Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Inside the Worst Maritime Disaster in Decades

Any recreational boaters here?  Anyone who has been out of sight of land, where you know that if things go squirrely you don't go home?  Known that the bottom was a mile or more below you and that was closest land you could get to?  Without your boat you're in a world of trouble.  If you're waiting for a search and rescue aircraft, you're a tiny target in a big ocean.  

I've always thought that the giant cargo container freighters, giant oil tankers, and other vessels in the size class near that of an aircraft carrier are capable of surviving anything the sea could hand out.  All of these are monstrous compared to sizes of boats I've been out on.  I've heard of guys on small sailboats surviving hurricanes.  Boats that people who work for a living and decide to get away for a few years, or retire onto, buy.  If a 40 or 50 foot, single-mast sailboat can take on a hurricane, why not a 790 foot long cargo ship capable of carrying 15,000 tons? 

Last month, Vanity Fair (of all places) ran an article on the wreck and sinking of the cargo ship "El Faro", a cargo ship that sailed right into the path of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.  I remembered this because it was early October, and storms in that general area are always worth keeping an eye on.  I heard about this ship that had sailed and was heading for trouble, but assumed that with a professional captain on a ship that size, they shouldn't be at terrible risk.  So they get inconvenienced by changing course to stay in a lee or "heave-to", slow down, and point the bow into the wind, so what?  They should make it to their destination.

The article is long, but worth reading.  I don't think I'm giving away a major spoiler that the problem was a convergence of the storm intensifying more than expected, and the captain not willing to give it the respect it deserved, worrying too much about making his schedule.  Compounded with bad and conflicting information about the storm, because the forecasts were made by people.  Despite the elegant computer models and supercomputers to run them, no two models agree exactly: an experienced forecaster is still the best judge.  As the old saying goes, experience is gained by making mistakes and, most importantly, learning from them. 
It is unlikely that Davidson ever fully understood that he had sailed into the eye wall of Joaquin, but he must have realized by now that he had come much too close. As is usually the case, the catastrophe was unfolding because of a combination of factors that had aligned, which included: Davidson’s caution with the home office; his decision to take a straight-line course; the subtle pressures to stick to the schedule; the systematic failure of the forecasts; the persuasiveness of the B.V.S. graphics; the lack of a functioning anemometer; the failure by some to challenge Davidson’s thinking more vigorously; the initial attribution of the ship’s list entirely to the winds; and finally a certain mental inertia that had overcome all of them. This is the stuff of tragedy that can never be completely explained.
Davidson is Captain Michael Davidson; experienced, 53, and known as a stickler for safety.  He left behind a wife and two college-age daughters. Neither his remains nor those of his shipmates were ever recovered.  As best as can be reconstructed, El Faro went down around 7:40 AM on the morning of October 1st.  Search operations were actually started by Hurricane Hunters later that day, but not beginning in earnest until the next day due to the hurricane.  No survivors were ever found.  The ship was eventually found in 15,000 feet of water, and recovery operations attempting to find the onboard voice recorder lasted until April of 2016.  Coast Guard investigators placed virtually all of the blame on captain Michael Davidson.

GOES-13 Image (from Wikipedia) that's coincidentally captured as El Faro was sinking.


  1. Once the water is deep enough that you can't plant your feet on the bottom and breathe, it is too deep. And that doesn't even consider things like sharks.

    When I sailed I tied myself to the boat, because a life vest would just prolong the agony if you fell overboard.

    No sane person wants to sail in a hurricane, but ships are generally safer at sea. The US Navy - and others - will put to sea ahead of hurricanes, though they are faster than a bulk freighter. (And more maneuverable.) Of course they generally try to steer clear of one.

    A similar story is the The loss of the Fantome. Oct 1998. A Windjammer Cruise lines sailing vessel. 282 feet, steel hulled. Went down in Hurricane Mitch. Crew of 31.

  2. The day I was several miles off shore, and started taking on water is one day I will never forget.

    But if you are crazy enough to sail a small boat out of sight of land, you know going in, you are on your own. Marine VHF is good for about 7 to 10 miles (Depends on how high the Coast Guard's antenna is!) Most boats don't carry radios with longer range, or Sat phones. You can't call 911 if things go south.

    1. Part of El Faro's problem was that they had all the modern systems but they didn't work. Some malfunctions (wind speed indicator) were due to poor maintenance or damage, others due to the storm itself.

      As always, the "nut behind the steering wheel" had a lot to do with it. Although they all seemed to realize they were in for a rough ride, they also minimized it by saying, "I've worked in Alaska; the seas are like this every day".

      They didn't take the storm seriously until it was much too late.

