Recently retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Nadeau spoke with The Waterways Journal, reflecting on his experiences as commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, often known as District 8 or simply D8. It’s one of the largest and most significant Coast Guard commands, responsible for Coast Guard operations spanning 26 states, including the Gulf of Mexico coastline from Florida to Mexico, the adjacent offshore waters and outer continental shelf and the inland waterways of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee River systems.
“Each year, the Coast Guard men and women in District 8 inspect 10,000 U.S.-flag vessels, respond to about 1,300 oil spills and conduct about 8,000 search and rescue missions,” Nadeau said. On top of the busy day-to–day workload, the D8 team tackled the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, the most active on record. Thankfully, these powerful storms did not result in many deaths or injuries. But each one of them required careful preparation, the prestaging of assets for post-storm assessments and response operations and the clearing and reopening of ports and waterways. “Even though none of them became a Katrina or Harvey, we had to get ready and be prepared for them all,” Nadeau said.
All this preparation was taking place during the height of the COVID pandemic. “A lot of other people can do their jobs from home, but you can’t fly a helicopter and lower a rescue swimmer to save someone on a dark night by sitting at your kitchen table on a laptop. Coast Guard crews can’t repair and launch a boat to rescue an injured fisherman via a Zoom call,” Nadeau said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way our men and women adapted to keep themselves safe, while continuing to execute the mission and get the job done.”
Both the lockdown phase of the COVID pandemic and the loosening of restrictions saw increased recreational boating activity. During the lockdown, more people bought boats, including first-time boaters. “Boating sales went through the roof,” Nadeau said, and because of COVID restrictions, Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel couldn’t do a lot of the in-person boating education they were used to doing.
The perhaps predictable but unfortunate result has been a spike in boating accidents and in search-and-rescue missions.
Sub M and Stretch Duck 7
Safety on the water is a core Coast Guard mission. Inevitably, marine casualties make up much of its business. Nadeau’s previous assignment before he took command of D8 was as assistant commandant for prevention policy, where he was responsible for oversight and program management for all Coast Guard commercial vessel inspections, marine casualty investigations, navigation services, commercial regulations and standards, recreational boating safety, port and facilities safety and security, waterways management, merchant mariner credentialing, vessel documentation and port state control.
Nadeau said he had vivid memories of the day when Subchapter M—which he was closely involved in helping to develop—took effect: July 20, 2018. That morning, he was watching national news coverage from the scene of the horrific accident involving the Stretch Duck 7, which had sunk the evening before while operating on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. That sinking resulted in 17 deaths, many from the same family. (While federal charges were not filed after a judge concluded that maritime law didn’t apply, a Missouri prosecutor recently filed criminal charges in the case: see WJ, July 23.) Nadeau also has clear memories of witness testimony and reports emerging from the Coast Guard hearing that was held that same week to investigate the fatal explosion aboard the Bouchard sea-going tug and barge B No. 255, which resulted in two deaths.
“The implementation of Subchapter M was a significant achievement for everyone involved, but these tragic casualties were a stark reminder that there is more marine safety work to be done,” he said.
The Coast Guard has many overseas missions that fly below the radar of public awareness. Nadeau was present in Singapore when the Navy warship John S. McCain collided with a Liberian tanker in the Straits of Malacca, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors. The Coast Guard assisted with that investigation. The collision was one of a series of embarrassing accidents and collisions of U.S. Navy vessels that have sparked numerous investigations and raised questions about the Navy’s training, officer promotions and command and control systems.
A more recent marine casualty was the sinking in a Gulf storm of the Seacor Power liftboat on April 13 of this year, resulting in 13 deaths. “That one tragically happened off Port Fourchon, not far from New Orleans and the D8 offices,” Nadeau said. He traveled with the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board to meet with the families of the lost mariners. “Heartbreaking,” he said. “I will never forget that conversation.”
Gold Medal Moment
Not all of Nadeau’s memories are that somber. One of his most memorable moments came, he said, when he presented the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal to Ann Rothpletz for a rescue that happened in 2017, before he took command. Rothpletz, a university researcher and mother with small children, handed her children to a bystander and unhesitatingly plunged into the Falls of the Ohio River, a turbulent stretch of water, swimming 100 yards to aid two fishermen in trouble. She was able to rescue one, Billy Waugh; the other drowned. Rothpletz is only the second woman to receive the Gold Medal. The first was a lighthouse keeper, Ida Lewis, in 1881. Nadeau later met Waugh and spoke with his family.
