallets.” So in 1956 he had run a very successful trucking company. He had built it to be one of the largest in the South, and then so that much like the Ambani brothers, and put all his money into buying this old World War Two tanker, which he put containers on and ran from New York down to Houston and like any entrepreneurial story, it was failure after failure. Everyone told him, this is a terrible idea, it was bad. But it wasn't really till the Vietnam War when we had to get, you know, you had all of these little ships trying to get, Vietnam only had a couple ports at a time. And the army came in and said, well why don't we build a container terminal for you here, and it just revolutionized things. But the shipping container is the one invention that has lifted more people out of poverty in the developing world and improved the lives of everyone in the developed world, more than any other single invention out there. So it is really revolutionary and people don't realize, you know, because it's so common place now how revolutionary it was and how difficult it was to get that started. Especially in the maritime industry which is really, you know, an industry that's almost famous for being behind the times and not leaping ahead into the digital age.
- It sounds like it was something that lacked, I do want to say like not innovation, but it is inefficiency, and that was really where I almost imagine like a ship pulls up to port and you just have hundreds of forklifts just going back and forth in order to take the product off the boat
- And thousands of men doing this. And you know what, a huge, a criminal piece, you know, the mafia was an integral part of a lot of these ports because without the container also, it's not only fishing, but it offers that protection, but when everything's out in pallets in the bottom of a dark ship, it's easy to grab a few bottles of Jack Daniels or what have you.
- And I know that a lot of people, I just said boat there, so I'll probably make a lot of people mad when I should be using the proper word is ship. So not boat, but ship. I don't think that for a lot of folks, especially when it comes to the American infrastructure, I don't know that a lot of folks are aware of how dire the situation is with a lot of infrastructure projects across the United States, you know, for bridges to dams and roads. Can you give us an idea of what we've talked about, you know, sort of the innovation side of things with the container with the pallet, but what about on the inefficiency side of things, especially when it comes to the States and how dire is the infrastructure situation here in the US?
- It's very dire for a few reasons. So, you know the biggest reason is really the population move. The population kind of went, when the ports were in like Manhattan New York City, you know, Otis Redding Sitting by the Dock of the Bay, watching the ships go by. And we are a very Maritime nation and the factories were in downtown Manhattan. But when it was moved to Newark, the factories moved, and it really collapsed the tax base in New York City. And that's the seventies and eighties when you had a lot of crime in places like New York and Detroit. And they didn't have the money to do services, and people moved away for the manufacturing. But then in the last 10-20 years, people have been moving back to the city for digital jobs, like podcasts and running magazines. So, you have a huge influx of people along the seaboards in the cities and they're getting congested and crowded. And when Malcolm McLean's, original idea was, he wanted to take the container from the factory in China or Europe or wherever it's been built, and he wanted to move that container all the way to the Walmart warehouse wherever that is, you know, usually inland. But it doesn't work that way when that container gets to the port of New York and New Jersey or Oakland or Houston, it's brought to a local warehouse, everything is pulled back out on pallets and put in the back of the truck. So what Malcolm McClain was trying to avoid in the past. That's because these containers are too big and heavy to go down city roads and across bridges. So the trucks are very carbon-intensive. A ship is 10 times more efficient than a truck. And the other thing, we have this great waterways system in America where we have the Mississippi River, we have the Hudson River, we have the San Francisco Bay. We have these where we could put cargo onto boats, but trucks have been subsidized by the government. So huge amounts of money have been put into our roads and everything else, especially back in the fifties and sixties, that it just became cheaper to be on the roads. But we didn't upgrade, you know, the roads and the bridges. Especially those that have heavy cargo going over them. So it's really the state of disrepair that is one problem. The second problem is, there are better ways to do things, you know. Europe, they take it from a big container ship to a smaller container ship up these rivers. But unfortunately, you know, we have the Department of Transportation under Buttigieg. Under him as the FAA, the Rail Commission, the Road Commission and the Maritime Administration which we call Marad. Well, the FAA is continuing to get all of the support, but because we don't have US companies, you know, all the shipping companies are now foreign, we've let this Maritime Administration just, you know, fall all the way to almost nothing and funding and support. So even with the huge 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, I think only 19 billion dollars of it is going to the ports, I could be wrong in that exact figure. But the American public doesn't realize the importance of maritime, so they don't vote for maritime topics. So it's not really an issue that comes up in Congress. And even when we do realize, hey, infrastructure is breaking, you know, driving over the bridge I know, driving down the road with my kids in the back of the car this is something I want to support. But people don't realize that cargo on the roads is only a small percentage, 90% of all the movements are done on ships. 90% of all cargo is on ship. And we don't really invest in that. Except for these mega ports, LA and New York. But the same issue that we had back in Vietnam, I talked about which brought up the containerships. Now we have the same problem, but in reverse. Vietnam was just a couple of ports with all these ships, small ships. Now, we just have a couple of ports, but with these megaships, as Rachel wrote for Freightwaves. These huge ships are going into these relatively small ports and causing major congestion. And you know, the population near these big cities, it's just a compounding problem.
