Reports from former El Faro crew members suggest that the doomed ship leaked and had other structural and mechanical problems that call into question whether the vessel should have ever set sail with a hurricane in the region. The owner of the vessel, Tote Services, claims the vessel was properly maintained, but a mechanical failure left it stranded in the path of Hurricane Joaquin.
When the El Faro weighed anchor in Jacksonville, Florida, last week, Captain Michael Davison had a plan. According to Phil Green, President of Tote Services, Captain Davidson intended to run ahead of the incoming storm and arrive in Puerto Rico before it hit.
The Daily Mail reports that the El Faro followed its normal route between Florida and Puerto Rico for about 10 hours, after which it began to deviate from that course.
Rather than cutting through a gap in the Bahamas known as the “Hole in the Wall” to avoid the incoming hurricane altogether, the Daily Mail reports that data from the ship’s tracker showed it continuing in a south-easterly direction, but closer to the Bahamas than normal.
This adjusted course put the ship directly in the path of Hurricane Joaquin.
— Sal Mercogliano (@mercoglianos) October 9, 2015
Master mariners John Konrad and Captain Scott Futcher told the Daily Mail that sailing closer to the Bahamas, rather than turning back or cutting through the Hole in the Wall, may have contributed to the loss of the El Faro.
“There wasn’t much room for maneuvering,” Konrad told the Daily Mail, referring to the position of the El Faro. “He has the whole ocean to his left in the hurricane. Once you go west, there are islands there, and you are boxed in on all sides. The only option he had was to turn back.”
Futcher thought Captain Davidson should have cut through the Hole in the Wall, saying, “He should have gone further south. We are taught that you have to have an out, even if you have to make a huge loop around.”
It isn’t entirely clear why Captain Davidson sailed directly into the path of Hurricane Joaquin, but Tote Services says that it was a propulsion failure that ultimately doomed the ship.
CNN reports that, prior to sailing, Captain Davidson emailed Tote Services and indicated that he was well aware of the “weather condition” in the area, but he felt that the conditions along his course “looked very favorable.”
Captain Davidson may have intended to beat the storm or to skirt it and ride it out, which experts say is a practice that depends on the skill and experience of the captain and crew of any given vessel.
“How close you come comes down to the experience of the captain and the crew,” Fred Pickhardt, owner and chief marine meteorologist of Ocean Weather Services, told CNN. “The most important thing is the captain’s experience, the seaworthiness of the ship, and the experience of the crew.”
According to Tote Services, a propulsion failure threw a wrench into Captain Davidson’s plans. When the main propulsion system failed, the ship was no longer able to maneuver. It couldn’t turn back or avoid the storm, and once Hurricane Joaquin had closed on it, the El Faro was at the mercy of 50-foot waves it could no longer sail into.
Even a seaworthy vessel would have trouble withstanding multiple broadsides from waves of that size, but former crew members of the El Faro have called into question whether the 40-year-old cargo ship was even fit to sail in fair seas.
Kurt Bruer, a quartermaster with six months of experience on the ship, told CNN of pervasive leaks.
“The chief cook’s room was constantly leaking water,” Bruer told CNN. “The drainage didn’t work on the ship.”
Chris Cash, a former crew member who last sailed on the El Faro in January, agreed with that assessment.
“The El Faro was on its… needed a death certificate. It was a rust bucket,” Cash told CNN. “You don’t take a ship like that… that ship wasn’t supposed to be on the water.”
Cash also claimed that Tote was “bandaging the ship with extra steel all the time” and that “they would just patch it up rather than really fix it.”
Tote disagreed with the claims of the ex-crew, according to CNN, releasing a statement that the El Faro was properly maintained and inspected.
“The El Faro was a well-maintained vessel, classed by the American Bureau of Shipping and regularly inspected by that classification society and the (U.S. Coast Guard).”
With search and rescue operations called off, Tote has started a fund for families of the El Faro crew through the Seamen’s Church Institute.
Do you believe the reports from the ex-crew that the El Faro had leaks and mechanical problems, or was the propulsion failure just a tragic coincidence?
[Screengrabs via YouTube]