The glitz and glamour of the shipping industry have enchanted the young and old alike. However, time and again, there have been incidences that highlight the dark side of the industry. Ryan Melogy, a maritime whistleblower and the founder of Maritime legal aid, has been the flagbearer of shedding light on the industry’s dirty practices and has been the voice of many suffering seafarers. Maritime Legal Aid is a site helping seafarers raise their issues anonymously.
In a recent whistleblowing event, the website published a tragic story of sexual harassment of a 19-year-old USMMA student. It garnered attention from the industry leaders worldwide and has forced shipping giant Maersk to initiate an investigation against the alleged officers.
The Maritime Post invited Ryan Melogy for an exclusive interview to learn more about his mission and vision behind the Maritime Legal Aid. In a dialogue, Melogy shared his reasons for setting up such a space and discussed the issues and problems he faced while working as a whistleblower.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
I was born on a small island in Florida, grew up around boats and the ocean, and knew a few merchant mariners. The sailor lifestyle intrigued me, and I always knew that I wanted to travel the world. So I decided to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, after graduating from high school to become an adventurer, I guess.
Kings Point is a four-year program, and we spent one of those years at sea as cadets aboard cargo ships earning our sea time and completing independent studies required for graduation. At the Academy, that year of cadetship is called “Sea Year.” I served aboard five different American flag vessels during my Sea Year. Eventually, I graduated from Kings Point with a bachelor of science degree in marine transportation and an unlimited tonnage 3rd Mate’s license.
I worked on various ships for the next five years, including ro-ro’s, oil tankers, and containerships. I travelled widely when I wasn’t working and enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia during that time. In 2009 I upgraded my license to 2nd Mate, finished law school, and then completed my last voyage as a licensed deck officer at the end of that year.
From there I moved to New York City and began practising law in a big corporate law firm. Counting my time at Kings Point, I had been involved with the maritime industry for about ten years at that point, and I wanted to get away from the industry completely. That was my goal. I didn’t even want to practice maritime law, and I certainly never envisioned myself sailing again or working in the industry in any capacity.
But life is weird, you know? After 5 years in New York, I found myself in a position where I was utterly burned out and had gone through some tough breakups with business partners and a romantic partner. In those 5 years I had only taken 2 weeks of real vacation. One week to Mexico City and a week in Barbados. And all I really wanted to do at that point was escape from my life and travel the world.
To make a long story short, at the end of 2014 I decided to ship out again, and landed a short 2nd Mate relief job of 70 days on the M/V Maersk Idaho, a containership. And that’s when all this trouble started.
Q: And that’s what eventually led you to start Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy, right? Can you tell us about your experience aboard that ship and how that led you to create the organization?
Sure. The trip started off fine, but after about 10 days, the Chief Mate left and a new Chief Mate came aboard. He was not a good person. Over the next 2 months, I was sexually harassed by him, and he groped me twice. But worse was what he was doing to the 2 USMMA cadets who were aboard the vessel. I saw him sexually assault both of them and subject them both, but especially the deck cadet, to a pattern of absolutely outrageous and illegal criminal behaviour. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about it in the middle of the ocean or the middle of the voyage. Still, on the day I departed the vessel in Italy, I delivered a very serious and very detailed report to Captain Paul Willers, the Master of the ship. Then I basically walked down the gangway.
The Captain told me he was “shocked” by my report and that he would be conducting an investigation and that I should expect to be contacted by Maersk. I said, “great.” But I was never contacted by Maersk or by anyone else about the report. The report was so detailed and alleged such serious behavior, some of it rising to the level of criminal behavior, that I was certain the Chief Mate would be fired. But about 6 months later I learned that he had not been fired. And then about 3 years later I found out that Maersk had promoted him to Captain. At that point I became deeply concerned for the safety of cadets and other crewmembers sailing aboard his vessel. I had seen what he could get away with as Chief Mate, and knew that he would engage in even worse and more abusive behavior if allowed to sail as Master. That promotion prompted me to find out what happened to my report and to seek justice for myself and others.
I started by reporting it to Masters, Mates & Pilots, the maritime labor union representing myself and the other deck officers involved. I thought they would take care, but they immediately circled the wagons around the more senior officers and eventually kicked me out of the labor union for speaking out against them. After that, everyone and every organization I approached with the allegations tried to shut me down, but I persisted.