- With knowing all of that, how would you, maybe if I gave you like a magic wand, how would you fix America's infrastructure? I know that's probably a really complicated and really long answer. But from a high-level view, how would you address the American infrastructure problem?
- Well Peter Zeihan just wrote this book saying The end of the world is just the beginning. And he talks about that container being the, you know, that the cost of goods is so small, that everyone's involved. It's so cheap. That, you know, salmon fishermen in Scotland were sending refrigerated containers to China to fillet the fish and then bring it back to Scotland to sell it. Now, that's how low transportation is. So when they see these exorbitant rates, it's not exorbitant,it’s just more of a natural price of shipping. But Peter Zeihan also says here in America, we have natural resources. We have oil, we have a great work for a large population. But we also have this amazing river system, you know, going through Kentucky and all the way up to Chicago and the whole Great Lakes in the Eastern Seaboard is protect. The people say, why don't we put more money into Africa? Big part of the reason is, 90% of all development goods have to come into ports and most of the African coast has these high plains and they don't have protective borders. Well every single coast and the whole Gulf Coast is very well protected against storms. We have this amazing natural gift and we had to lean into the natural gift but we got to move from these megaships, to smaller ships that can go into all these ports and we got to move containers from those ships onto barges so we can send them all up the river.
- Is it only applicable to maybe like that east of the Mississippi? Or are there also solutions for the West Coast to use different river systems and navigate that too?
- Yes, I mean there are some areas. Like Los Angeles doesn't have many rivers, but then San Francisco has this amazing river system that goes all the way up to Stockton and Sacramento, Portland and stuff has a great river system. Obviously some population centres, like Phoenix and Las Vegas aren't aren't going to be served. I think there's another problem here, you know, all the rivers and these inland waterways or coastal waterways, go north and south. So we're not going to get rid of trucks and we still very much need to trucking east to west. But a lot of our busiest highways, the 5, and in California the I-95. But now the East Coast, these could very easily be relieved if we took a lot of that truck load off. And those are a lot of the rest of the trucks. The truck drivers don't want to go into downtown New York. They don’t want to go on the Eastern Seaborn. They rather do the East to West. It’s not about getting rid of trucking and just doing maritime transit. It's, you know, we very much need both as we grow. But the government has to come in. No trucking company or shipping company is going to build these expensive sports inland, right? So the government through the DoT and Marad and Congress has to fund these inland ports. But we are already doing with all the grain comes down the Mississippi River. You know, a lot of, a lot goes through the Great Lakes a lot of our trades, so it's available, it's there. But you have to build that infrastructure and tie it to the rails and the roads.
Regarding the transportation of lightweight or little items, drone delivery can be an effective option. To cut down on cargo that generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions from cars, overnight deliveries, and emergency shipments in Africa, such as the transportation of blood, medications, or even jewelry, might be completed by drones.
