The Sinking of El Faro

Rachel Slade, author of “Into the Raging Sea,” on the sinking of American container ship El Faro.

Into The Raging Sea Book Cover

On October 1, 2015, the American container ship El Faro sailed into the path of Hurricane Joaquin while en route from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thirty-three mariners lost their lives when the ship went down, making it the worst American shipping disaster in thirty-five years.

We need not wonder what happened, however, thanks to El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) and the investigate work of journalist Rachel Slade, whose book “Into the Raging Sea” (Ecco), tells the story in exquisite detail.

In the following Failure interview, Slade discusses the cavalcade of failures that led to the accident, as well as her research process, which included significant time aboard a working container ship. Most notably, on several occasions she boarded container ships in the same manner as a pilot—by scurrying up flimsy rope ladders while the ships in question were already underway.

“It’s the only way to for pilots [or journalists] to climb aboard,” she says, advising that “big ships rarely stop to drop anchor for pilots. They have so much momentum that they’d take miles to come to a halt, and even then, they’d drift with the winds and currents.”

By itself, Slade’s willingness to board a container ship like a pilot warrants a certain amount of respect. Don’t believe me? See the embedded video below, for a representative example of what that entails.

What inspired you to write about the sinking of El Faro?

Shipwrecks are age-old human dramas—men, ships, storms. But this one had a uniquely twenty-first century twist: it was incredibly well documented thanks to the VDR. There were six microphones in the ceiling of the navigation bridge that captured all of the conversations between the captain, his officers and anyone who came up on the bridge. We have only one side of the conversations that crew members had with the engine room and people ashore, so we don’t know everything. But we do know a lot about what happened.

The most remarkable part of the story, I think, is that taxpayers spent more than $3 million to finance three separate missions to recover the ship’s VDR, which was programmed to record 12 hours of conversation. The only lucky thing that happened is that 26 hours of dialogue was recorded.

Did you spend time on a cargo ship as part of your research?

I did, and I ended up writing a third of “Into the Raging Sea” on the bridge of that ship.

Few people have actually experienced what it’s like to be on a working ship. But it really informed my book. I spent a lot of time on the bridge watching the captain interact with [the crew] and understanding how strong the hierarchy is in the merchant marine. I got a sense of how people communicate with each other in this unique industry that very few are privy to.

What I set out to do is to understand the rhythms of a 24-hour vessel, out of sight of land—what it feels like to be that isolated and cut off from the world under trying circumstances. The cabins are small and you don’t get a lot of privacy.

I understand that as part of your research you actually boarded a ship like a pilot would?

Yes, I did that three times. One of my most important interviews was with Eric Bryson, the river pilot [with the St. Johns Bar Pilot Association] who took El Faro out from Jacksonville to the seaboard. I contacted him and he was kind enough to let him join me on piloting expeditions, so I took this tiny pilot boat out to sea from Jacksonville and we met up with an enormous ship.

I was confronted with a 20-foot-high rope ladder, scaling the sheer side of a container ship. If I fell, somebody probably would have had to write my obituary, because there was little chance of survival under those circumstances. That was my introduction to how dangerous the profession is.

Thank God I had calm weather. But you have to time it so when you jump you get where you are trying to go. People die every year boarding container ships.

In major transportation disasters it’s typically not one thing that causes the disaster but a series of occurrences. Was that the case with El Faro?
Absolutely. It’s astounding how many bad decisions and mistakes had to be made to sink the ship.

First, El Faro was 40 years old. It’s not just that its systems were old, some of its steel was crumbling. The owners couldn’t even get parts to repair it; they had to mill the parts themselves or get them off of scrap ships. So just keeping El Faro working required a lot of energy.

Also, El Faro was designed in the 1960s and would not be built to those standards today. For one, it had too many openings too close to the water. And the ventilation system for ventilating its cavernous cargo holds had been designed with vertical baffles so that the air would have to go up and over these baffles. Somebody noticed that there was rust accumulating in the ventilation boxes and decided to drill holes at the bottom of those boxes to allow the water to come out, which completely defeated the purpose of the baffles and essentially lowered the watertight line of the ship by more than three feet.

Also, not having alarms on the ship’s hatches—which is simple, cheap and easy—made El Faro much more vulnerable.

Another major flaw is that El Faro was not equipped with up-to-date lifeboats. She was carrying the same life-saving equipment she was built with. That is, she had open lifeboats, and they were white. In a storm the ocean is a foamy white, so the last thing you’d be able to see is a white lifeboat.

Also, the ship was redesigned in 2003 to accommodate containers, which was not how she was originally designed. She was supposed to take cargo in the form of trailers, which rolled down into her hold. So she was not designed to take a lot of weight up above on her top deck. And in order to have an opening low enough that a truck can drive straight onto the deck you need a very low deck edge—a vulnerability.

Another problem was that El Faro’s hull was very narrow and [the ship behaved] kind of like a motorcycle. When it was going fast it was stable, but when a ship is narrow and moving slowly it’s much more vulnerable to the wind and waves.

