Nearly 3 years following the historic loss of the HMS Bounty (the US flagged tall ship that sailed into Hurricane Sandy never to return), another noteworthy vessel has been lost at sea at the mercy of a massive storm. And like the October 2012 Bounty loss, people are left wondering why the ro-ro container ship, the El Faro, went to sea with a massive and quickly developing storm bearing down and seemingly into the eye of a hurricane.
Aside from the fact that the two ships were lost at sea in a wicked hurricane – there are other unfortunate similarities. Two lives were lost in the Bounty tragedy to the 33 lives lost on El Faro, which has now been presumed sunk near Crooked Island in the Bahamas, one of – if not the worst area to be hit by Hurricane Joaquin. Both tragedies were avoidable, however unlike the Bounty, which was in truth a movie set or museum of the “Mutiny on the Bounty” movie that should have never been in even the calmest seas, the El Faro had weathered many storms of serious magnitude. The captain of El Faro was a respected and experienced skipper with thousands of miles along this same route between Puerto Rico and the US.
But the El Faro too, was an aging ship that was about to be replaced by one of the first LNG container ships by parent company, TOTE, Inc. The El Faro was to be sent to Alaska for limited service after years of repairs and regular maintenance on the 40 year old, 790 foot vessel. And the fact that it was a ro-ro ship – built to carry vehicles on a lower deck under the cargo deck – adds to the instability of the vessel in the 25 foot seas she was said to have encountered. When she sank, she was carrying 391 containers topside and 294 cars, trucks and trailers below deck. Get out your Chapman’s and look up Free Surface Effect. Basically it explains how the El Faro could have rolled and sank very quickly with an abundance of water on a lower deck. Ugly thought.
The plan to take any ship out into deteriorating weather to either outrun a hurricane (as was the thought behind the Bounty’s departure) or to “sail around” the storm – is ill conceived. Joaquin whipped itself up quickly from a tropical depression to a category 4 hurricane almost overnight. But it was not invisible to weather routers and to the El Faro Captain who had been closely monitoring the storm and felt confident he could get out in advance of any trouble. Choosing a route close to the Florida coast could have saved the day for a number of reasons.
So in the face of an intensifying storm bearing down on the ship, the worst happened – the El Faro lost power. To make matters worse, the ship was foundering without an engine and steering, and right in the path of Joaquin. And Joaquin was intensifying and moving very very slowly. Towards the El Faro.
It’s futile to overthink why they went. As the USCG continues to comb the area looking for survivors, is it possibly time to impose strict weather restrictions on those who decide it is safe to take a ship full of lives into the eye of a storm. No one can predict when an engine or system will fail – and in typical weather or even a “storm,” it could get hairy. But with a tropical depression on the horizon – it is no time to take chances and get out in front of an unpredictable weather system.
When a captain leaves port and is responsible for the ship and all the cargo and lives aboard it, it is a big call to make in the face of international commerce, big business and a massive weather event. But sometimes bad choices are made by one at the expense of many more. And if the pressure of deciding if there was time, ample distance or a chance of getting around Joaquin was too much for the Captain, it could be helpful to all to know that above X knots (50? 75?) that the USCG “shuts down the waterways” or at least forbids departures. Sending USCG out to rescue, search and investigate these tragedies is also needlessly dangerous to those without a choice. If the USCG could take more of a role in mandating the inappropriate weather in which to navigate, we might have 35 more people around to support this idea. Lest we allow confident mariners the opportunity to stage a few more mutinies at sea. Condolences to all families of those lost on the El Faro.
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