- It's absolutely great for a few very small things. In Africa, there's a very successful drone delivery, that's sending blood. They send refrigerated blood out to ambulances out in the countryside, emergency medication, if you didn't have medication and you live somewhere rural. You know, shipments of maybe if he got diamonds or overnight delivery? So it's a very lightweight things that are good for… What it's not good for, it's not lifting up a container full of coal or grain or wing nuts right. And that's the majority. That's the cargo that is really causing the intensive carbon. And that's what's interesting about this idea using that the road. It has bipartisan support because the Republicans are very interested in the military. And you have all these bridges, like the George Washington Bridge. Everything for us, has to get up the Boston, to a submarine base up in Connecticut. They're very much worried about and want to move that off meanwhile the Democrats want this carbon saving. So a ship is 10 times more efficient than a truck, which is 10 times more efficient than a plane, which is 10 times more efficient than a helicopter, which is 10 times more efficient than a rocket. And meanwhile, where's all the venture capital money going? It's going to rockets, SpaceX, and helicopters. And Elon Musk even says he put money into Tesla to offset all of the carbonation he is using in SpaceX rockets. And the real reason is very simple. But we're not taught this physics in high school. We're taught about balls coming up and they are not the practical logistics but it's very much just lifting a weight. Is it easier to push 10 pounds weight across the gym or are, or do you want to lift it up, 10 feet? So trucks have to go up overpasses and they go up mountains. Where planes have to get up 10000. So you are lifting that ten thousand feet up. And the helicopter and rockets are straight-up. So, very simple physics. People think that the boats are so much better because of low-friction and buoyancy and that's all true. But the real reason is anywhere in the world from Mumbai all the way to San Francisco to New York to Buenos Aires, there are no hills, zero. It's the same, just think about riding your bike once you hit a hill. It's like 17 times harder than a flat surface. So that's the real reason why huge carbon savings and particularly because our ports are in our inner cities, right? And they're in the poor neighborhoods, like Newark, New Jersey in Oakland where, I mean, we just have incredible asthma rates and really the worst air quality. So you're improving the lives of the people there. But 70% of all carbon emissions comes from cities. And within cities, it is like 60% is just from trucks. So if you can take some of that out and put it on boats, like from Jersey where Amazon warehouses are to Brooklyn, it's ten miles across, but it's 20 miles going on the bridge around. So it's a 10 time savings in carbon reduction, but it's also one tenth of the distance. So it's really a hundred times savings in the city that is struggling. And admitting, a big part of our carbon footprint. And as I said with the Republicans National Security, there are huge national security risks involved. So it makes sense, but the politicians are only going to do what the voters want, alright. So selling it to politicians is hard. And unfortunately our politicians were very excited with Pete Buttigieg that he is a navy officer. And we thought he gets it, but he's not, he's not fixing maritime, he is not doing this.
Logistics investment program
Logistics investments did not begin until last year, when ports began to fail. Several CEOs have expressed interest in investing in logistics, but the revenue model based on network effects predicts slow exponential development. However, the strategy was proven immediately when the media examined the logistics staff about the highest delivery rate, and CEOs began investing in logistics.
- Why do you think that big companies like Amazon, that's investing more and more into their logistics program? Why do you think that they haven't done this yet? Or even starting a pilot program on it.
- Well they're just starting to, you know, you don't fix anything that's not broken and it wasn't broken until last year or maybe 18 months ago, right before it started getting broken. So now they are, the head of logistics, the mastermind of logistics at Amazon, David Clarke, just left to go to Flexport and they're doing ocean logistics. They are not using rivers yet, but I talked extensively with Ryan Peterson, the CEO of Flexport and he is very interested in this. They also did improve the revenue model. From when I did dig in Facebook, they started going off from 2005 to 2015, the revenue is all about the network effects, right? Who can get the most on the platform and sell ads, but then that exponential growth and revenue, really slowed down. And then the logistics guys were the ones who started bringing in real money. Who can deliver this the fastest? Who can deliver this at all times? Who can have the biggest inventory in there warehouse and get it to you the next day? Who can ship and move more to different countries around the world to bring it together and bring it in for cheaper? So it was really one from the digital guys being, you know, being the revenue generators to the logistics guys just started in 2015 till now. They proved the model and you know, we're starting to invest more in logistics.
- So it sounds like maybe this is something that will start to become more commonplace but like with anything, a typical government does, it's going to take a lot longer than it probably should to to come to fruition. Now, another part of your career that I think it's absolutely fascinating is that you've led numerous teams in world record offshore exploration projects. If you had to explain this to a five-year-old, how would you break down what goes into offshore exploration projects?
- Well you take a billion-dollar ship tanker, probably a hundred million dollar tanker. You cut a giant hole in it. You put an oil rig on top. And then and you, you know, 10 times the size of the accommodations for instead of 20 people, you host 200 people. And then you bring on the Halliburtons in the Slumbergers, and then you bring it over the well. And oh, by the way, it's too deep, 10,000 ft, you can anchor there. So you need massive rotating propellers underneath the ship. So massive engines to do this, so you can sit there, even in a hurricane. And then you start drilling. It is very similar to drilling an oil well in Oklahoma or even Pennsylvania or California. But it's a hundred miles offshore and a lot more dangerous. But then, it becomes really a logistics puzzle because you have to bring in this pipe, you have to bring this type of drill bit. You have the Slumberger guys doing nuclear testing or explosive testing down the well. So you have nuclear material coming on and at the segment and sort and keep away. And the whole time you're sitting on a trillion cubic feet of explosive gas, so it's a constant danger. Another thing I did was write the book Deepwater Horizon. My book called, Fire on the horizon. The movie was Deepwater Horizon. But that showed where the BP oil rig, you know, when things go wrong offshore.
