The sinking of El Faro

“Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro”
by Rachel Slade. Ecco Press, 2018; 416 pp. $12.29.

Review by Bob Muggleston

In October of 2015 reports emerged that a 790-foot container ship named El Faro had gone missing somewhere off the Bahamas. She’d been on a routine run between Miami and Puerto Rico and, at the time, much of the discussion was around what type of ship El Faro was, which was a ro/ro (roll-on/roll-off) ship modified to also carry containers. These ships – think car carrier, or passenger ferry – have doors that double as gangways, and the El Faro had been playing cat and mouse with a hurricane named Joaquin. Speculators wondered aloud: Could Joaquin have pried open one of these doors?

Soon after came the news that the El Faro had indeed been lost, along with all 33 hands.

In Rachel Slade’s excellent 2018 book “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro,” the hows and whys of this tragedy are examined in minutiae, many of the details courtesy of 26 hours of black box audio.

A warning: At times, it’s heartbreaking stuff. It’s one thing to speculate as to what transpired on the bridge shortly before a ship goes down, but another thing to see these conversations – some of them conducted in palpable fear – transcribed.

One such snapshot: While the ship’s captain is inexplicably below in his cabin, and the weather around the El Faro is badly deteriorating, the ship’s second mate, Danielle Randolph, is on the bridge with helmsman Jackie Jones. Randolph plots their course in relation to the storm and shows it to Jones.

“That’s where we should be and that’s where the hurricane’s gonna be,” Randolph said.

“Gotta be a better way to go,” Jones said.

“Max winds 85, gusts to 105 knots,” Randolph replied.

“We’re gonna get our ass ripped.”

Many aboard thought what they were doing was ludicrous, but the captain – he never called Joaquin a hurricane; he always referred to it as “the low” – was relying on a single commercial weather-routing program whose updates were sometimes 12 hours old, and the hurricane’s movement had proven difficult to anticipate. The captain seemed strangely detached as cars and refrigerated containers broke loose below, and news from the engine room got progressively worse. Asked by someone there what El Faro’s downflooding angle was – the point at which a severe list would allow the sea to pour in through vents in the deck – the captain didn’t seem sure what the term meant. He certainly couldn’t provide a number.

The anemometer on top of the bridge hadn’t worked for months. El Faro, a ship capable of outrunning any storm at sea thanks to her superior speed, was being driven straight into the eye of a hurricane and no one aboard even knew how hard the wind was blowing. It’s pulse-pounding, gut-wrenching stuff for the reader, but surely must sicken anyone who had family members aboard.

The book is broken up into two parts. The first half is a mesmerizing account of the sinking itself, and the second illustrates the heroic search for her afterward, and the subsequent hearings conducted around the sinking. If you’re the type prone to moral indignation in the face of gross negligence, you might want to skip this part. It’s easy to condemn the captain’s actions, of course, but some of the blame ultimately lands at the feet of Tote Maritime, El Faro’s owners, who were absentee landlords. They were as surprised by the news of the ship sinking as anyone. Why? Because they weren’t even tracking her! Company experts in ship-handling and weather-avoidance? Those folks had been sacked as a company cost-cutting measure. It was the blind leading the blind, and the ship’s fate was sealed.

“Into the Raging Sea” reminds us that all who go to sea are still at her mercy. And, too, that who you choose to go to sea with might just save your life – or even end it.