Adding to that problem was the fact that there were several layers of containers on top of each other, which created what’s called sail area. It’s an additional vertical surface above the deck, and the wind heel caused by this additional surface area pushed the ship so far over on its starboard side that its other vulnerabilities became huge liabilities.

So when El Faro went into the storm, with winds up to 100 mph, it was an incredible force across this huge surface area. And the bow and stern of the deck was higher than the middle so when water washed over the deck it went straight into an open hatch and the cavernous hold of the ship. And that pushed the ship deeper into the water, yet nobody noticed at first because alarms weren’t going off.

Then, the cars that were in the hold weren’t chained properly to the deck. Instead of directly chaining each car to the deck, all of the cars were chained to a chain, so the cars were kind of loose. So when the cargo hold filled with water the cars became buoyant and came loose. And with water flowing in at thousands of gallons per minute there was no way a bilge pump could keep up.

Another factor is that there were two weather reporting/weather forecast software systems aboard the ship. One had the alpha-numeric information coming from the National Weather Service, which is based in Miami. They have a National Hurricane Center and they put out orders every six hours. Actually there are more detailed alerts that come out more frequently but they are only accessible via the Web and the sailors on El Faro did not know that they could get more detailed forecasts through an FTP site. I went to the National Hurricane Center site and tried to figure out how to program their FTP to send me updates and I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

In addition they had software called the Bon Voyage system (BVS)—a third-party system. The interface is gorgeous; it shows your ship and your route based on your heading, as well as your GPS location and where the storm is and where it’s supposed to go. The Bon Voyage team sends an updated package every six hours.

But if you read the National Hurricane Center’s warnings and forecasts you see that uncertainty is built into the forecasts. There is specific language that tells you how sure the forecasters are about what is going to happen. And the forecasters are very careful; they put out a forecast about how they think the storm is going to escalate and where they think it’s going to go. Then they hedge; the copy is carefully crafted to communicate uncertainty. That [hedging] isn’t in the Bon Voyage system, so the captain was looking at his interface and it showed the ship going to San Juan and arriving at ‘X’ hour on ‘X’ day and the storm cutting north. According to that very simplistic and reductionist point of view, El Faro would be fine.

Finally, in addition to the lack of uncertainty being communicated in the software, the Bon Voyage system was based off of the National Hurricane Center’s information. So there was a time delay because four or five hours would be spent repackaging the information. So by the time Bon Voyage sent their update to the ship it was based on data that was more than 12 hours old. And for a quickly escalating storm like Hurricane Joaquin, that information was garbage by the time it reached El Faro. So El Faro’s captain, Michael Davidson, based his route on garbage data.

What role did human resources and the ship’s owners play in the disaster?

The shipping company that owned El Faro had gone through major restructuring and had fired several knowledgeable officers a couple years before. So El Faro had a younger crew that was not used to working together, as well as a younger captain who didn’t know the route well and certainly wasn’t that familiar with hurricanes.

Meanwhile, the company was crewing new ships and instead of being forthright and transparent about how they were selecting people for their new ships, they kept everybody in the dark. So crew members were being raptured, if you will; they were disappearing, pulled away to train for the new ships.

But those that were hired for the new ships were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements so everything was very hush-hush. This was very disconcerting. The captain himself had applied for a position and had been passed over. He couldn’t understand why.

Frankly, he was afraid he was going to lose his $200,000 a year job—a big part of the story. There just aren’t that many opportunities out there because the American merchant marine is shrinking dramatically. We used to be a major force of global shipping and now the American fleet is less than four percent of the global fleet. It’s astounding how dramatically we’ve been eclipsed by other countries.

What role do financial pressures play in potentially compromising safety as it pertains to container ships like El Faro?

As an American container ship, El Faro was regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The law is that ship holds built after 1986 have to have enclosed life boats. In this case we have a hold that was built in 1974 so she was allowed to carry open life boats.

But as I mentioned earlier, in 2003 El Faro had been modified to take containers on her deck and at that point the Coast Guard demanded that the shipping company upgrade all of the life-saving equipment to the current standard. The company fought against the ordinance for three years, arguing that it would be too expensive to upgrade the life-saving equipment on the ship. It’s an example of how companies can basically bargain with the agencies charged with regulating them.

And in this instance there was also the pressure of getting El Faro to Puerto Rico on time. If the captain had taken the safe route, which he had done only three weeks before, he would have burned considerably more fuel and it would have taken him at least six more hours to arrive at his destination. We know this because he did it three weeks before during a different storm and it’s possible he may have been reprimanded because fuel and time is expensive. It’s possible the company put pressure on him to think twice before he made the safe choice again.

So while there were many physical things working against the ship the human factor was big. The commercial airline industry learned its lessons in the 1970s about how you discuss situations in the cockpit. When you have a hierarchical industry, how does the co-pilot communicate with the pilot so that he or she is heard? In this case we have a very traditional industry where they are not getting the training they need for a captain to be able to listen clearly to the people around him—the experts who are hired to work with him. The captain felt he was basically working as an independent agent and made decisions that resulted in the loss of a container ship and the lives of thirty-three people.

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