- And for folks who may not know about that, can you give a sort of, you know, I guess a TLDR, TLDW, whichever the phrase is? For folks who may not be familiar with that incident. Can you give us a sort of high-level incident report of what happened?
- Right. So the very highest level, I was, I started off on supertankers. People are familiar with the Exxon Valdez tanker that caused a giant oil spill in 1990 in Alaska. Well, you know, I graduated from Maritime College, and get on there, here I am, driving this million-barrel supertanker up into Alaskan heavy weather and stuff. At that point, the price of oil was $18 a barrel. Because I remember we had a million barrels on board, I said, if I hit a rock, there goes 18 million dollars of cargo and then the price went up to 25, then 45, then 65. And offshore oil only starts to make sense after fifty dollars a barrel. Because that's how much it cost to get it out. So, it became, as it exceeded $50, now they're making $10 and make it $20. There are a lot bigger reserves out there. But again, I think they were like six drill ships in the world when I won that world record in India. And, and we went up to, we built almost a hundred of these ships. So everyone gets a promotion, right? Is what basically happens. Everyone's jumping up and doing things that they, you know, basically don't have the training. And I think I was off my first Captain job at like 28 years old. And you probably should be a little older and have a little more experience before you get there. But it was just, it was boom times but because they were building too fast and the expertise was kind of diluted, things started going wrong and it really culminated in that Deepwater Horizon. So that's, it took years from when things started really going wrong. So, that explosion. And that's why I get so animated and passionate about this logistical problem and fixing our port congestion. Because right now we're kind of sitting where we were two years before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. And the solution from the government is let us pour more money into the ports. That's not the solution. You have to have to get down to the truck drivers. You have to provide them with training. You have to provide them with the resources for crane operators, you have got to bring more people and realize that those people are the core of our industry. I have to do more podcasts and training and bring more resources in. And if we don’t, well we have two alternatives. One alternative is, we're going to be David Clark at Flexport. And when we use these rivers, goods are going to become cheaper, and they're going to come faster, and we're going to reduce the amount of pollution and kids won't be in the hospital for asthma. And all these good things, or I don't know, will it be a bridge collapse, will it be a terrorist attack in a port, I don't know what it is, but we're at the dividing line of these two possibilities now. And it's going to take funding to get this way. And I think private equity and digitalization and David Clarke and Flexport, they're starting to pull this way but you have to back it up with Congress.
- You mentioned that the issue with a lot of these problems is the lack of education, the lack of training, the lack of awareness. How are you, I guess that does sort of leads me into he next block of questions that I wanted to ask. That's really about your media coverage over at gCaptain. So how are you approaching I guess awareness? How do you approach the editorial direction of gCaptain knowing all of these gaps that are missing? Because it feels like almost an impossible task to be able to talk about all of these things. But you guys are trying. You guys are out there, you know, slowly, you know, hammering away at a lot of these issues and awareness. But how do you approach the editorial strategy?