Eventually the U.S. Coast Guard charged the sexually predatory Maersk Captain with sexual misconduct and held a trial in June 2021. We are still awaiting the judge’s opinion, but I believe he will have his license revoked. It will be a big deal for the maritime industry and will set a precedent. The U.S. Coast Guard has not taken a mariner to a full Suspension & Revocation trial over sexual misconduct in more than 30 years.
About a year before the trial was held, I started MLAA. At that point the U.S. Coast Guard had been investigating my allegations for over one year, but they had taken no action other than evasive action, and it was clear to me that they were planning to do nothing.
At that point, I had already begun investigating the Coast Guard’s record of punishing mariners who had engaged in shipboard sexual misconduct and learned that their record was atrocious. There was almost nothing to be found in publicly available records regarding mariners who had been stripped of their licenses and credentials for engaging in shipboard sexual misconduct. And it seemed to me that the reason the Coast Guard did not want to take action in my case was that they did not want their track record of allowing sexual predators to operate with impunity in the maritime industry to come to light.
So one night in June of 2020, I decided that to fight the Coast Guard and bring this predatory Maersk Captain to justice, I needed to create some kind of organization that I would use to put pressure on the Coast Guard. The main purpose was to use the organization to file Freedom of Information Act requests with the Coast Guard, forcing them to divulge sensitive documents related to sexual misconduct investigations of mariners that I could then use to bring attention to their true policies.
I came up with the concept, name, website, and Instagram of MLAA in one night during June 2020 and launched everything the next day. Then I sent a mass email to high-ranking Coast Guard officers directing them to the website.
Publishing anonymous stories of victims and survivors of sexual harassment and abuse in the maritime industry was not part of the original plan. That happened organically as I began telling my own story on Instagram and on our website, and as I began writing about the problems in the industry and about possible solutions. Someone D.M.’d me a story and asked me to post it anonymously, and it felt completely natural. After that, the stories began to pour in. As that happened, my understanding of the breadth of the problems in the industry expanded, and what I was doing became about much more than my own case. I realized that it was affecting a lot of people, and it became a cause and a mission.
Everything happened very quickly. It really became a little maritime #metoo movement, and there were so many people sending in their stories of harassment and abuse that I could not keep up with all of the editing and communication with the victims that was required. And the trauma of the victims that I was dealing with began to deeply affect me. Absorbing dozens of horror stories about rape and sexual assault in a short period of time, and talking to the victims, and helping them edit their stories—it all became completely overwhelming. Within about two months the whole thing imploded and I went off to take a break from it.
But it was obvious to me that the survivor stories held tremendous power, and that if we could create a platform that allowed enough of those stories and voices to emerge, and allowed the truth to escape the prison of silence, eventually something would break open.
Q: You are talking about the summer of 2020 when you started MLAA, and then in October of 2021 you finally seem to have achieved that breakthrough you were seeking with the publishing of the recent 1st person account of a cadet who says she was raped on a Maersk vessel. So that’s is a little more than a year later, right? What was your first reaction when you heard her story?
Yes, we published her story a little more than a year after we started MLAA. But in that year, we did a lot of work that did not attract as much attention, but it was very important work, and it was work that paved the way for allowing more victims to come forward to tell their stories on our platform. It was also a lot of legal work that most people don’t know about yet.
As far as my first reaction to her story, I was obviously shocked. I was not shocked that it had happened to her, because I already knew that these women were getting raped on ships at a completely outrageous rate, and I had already heard several stories from victims that were almost identical to what happened to her. It just shocked me that she was ready to tell her story, and I knew immediately that it would be a big deal.
Q: Were you expecting any action from Maersk in response to her story?
I was very surprised when Maersk acknowledged that the story lined up with their own personnel records and when they took swift action in response. I was not expecting that to happen. We’ve published more than 50 anonymous stories and I have worked with almost every one of those victims to help them accurately and compellingly tell their story.
One of the things we always spend a lot of time talking about is how much detail to include. We want enough detail so that people believe the story, but generally not so much detail that the person can be easily identified. But in this case, the woman was a current student at the USMMA, and that was a really important detail that she wanted to include in her story, but it also immediately narrowed down the list of possible authors to the women in her class. So the final decision regarding what to include was 100% hers, and I think she published it knowing that she might be identified. But that’s just a testament to how courageous she is.