  3. In the early 70's, my dad was fishing 20 miles offshore of Wildwood NJ when part of a hull plank broke near the bow. Twin engine ~30ft sportfisher. Applied full throttle while heading toward a friend's boat nearby. Discovered that this lifted the hole above the water. Change of plan! Head for home, while his friend followed. When he could get radio contact with the boatyard with the lifting sling, he asked them to get it set up for his size boat, and he would be there shortly, as he had a bad leak that would sink him if they weren't ready when he arrived. In the meantime the pumps were bailing out the water that had gotten in. He ran into the marina area (5mph speed limit) still running WFO, made a couple turns, chopped the throttles, and slid into the slings while bringing up the throttles in reverse.

    I'm thinking that he missed something while he was repairing the hull, because it sank at the dock later that year.

    Dad never wore a lifejacket, and had never learned to swim, due to a childhood case of mastoiditis with damage to the eardrum. Consequently, he wasn't allowed to get his ear wet. He loved boating, though.

    1. In the early 70's, my dad was fishing 20 miles offshore of Wildwood NJ when part of a hull plank broke near the bow.

      Since planks don't typically do things like that, he must have hit something.

      There was a story here about a fishing boat about 30 miles offshore Cape Canaveral that hit something in the water and ripped a slice most of the length of the bottom off the hull. The boat went down so fast they were barely able to call a "Mayday" once while putting on their PFDs (which is why they say we should always be wearing them). It's about 1980 so I don't remember the details, but they concluded the boat had hit a submerged log, like a phone pole, that was barely floating, end-up in the water.

    2. That's what I would think, but he explained it as a piece that just fell into the boat. I'm guessing that he found it in the bilge, to word it that way. Maybe rotted, and broke with water pressure once he dropped the bow with reduced power. He was a body man, and very familiar with impact damage, even to wood, as some of the old vehicles he had worked on had wood parts (started in the business in '44, and I remember cars made in the mid 20's in our home garage).

      I think that boat finally soured him on wood hulls, as he mostly played with fibreglass hulls after that. The exception to that might have been the custom built sportfisher made of mahogany and teak. Lapstrake build, with it extending all the way to the transom. We were swapping in a set of Ford Industrial V8's (302's?) to replace the IH updraft v8's. Deck was too low to fit the taller motors without raising it, and someone made him an offer for the entire project he couldn't pass up, so he sold it without ever getting to use it.

      We scrapped the Queen of the '29 NY Boat Show to get those motors and other fixtures. Boat was seriously rotted. Neat looking ~35ft cabin cruiser. Why someone bothered to install those new engines and transes into that junker was a puzzler. We had a long, slow trip getting that boat to that lifting sling after buying it. Dad was really afraid to get any speed up. After we got it back to his shop, I could see why he was so concerned. The wood was so soft all over, that some of the dismantling was done by hand. Just grab something and yank.

  4. Have been trying to find the reference - with no luck. But the Sailing Vessel Lady Washington - played the role of HMS Interceptor in the 1st Pirates of the Caribbean movie - was partially dismasted when her captain was sailing from Washington state (via Panama Canal) and thought that the trade winds would "blow themselves out" eventually. (They have been blowing for as long as we have recoded records, so there's that.)

    People in all arenas tend to discount danger. "I've seen this kind of thing before, and it was not a problem." It's why people don't get out of the way of hurricanes - because the last Cat 1 was not a problem, how bad can a Cat 5 be really? It's why snowmobilers ignore avalanche warnings. I can't tell you how many tourists I've watched give themselves sun-poisoning because "I always burn a little bit back home" in Cleveland, Minnesota, wherever. It's worse if they arrive and immediately go out on the water. (Here's a hint: If you go to Florida, use sunscreen, wear a hat that covers your ears - not a baseball cap - leave the black, concert tee-shirts at home, and buy some white tee shirts. And use sunglasses. You'll be much happier.)

    1. People in all arenas tend to discount danger. That's a post in itself! They over react to improbable risks, like the nuclear power plant a few miles away, while discounting all sorts of more probable things.

    2. Before I moved to Florida I read a few books about tropical climate and sun protection. I bought a hat, light weight long sleeved shirt, and used sunscreen every single day. I wore shades whenever I went outdoors. I'm okay today, and I believe my precautions helped.

  5. Really large ships, especially heavily loaded large ships need to be supported by the water. In normal wave action including normal storms the waves are close enough and small enough that the ship is essentially supported it's full length. With really big storms you get really big waves with deep troughs. The ship finds itself supported at bot ends or only in the middle and those 15,000 tons work against if. The stress is too much and it breaks up.

    Small sailboats tend to be over built and literally could be supported in one place anywhere along the hull without the stress being sufficient to break up. So their only problem in a big storm is keeping the water on the outside and not getting crossways to the wave.