- That's a great time to be in the logistics news business and like I said, we need more people like you. But we already have a few gCaptain and competitors and stuff. But we need to reach these new markets, the TikToks, the YouTubes, and the podcast. I have things that weren't really out there before. But when we started in 2006-7, they're all these very old magazines like Lloyds List, the longest magazine and continuous print in the world. And they've been printing every week for hundreds of years. And it was very clear to me, that it was going to go digital or that they would go out of business and they stopped their printing press shortly after gCaptain and they had this huge distribution of mailing. But that subscription was $1,000, just one prominent one. They didn't talk to the operational people. It was all at the executive level. You know what? What I love about FreightWaves and what Craig is doing is, he knows truck driving. Who knows warehouses, he got dinner out there? He's been on that floor with the truck rolling back, the forklift lifting too much wind. And he's got the radio in one hand and the clipboard in the other. And those are the guys that need to tell the story, not not necessarily the executives, we need to finance too. And we need real media professionals like you who are calling these people who are more into the hard hats and the boots and you know got grease under their fingernails. Because that is going to be a combination of…I try to be, am I feeding two worlds? I'm like the captain who's got one foot on the dock and the one foot on the ship and sometimes it's coming apart. And then I'm like, man, when people aren't paying attention right now, I got the radio, I can call the tugs to pull us back in, so you know, we all have to work together on a rowboat. We all got to be rowing in the same direction. And we need partnerships between us. I got used to these European guys, they love fighting each other. Tradewinds loved yelling at Journal Accounters, and Journal Accounters love yelling at Informa. I think this new, digital, there's a lot more collaboration, which you know, I hope I helped spawn with the early dig with Facebook that you have to come together. But you know, that's another choice now, do we go where we really support each other, like my ski websites do? Where Powder Magazine, see something and unofficial networks like, wow, and points to it and and really praises each other. And then we try to praise another competitor and really grow the industry or are we going to break down into fighting? Unfortunately because the maritime industry, especially in the US, has been so underfunded, there aren't a lot of experts left. They were starting to train new ones and a lot of the old-school guys, it's like throwing it. When you do, have a stimulus plan or you do have a billion-dollar infrastructure, it's like throwing a state to a kennel of a starving dog, they all attack each other to get that steak. We need to be a little more systematic and get together and see everyone's going to get their steak. We need to work together here.
Women in the maritime industry
John had compassion for the ladies who had to contend with discrimination in this field. He encourages women to stand up and fight back when their rights are abused in his book. Many women have taken action by speaking out and using the media to tell their stories to encourage other women to do the same.
- And speaking of education. There has been sort of a growing awareness, and maybe obviously, rightfully so about the treatment of women within the maritime industry. And that's something that you guys over at gCaptain feel very, I get it from your coverage that you feel very passionate about some of the issues that specifically face women. Does your wife help out with the coverage of that by maybe offering a different perspective? Maybe shining a light on some of these issues?
- Right, if I get emotional, I apologize, but it's been, you know, why I did the book and I got away from Transocean, because I blew the whistle and I stood up and I said, hey, this is not safe a year before the incident. You can read about that in the first chapter of the book. And then I was really fired from that company and pushed aside and blamed for. So our industry doesn't really treat whistleblowers well. So I want to do that, and gCaptain support these, but if a woman is assaulted or raped on board a ship, if she goes to the media, it is such a closed industry that there's is real push back against it. So we've had many women come over the years and tell her story. But when we explained to them these push backs they will likely get, no one wants to come forward and tell her story until we have this big… Sorry, I'm going to get emotional. Cadet at the Merchant Marine Academy and she's a navy reservist as well. She went out on a merchant ship and she she believed she was, she was raped and she wanted to tell the story and we said, these are the things that are going to happen to you. Going to get a lot of pushback and she has. But she wanted to step up first anonymously, and now she's come out with her full name and, you know, that just opened the tidal wave of all these women. Because out on the ship you can’t call 911 there. The captain is the police department, the fire department, the medic. There are no hospitals, there is no anything. And there are so few…some of these ships are bigger than an aircraft carrier. Aircraft carriers have 5,000 people on board. These ships have merely 22 people. So, you know, if you're down in a cargo hold and another crew member comes and assaults you and there's no evidence, there's no proof. And even if you did say something, it's going to be maybe two weeks till you can talk to the police and meanwhile your assailant is right there. So it is a very dangerous situation. So a lot of these just weren't reported. But now it's all coming out. And not just in the US but they're 50,000 merchant ships out there in a lot of other countries, you know, have women and we're standing up but they don't have the legal protection. I think it's something like if, if the captain does not report a rape, he is subject to a $5,000 fine. Whereas if you spill a tablespoon of oil, the fines could be hundreds of thousands, and go to jail and lose your license. Like the captain was in charge of Costco, Bouchon in San Francisco. So there's that regulatory element as well, we have to get, you know, you're probably sick of hearing it in my Twitter feed, but I keep going on and on about Pete Buttigieg Maritime Administration, this Marad. And it's not 100% their fault. Just all the funding has been sucked away from them. All the notices have been sucked away and the boaters don't realize that, you know, even if they want to, which they're trying to address this now they just don't have the staff or the resources to go after this as would the FAA, which is supposed to have the same amount of funding as shipping.
- And so, when some of these incidents are happening on the ship, you mentioned that it could be two weeks before a woman can file a police report against, you know, these atrocious actions. And are there any resources available? Are there any resources being talked about in order to help these female merchant mariners all across the globe? Or is this, you know, something that, you know, maybe one country solves first and then other countries or companies use these as a blueprint to help usher in a new era.