Q: What action do you personally think should be taken against the guilty parties?
I’m pretty sure that sexual assault is a crime in every country on the planet, and certainly in all civilized countries. It is a law enforcement issue, and I believe these crimes should be in all cases investigated by trained law enforcement officers and treated the same way they would be treated if they happened on land. Mariners found guilty of sexual assault at sea should be stripped of their licenses and credentials, banned from the industry for life, and put in prison. I don’t know why some people think these crimes should be treated differently on land than on sea.
Q: Do you think that a shipping company’s internal complaint committee is a reliable and independent way of handling these kinds of allegations? If not then, what would you suggest?
No, I do not. And I am speaking from experience. The only thing any company cares about is making money, and avoiding legal liability and public scrutiny. A company cannot objectively investigate itself or its employees. This is a law enforcement issue and shipboard sexual assault allegations must be turned over to law enforcement officers and independently investigated by the police. That is not happening anywhere in the world, except on cruise ships and even then only infrequently.
Q: I am sure that cases of sexual assault at sea are not rare, and many seafarers have raised these issues in the past, but they never gained any media attention. Why do you think this Maersk case is getting attention now and why haven’t others gained attention before?
It happened to an American aboard an American-flag vessel is a big factor in why it gained media attention. Also, she is an accomplished young woman at one of the United States’ five federal service academies, and she was the victim of a heinous crime committed by someone who was more than 40 years older than her and someone who was supposed to be protecting her, not raping her. So I think that really shocked people, especially given that she told her story in such graphic and nauseating detail.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault at sea has been a very big and very controversial issue in the United States maritime industry over the past five years, but it has always been talked about in abstract terms. Here there was no abstraction, only a raw account of what it is like to be raped on a ship and then to have to see your rapist every day for months with no way to escape him. The fact that Maersk was involved also added to the desire of media outlets to report on the story.
I think that the only way to change the industry’s approach to this issue is to get more of these stories out into the world. And I think that will happen. I think we will see a global maritime #metoo break out within the next year and worldwide media attention will be brought to bear on the issue.
Q: When you were preparing to break this story, did you feel afraid that you could also be harmed as the reputation of influential people and companies were at stake?
I’ve been doing this for over 3 years, and I have felt afraid for my safety at times, especially in the beginning. And I have lived in fear for sure. But at some point, and I’m not sure exactly when I transcended that fear. I was not afraid to publish the latest account of what happened to a young woman aboard a Maersk vessel. Actually, I felt the opposite of fear for myself because I knew that it would attract attention from the media, and there is a protective power in that attention. That certainly extends to the person who came forward to tell her story. And while I’m not very concerned for my own safety, I am concerned for the safety of the people who choose to publish their stories with us, and I think about that a lot, and I do feel a great responsibility towards those brave souls.
Q. There are groups of people who have criticized you in the past and who continue to criticize you. What do you have to say to your critics?
In the beginning, the most punishing and challenging criticism came from women who did not want us publishing these stories of abuse in the maritime industry. They openly claimed that we were trying to scare women away from the industry and away from maritime academies and that these stories should be shared in private and handled in private, not in public. And they were effective in shutting us down for a while.
There are still women maritime leaders who feel that way, but I think their views are shifting now and they are beginning to realize that real change has to come from confronting the truth and confronting the problems in the industry.
But there is certainly some criticism of things that I’ve done that are totally valid. There are many things I have done or said or written that came out when I was under tremendous psychological and emotional stress, or when I was being attacked, and some of those statements harmed the cause and were completely counter-productive.
But I’ve always tried to stay focused on the victims. The stories of the victims changed me, and I’m definitely not the same person I was 3 years ago. I hope that one day people will understand what I have been up against, and that they will realize that it was an epic struggle against incredibly powerful institutions and against some very corrupt people who tried to protect a culture of sexual abuse and tried to protect sexual predators.
What people see us publish on the internet represents a fraction of all of the work we’ve done, and all of the challenges we have faced. We have had to go to war against some monsters and some monstrous conduct. It has not been fun, and it has been a pretty dark journey. Nietzsche famously said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
I understand what he meant.