Women don’t belong out at sea working on ships with men, the 62-year-old engineer told the 19-year-old trainee just weeks before she says he raped her.
The young woman, Hope Hicks, was a student at the US Merchant Marine Academy. The man, Edgar Sison, was her boss. He worked alongside her every day on the ship her school had sent her to for mandatory training. His bedroom shared a wall with hers.
The morning after Hicks said she was attacked, she woke up with blood on her sheets. As she pieced together the events from the night before, she said Sison called her incessantly, telling her she needed to come to his room. Clutching a knife in her pocket for protection, she went.
“I think we need to go over some stuff that happened last night,” Hicks recalled him saying. To her, it was clear what occurred: Sison and other top officials on the boat pressured her to take shot after shot of hard alcohol until she became incapacitated. Then, he raped her.
He denied it, saying he only helped her back to her room. Then, she said, he pushed his chair next to hers, touched her thigh and leaned in so close she could feel his breath on her face. “We mariners get lonely out here at sea, ok?” Hicks remembers him saying.
As she stood to leave his cabin, she said, Sison issued a warning many women in her position have long thought to be true: “No one is ever going to believe you.”
A broken system
Hicks didn’t know it at the time, but her encounter with Sison would launch what some in the shipping industry have likened to a “Maritime Me Too” moment and shine a critical spotlight on the one agency with the most power to do something about it: the United States Coast Guard.
As a branch of the US military overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard is known for protecting the nation’s shorelines, rescuing those lost out at sea and cracking down on drug smuggling, oil spills and potential security threats.
But one of the agency’s lesser-known duties is overseeing the thousands of commercial ships that do business in American ports and waterways. It is the Coast Guard’s job to ensure that the more than 200,000 people known as merchant mariners, who are given government credentials to work on vessels ranging from tugboats to large cargo ships, do not pose a safety risk.
The Coast Guard is responsible for the initial vetting of mariners as well as continued monitoring and enforcement of misconduct on land or while on the job that would make them ineligible for a credential. When a mariner is accused of committing a crime on a US-flag ship, the responsibility for investigating falls on the agency’s law enforcement division, which can pursue criminal charges. Investigators and judges at an entirely separate administrative enforcement unit, meanwhile, can take away a mariner’s ability to work at sea.
Yet hundreds of pages of the Coast Guard’s own records, as well as interviews with shipping company and union officials, current and former government employees and dozens of mariners, show that the Coast Guard has failed to use its power to prevent and punish sexual assault and misconduct for decades — despite growing evidence that this kind of behavior is a longstanding problem at sea.
“Not only does this happen to women in the industry, it happens many, many times,” said Linsey Knight, a longtime merchant marine officer and member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots union. Knight said she was cornered and kissed by one crew member and fondled by another as an apprentice on her very first sailing voyage and was raped by an officer on a ship years later.
“I did not report my incidents because of shame, fear of retribution, firing, being labeled as … that bitch who ruined a good man’s life or career or reputation,” she said.
The Coast Guard has acknowledged to Congress that sex crimes at sea are an underreported problem. The agency told CNN that in the past 10 years, it opened 25 criminal investigations into alleged shipboard sexual assault, some of which remain ongoing. It couldn’t point, however, to a successful sex crime prosecution of a credentialed mariner in the last 30 years, and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The Coast Guard’s administrative judicial process requires a lower burden of proof than criminal court. Still, no mariners had their credentials revoked for shipboard sexual misconduct in the last decade and, as of the end of last year, only four mariners had received a suspension. Four others voluntarily surrendered their credentials after complaints were filed against them.
When compared with outcomes from cases where mariners used drugs, including marijuana, records show that the Coast Guard has long been lenient and inconsistent with sanctions for mariners found to have committed sexual offenses.
For example, a mariner who failed a drug test after using CBD oil for knee pain had his credential revoked, while a chief mate who raped his female second mate multiple times, according to a Coast Guard administrative complaint, was allowed to keep his credential. The mariner, who the agency also accused of using the ship’s master key to break into the room of a young student training aboard the ship to solicit sex, served a 30-month suspension and attended sexual harassment training — one of the harshest punishments for sexual misconduct from the records reviewed by CNN.
“For too long, reports of sexual assault and harassment at sea have not been addressed with the seriousness and response necessary,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington said in a statement to CNN. The senator has been outspoken on this issue in recent years through her role as chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
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