- I hope so. This happened on a merchant ship and I talked to Maersk, they're very interested in helping. It's a little bit hard too because Midshipman-X Hope is suing Maersk. It's so hard to tell what the reaction is to a lawsuit, which is leaning into the problem. And a lot of shipping companies are fighting against this. There was, and even the United States delegation, there was a motion in the UN Maritime body in London called the IMO that the United States delegate shot down. So, you know, their claim as we want to take baby steps and we want to do this right, is what the delegates said. But then you have all these women to say we've been waiting 15 years, it's too late. We just need it now and even hope. She turned in all of this evidence to the Coast Guard investigators and they still haven't arrested her assailant. So it's been at least six months approaching a year since this was reported. And we don't even know the name of these guys. And a lot of this information is hidden. So this assailant is still going out and now, there's no, in my neighborhood, we could tell there's websites. You can tell who the sex offenders are there. There's nothing like that in the maritime world. So, some companies like Maersk, are starting to form into this training, but there are a lot of other ones and most of them are overseas, right? So they don't, they're not subject to US law.
Ian Urbina wrote a book called ‘The Outlaw Ocean’. Once you get 12 miles offshore, you're in international waters and there really aren't very many laws. Hope is almost lucky because Maersk was an American flag ship. But we only have 72 ships left in the American merchant fleet, whereas they're 50000 ships that fly the flag of other countries that don't have these laws. It's very unknown, we're sailing into foggy waters. I wish I had this great answer, but I don’t.
Incredible maritime stories
John explains that everyone working on ships has good stories, but one memorable story for him is the Deep Water Horizon story. John underlines the importance of working with other media outlets. For him the bottom line is how to get to the truth as the traditional media sometimes report on maritime stories that are false. So it is important to get the truth out.
- Well, I mean, at the very least, at least you're using your media, you're using your platform in order to draw attention to issues that it sounds like it's been sort of swept under the rug for far too long. The more important stories that I've heard you talk about, that I've heard Sal talk about, Mercogliano. And it was an issue that I was frankly, just completely oblivious to and I was unaware of. The maritime industry is sort of, sounds like that industry that you. It would be an explorer's dream to be able to take part in. And, you know, sailing to cities that you've never dreamed of or that you've always dreamed of visiting. And it's sad that that's a component of it. But, you know, we were never going to seek or we are never going to get to resolution unless we actually, you know, talk about some of these important stories. And end with your work over at gCaptain, where, what are some of the other important stories that you've covered? That you're really proud about? Maybe the good and the bad. Do you have some other stories that sort of stick out?
- Well, that's if you want good stories coming to the maritime industry. I've got, I've got stories all day for you and we like nothing better than going to a bar and telling people our stories. Because you got incredible stories. Anyone who works on ships. They are just things that happen on the ocean and all this cargo and money and moving. But the stories I am most proud of, the ones I care about, Hopes, Midshipman-X, The Deepwater Horizon. Every media outlet that was trying to tell the story and everyone was getting shut down. And I went to the crew members and I was the only journalist they allowed, they talked to because, you know, we've built that trust on gCaptain. They didn't have that trust with the New York Times. So I was able to write that book. There have been others. You know I love working with other media outlets. When the Navy ships, the McCain and the Fitzgerald, they hit merchant marine ships and sailors died and no one really knew how to cover the story because merchant marine and the navy, don’t, don't cooperate very well, I want to say. And we didn't have the journalist or resources to really pour into that, so we teamed up with Propublica and fed them a lot of information. They won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2020 for investigative reporting. And the Navy built all these training centers and is improving. Still a long way to go but I guess it's those that really, the Costa Concordia was another one. I have a book here, but from the captain of the Costa Concordia signed. He said: ‘John, you're the only one that got this story right and defended me’, and I actually didn't. I blame them over and over and over again, but I also did this one little post where I pointed, these are the things that I think the media is being unfair about. And if you don't… So, I guess at the bottom is really the truth. How to get to the bottom line? Because especially in an industry, like the maritime, which is magical and unknown. It's a lot easier. It's very easy for the media to kind of paint these stories that are false. And the problem is, then the legislators and people like Buttigieg go and they clamp onto these stories. The White House, just came, Biden said two Fridays ago, I want to punch the container shipping companies like Maersk on the nose. Where did he get that from? And we’re so bad at the media. But when you can get the truth out, then people are eager to jump in and solve real problems, which we did with the offshore industry. And I think we did with the Navy and we did with the cruise ship industry. Generally an optimist, people want to solve these problems and I think that's why Dave Clark is leaving Amazon and has gone to Flexport, Because sees, there's all this low-hanging fruit here and there's all this interest in money, and really can change people's lives. But we need more talent, we need more money. And we need more people like you Blight, really inviting those guys who use, even though I don't wear the hard hat anymore, who used to wear the hard hat and the boots, and understand those real pain points. Because if we don't expose them, then how are people going to know what needs to get fixed.