“It was a privilege and a great honor to present the medal to Ann. She is an incredibly humble hero,” he said.
Learning From Industry
Marine casualties lead naturally to the topic of Subchapter M, whose entire rationale is increased safety. Nadeau calls it a “great achievement,” while admitting that both sides learned a lot from each other during its development and implementation. “By working closely with industry, we’ve come a long way in developing and implementing those regulations,” he said. “Subchapter M could not have happened the way it did without the help of industry and collaboration with leaders like Merritt Lane, Cherrie Felder, Tom Allegretti and Jennifer Carpenter, Walt Blessey, Pat Studdert, Lynn Muench, Lee Nelson, Goat Patterson, the Goldings and many, many others too numerous to name,” he said. Nadeau has known Studdert since the late ’90s, and he considers naval architect Ed Shearer an early mentor of his.
“Industry leaders and experienced towboat operators can teach the Coast Guard a lot, and I think industry can learn a lot from the Coast Guard as well,” he said. “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come by listening and working with each other.”
Nadeau stresses the key role of third parties, such as the many private auditing services that have sprung up to help the inland marine industry navigate Subchapter M. He feels that the Coast Guard was given this task without a lot of additional resources and can only succeed in it if the third parties succeed. “I always prioritized calls and questions from those third-party organizations and solicited their feedback. If all vessel operators choose the Coast Guard inspection option, I would regard that as a failure. TPOs and safety management systems are incredibly important.”
Asked what is an overlooked mission of D8, Nadeau brings up illegal fishing. “South of the U.S. maritime border, Mexican fishermen have depleted their stock of red snapper in Mexican waters. So they come north, sneak into our waters and set miles of illegal trotlines. They poach many tons of red snapper from U.S. waters and needlessly destroy sea turtles, sharks and several other species as bycatch. They use fast open boat called lanchas. One vessel can take as much as 3,000 pounds of red snapper in a single trip.”
The scale of violations has increased significantly. In all of 2010, he said, there were nine interdictions. Last year, there were 148 lancha interdictions that captured nearly 500 Mexican fishermen. While their boats are destroyed, the fishermen are simply deported after a brief internment on South Padre Island. They often soon return. “We’ve caught the same guy as many as 25 times doing the same thing,” Nadeau said. The captured fish must be destroyed, although a recent policy change allows some to be donated to charitable groups. “The Coast Guard is working with [the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration] to pressure the Mexican government to take more aggressive action.”
“Fortunately, the Coast Guard is getting better at interdiction,” he said, thanks in part to new Fast Response Cutters that were recently homeported in D8. “The lanchas can’t outrun us anymore,” Nadeau said. Like many, Nadeau stresses the need for many more new cutters, especially the Waterways Commerce Cutters to replace the existing fleet of river buoy tenders, which are more than 50 years old and unable to accommodate mixed-gender crews. “The Coast Guard is a great steward of what it’s been given, but the inland buoy tenders are more than 50 years old and failing. New cutters are needed, or else the Coast Guard crews will be unable to properly maintain and mark the waterways, and unable to ensure safe and efficient commerce.”
After 32 years of service, including two busy years leading D8 while his family remained behind in Maryland, Nadeau said he is ready to spend more time with his family and have greater flexibility. “Coast Guard operations can be very demanding. And it’s true what they say—your family often sacrifices more than you do because of the busy pace of operations, hectic schedules and uprootings,” he said. Nadeau also lost his father last fall.
Nadeau and his wife have rented an AirBNB residence near Audubon Park in New Orleans, which he says they love. He is exploring what his future role might be in the maritime world. “I don’t have the patience for golf and can’t catch a fish to save my life,” he jokes.
Nadeau remains passionate about the maritime industry and the crucial service it provides to people all over the world. “Our ports and extensive network of inland waterways are a precious gift to this nation,” he said. “I love what the maritime industry does, and I want to continue making contributions.”For now, Nadeau has formed a consulting service and is using his experience and extensive network of friends and contacts to assist owners and operators of vessels and facilities, along with other marine stakeholders. His service covers all aspects of marine safety, security and environmental protection, regulatory compliance strategies, independent assessment of corporate safety cultures, accident investigations, crisis response and strategic approaches to novel and contemporary regulatory issues.
“I feel privileged to have been able to help some people individually with regulatory, investigative and security issues” via the consulting service,” he said.
“The inland waterways are a precious gift to the nation. I want to be part of that somehow.”