- 100%! I echo that statement. I'm a big advocate for more folks, especially coming into this industry. That is global shipping in general. It feels like there's so much to learn, but it's so much to learn that just impacts every facet of society. So it is endlessly fascinating. And there's always going to be problems that we need to fix. You're doing a great job over at gCaptain, in order for shining a light on these issues, and not just the bad stories which obviously need a spotlight. But also some of the good stories that come out of global shipping as well. And you mentioned Flexport a few times in this interview and I thought that it was interesting, that you said that people in Silicon Valley, don't talk about Uber anymore, they talk about Flexport. Besides Flexport, do you see any kind of, sort of innovators or companies in maritime that we should be watching more of outside of Flexport?
- Well, there are tons. You got these autonomy companies like Black Sail, I worked with for a year at MIT and FreightFlows there, which is, you know, I talked to Craig Fowler a bunch about ships and then FreightWaves is kind of focus on the container ships and he's doing amazing job at predicting where the economy is going. I listened to your last podcast kind of announcing this one and you were like, man, people don't realize what's coming. We do it because we're in logistics. Well those are the containers coming out of the factory? But you can even back up six months earlier and look at the bunkers that are bringing the steel and the tankers bringing the energy into the factory. So we can… And that's what FreightFlows is doing. There are organizations like SeaHead, which I'm on the board of, and Mass Challenge, which is a startup incubator. They're starting to focus on these start-up challenges. Unfortunately, you know, these VC's tend to be very rich and they see this like organic clam food to table thing. And I like who I want to put my money there, where we really, you know, what I like about Flexport is like dirty ugly, container ships. Like guys who are looking at organisms growing in the dirty fuel waste tank. Those are the ones that get me excited because no one's investing in those because I might, I may get better organic clams. They are doing it because it's going to make a real impact, right? So I think those are… But I want to tie it all together. We're the biggest invention that is helping most people. Brought the most people out of poverty. It is a provable fact: is Malcolm Mclean with the shipping container. And he didn't do it alone. He got the military to sign up. Because some of these ideas you really need that much level of support. I mean the US Navy is the wealthiest ship owner in the world, right? And has the most ships because you need that security in the maritime administration. So he really got them to buy in and explode that, so I really pushing Ryan. Like I know you don't want to talk to the Navy. I know you don't want to talk to the maritime administration but you have to. But backing up to, you know, people who might be listening to this. This started with a truck driver. Sitting on his truck. And now I'm going to get emotional again but think of the billions of people he has fed, think of the medical supplies that have gone into these containers. And that was a truck driver. So I know people are watching this podcast going: ‘Well I am a truck driver, a train guy or I fly planes. What do I know about ships?’ You know about the problems. You know about trying to load your truck with the container getting it out or moving the crane. But then you have to leave your comfort zone. You know, Malcolm McClain left trucking, and really embedded himself with ships, right? Now Flexport is really bringing in the Amazon guy who revolutionized and knows that operational, now you're doing this podcast and you're bringing in these people with operational knowledge. So you don't have to be a maritime expert to revolutionize the world. Malcolm Mclean knew nothing and everyone told him, the idea was stupid. But you need to focus on those problem areas. I've listed like 20 problems. Maybe you have a little expertise, maybe you are former Navy, and you know how to talk to her Navy and I know digital, I just got to learn about shipping, talk to some shippers, so that's what I hope people do.
- So you've done so many incredible things throughout your life, what inspires you to wake up each day and and to keep going?
- The opportunity. I mean, there's just this amazing opportunity. And I sat with the guys who started Facebook and Twitter. And now they're famous. A lot of them are billionaires. But they were just average guys who you could go to at a coffee shop and you could talk to these guys in San Francisco and they're just like you and me. They just were at the crux of this major why moments, right? And they grabbed the bull by both horns and went with it. And I knew that shipping was going to get at this moment at some point. I was very early. I told you earlier, I did a podcast for six years, it was too early. You know, people have to be able to download the app. Then I did a YouTube studio and we put a lot of money into it, it was painfully slow to download YouTube videos. You have to wait for that moment, but the moment is now. The moment to start a new gCaptain, or start a new innovation in shipping, or trucking or logistics is now. I really believe that. So that's what wakes me up. And seeing those people who do it, and I am eager to meet them and interview them and watch their growth.
- What advice would you give to folks who are, you know, maybe in high school or thinking about, you know, what career that they want to join or maybe entrepreneurs that are a little bit older? What advice would you give to somebody who's looking to join the maritime industry?
- Well, I got into this fight, because I was on the board with my college, the New York Maritime Academy and, you know, they did this bounce house, they brought in a clown, you know, all these things that colleges do during recruitment days to get…, you should make them do up push-ups… You should make them go out on a boat when there's a storm because it's not easy. When you're out on a ship in the North Atlantic for two weeks and just getting hit by bad weather, it's really difficult. But there's also, I tell my colleges, it is like the marines, they don’t put a board up saying this is easy. Running a trucking warehouse isn't easy. Being a switcher on the train depot isn’t easy. These important jobs are not easy, like the dirty jobs are hard. But I think we're being disingenuous saying a lot of these are easy and they're all different paths. You can get into digital and not get dirty. But at some point to make that real change, you have to put on the hard hat or at least talk with the guys who are down and have that difficult life. But I think if we market it that way, that this isn't easy. It's important, you know, that people will respond. My college has the highest attrition rate because people get in thinking, this is great. You know, these Maritime Academies you make more graduating than you do graduating from Harvard and Yale because there's a shortage of people going on in ships. But once they get out on the ship and then they are sea sick for 2 weeks and a lot of people give up, which is fine. A lot of them have moved on to like design in shipyards in finding their way. But, if you are in high school, I don't think leaning into the easy, you might want to lean into the hard. Hard and important is like the crossroads of where you live, kind of a passionate life, right? And always stay curious. I think that that was my favorite thing running a podcast and my favorite thing gCaptain I can call up anyone and ask these really dumb questions and people answer it. And, you know, I'll tell you a secret Blythe, I was the top of my class for demerits. I had more demerits of anyone in the school, because I'd be like, why do you have to wear this tie? Why am I wearing the ribbons? Why do I shine my shoes? Why do I call you sir? And I won't give you the the word that they called me, but I think I was misrepresented. I was just curious. But if you're in high school now, call up the manager of Maersk terminals or the crane operator or the union rep or a truck driver and say I want to do it right. Can I interview people for my project? People in this industry don't get the media attention and maybe that will change. You know, it used to be the same way in tech. You could go and call up Mike Mark Zuckerberg and be like: ‘I got a high school project’, and he would answer and they don't do that anymore because it's gotten so big. But we're still there with freight and logistics and, you know, be curious.
- I love it!
- But don’t ask the easy questions. You have to ask the hard questions.
- Yes, definitely. Because I always remember in the back of my mind ‘A League of Their Own' with Tom Hanks, when he gives his famous speech, you know, that the hard is what makes it great. And to embrace the hard parts of life and end of work as well.
- Is that before or after he is in the John for 5 minutes straight, that's a great movie. I love that movie.
- Oh yeah, I'm not exactly sure the timing of it. But I know it was pretty emotional towards the middle to the end of the movie. Because, you know, you have a couple of the softball players, or really baseball players, that are, you know, trying to leave or try to not play or, you know, they are upset about the way they performed. And he, you know, gives them a very heavy heartedly reality check about, you know, embracing the hard life. And embracing the heart of sports in general. And that's such a just a microcosm of how we should live our lives and approach work. So I appreciate you sharing those stories and all the stories that you shared throughout this interview. So for folks who want to follow your work, who want to follow gCaptain where can they find more of your work?
- Just gcaptain.com, you can sign up for a newsletter there, and then Twitter @gcaptain and @johnkonrad are the best ways.
- And then your book is also available on Amazon as well. We will put a link to all of those in the show notes.
- It is not a happy ending. It starts with the building of the Reagan. I don't want to give away the ending spoiler alert, but it's not a happy summer read. I want to warn you.
- I guess maybe, for the folks who enjoy the not happy stories or the the real life stories I should probably say.
- The important stories.
- Yes, important and challenging, I'm sure to address a lot of these issues. John, thank you so much and take care and really enjoy your coverage.
- You can follow John on: