Into The Teeth Of A Hurricane

Why did a cargo ship with a 33-member crew sail into a ferocious storm? A remarkable recording salvaged from the doomed vessel offers some answers

William Langewiesche Updated: Oct 12, 2020 16:35:03 IST
Into The Teeth Of A Hurricane Photo used for representative purposes only (Courtesy Pixabay)

In the darkness before dawn on 1 October 2015, an American merchant captain named Michael Davidson, 53, sailed a 240-metre US-flagged cargo ship, El Faro, into the eye wall of a Category-3 hurricane near the Bahama Islands. The hurricane, named Joaquin, overwhelmed and sank the ship. Davidson and the 32 others aboard drowned. El Faro should have been able to avoid the hurricane. Why didn’t it?

The story begins with the captain, Michael Davidson. He grew up in Portland, Maine, and at age 16 got a job on a local harbour ferry. He graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1988, then began sailing on oil tankers between Alaska and West Coast ports, rising to the rank of chief mate.

The Gulf of Alaska is notoriously rough, and Davidson sailed through countless storms, some of hurricane strength. He was a by-the-book mariner with a reputation for being unusually competent and organized. By training and temperament he was a safety-first man. 

He switched to dry-cargo ships on the East Coast, and eventually signed on with a shipping company called TOTE. He was given a weekly run from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and El Faro, a 240-metre US-flagged cargo ship, to command.

On Monday, 28 September 2015, the loading of El Faro, which means ‘the lighthouse’ in Spanish, started in Jacksonville at 1 p.m. and continued on Tuesday until shortly after sundown. The weather was balmy, with light winds and mostly overcast skies.

Far out in the Atlantic, a tropical depression had been intensifying and progressing towards the Bahamas on an unusual southwesterly heading, rather than hooking back to the north, as the meteorological models kept expecting it to do. A day before El Faro’s departure, the tropical depression hadbecome a tropical storm named Joaquin.

Davidson, who had been monitoring the forecasts, had two routes available to him. The first was a straight south-east heading past the Bahamas for two and a half days and 2,036 kms directly to San Juan.

The second route ran south through the Florida Straits, then east along Cuba through a sinewy narrows called the Old Bahama Channel. This route would have placed a string of wave-breaking islands between the ship and the storm. The problem was that it added 296 kms, and more than six hours, to the trip. The schedule would be thrown out of whack.

Davidson opted for the straight shot. The forecast indicated that he could slip past the Bahamas before Joaquin moved in.

El Faro cast off at 8:07 on Tuesday evening, carrying 391 containers and 267 trailers and cars. Six hours later Joaquin became a Category-1 hurricane, with sustained winds greater than 120 kms per hour. The eye lay 395 kms east-north-east of San Salvador, the outermost island of the Bahamian chain, and was slowly moving in that direction.

“A good little plan”

At 5:56 a.m. on 30 September, the morning after departure, the digital voyage data recorder first opens on the bridge. Davidson was conferring with the chief mate, Steven Schultz, 54, at the chart table. An unlicensed seaman, Frank Hamm III, 49, was at the helm, monitoring the autopilot.

The ship was rolling in swells approaching from the left. Schultz said, “Got the swell,” and Davidson answered, “Oh yeah. Probably going to get worse.”

Schultz suggested moving south of the direct track line to San Juan, giving the storm a bit more space. But then he said, “I would wait. Get more information.”

el-faro-1_090820025517.jpgThe SS El Faro (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

For marine weather, El Faro’s crew had multiple options but used primarily two. The first was an Inmarsat C satellite receiver that fed National Hurricane Center reports to a printer on the bridge. These socalled sat-C reports arrived in text form and required the plotting of Joaquin’s forecasted positions on a chart. The Hurricane Center’s mathematical predictive tools were having an unusually difficult time getting a handle on Joaquin’s forecasted positions. The resulting uncertainty was expressed emphatically in the forecasts, and Davidson was aware of it.

The second source for weather information was a subscription service called the Bon Voyage System (BVS) that processed global weather data to produce its own forecast, primarily in the form of colourful weather maps, which could be animated and over which a ship’s course could be laid. By the time the data was processed, it was up to six hours old, which in the context of Joaquin was obsolete. The BVS map gave no indication of the ageof the raw data.

Davidson knew that all the forecasts were uncertain, and that they sometimes disagreed. But how aware was he that when he looked at the BVS maps he was looking into the past?

He went to his stateroom, and when he returned to the bridge he said, “All right, I just sent up the latest weather.” Schultz opened the BVS program at the chart table. Because of a software glitch, the map that appeared was the very same map that had come in with the previous download, six hours earlier, according to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the disaster. The raw data on which it was based was at least 12 hours old. 

Davidson and Schultz decided that the storm would be a little too close for comfort when the time came to cross its bow. Working with a GPS-based plotter, they made a slight right turn, creating a gentle dogleg that would pass 16 kms outside San Salvador Island and put them 80 kms from the hurricane’s eye. Davidson said, “I think that’s a good little plan, chief mate.”

It was 6:40 in the morning, and the sun was coming up. Davidson said, “Oh, look at that red sky over there. Red in the morning, sailors take warning.”

Davidson left the bridge and a fresh helmsman and the third mate showed up to stand the next four-hour watch. Schultz briefed the third mate,Jeremie Riehm, on the weather and the diversion; if worse came to worst, he explained, they could turn behind the outer islands and escape through one of several deepwater gaps to reach the Old Bahama Channel.

After Schultz left the bridge, Riehm continued to study the weather. He said to the helmsman, “We’re gonna get slammed tonight.”

Stacked high with containers, the massive ship rolled with a slow rhythm through swells coming in from the east. The sky was mostly clear. Thewind was warm and slowly increasing.

When Davidson returned to the bridge, his mind was on the storm. He said, “Just gotta keep the speed up so we get goin’ down. And who knows? Maybe this low will just stall … Just enough for us to duck underneath.”

But the opposite happened.

Category 3

Shortly before noon, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, 34, arrived with a relief helmsman, Larry Davis, 63, to stand the next watch. Randolph was from Rockland, Maine, and, like Davidson and three others aboard, was a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy. Riehm briefed her on the navigation plan. Speaking of the captain, she said, “He’s telling everyone down there, ‘Ohhh, it’s not a bad storm. It’s not so bad. It’s not even that windy out. Seen worse.’”

Now alone on the bridge with Davis, Randolph returned to the subject of Davidson. She mimicked him. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing!” She backed off the mockery and said, “If it’s nothing, then why the hell are we going on a different track line?”

Davis said, “We’re getting sea swells now.”

The swells slowed the ship. In his stateroom Davidson sent a report to the TOTE office giving an ETA (estimated time of arrival) for San Juan of 8 a.m. on Friday, 44 hours ahead. Then he came to the bridge and said, “Damn, we’re getting killed with this speed.”

joaquin-path_090820031522.pngEnlarged and annotated track of Joaquin from 29 September–3 October depicting its path through the Bahamas (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Randolph answered him a little rebelliously: “I think now it’s not a matter of speed. It’s ‘When we get there, we get there’, as long as we arrive in one piece.”

A gulf seemed to be opening between Davidson and the crew on the bridge. He may not have noticed it.

Later, Davidson instructed Randolph to start keeping hourly logs of the weather, wind direction and force, barometer. The wind would have to be estimated because the ship’s anemometer had been in disrepair for weeks.

The wind was increasing, the sea was covered with whitecaps, and the swells from the east were rising. Around 4 p.m., the sky started clouding over. Schultz, the chief mate, and Hamm, his helmsman, came on to the bridge to take the next watch.

At 4:46 p.m., Randolph and Davis returned to allow Schultz and Hamm to go to dinner. The sat-C printer delivered the latest weather, and Randolph began to plot it out at the chart table. This information from the National Hurricane Center got the current location of the eye about right.

She said, “So at two in the morning … it should be right here.” She indicated a position just outside of San Salvador Island. Randolph did some calculations and began to chuckle. “We’re going to be right there with it. Looks like the storm is coming right for us.”

Davis said, “We’re going to get our ass ripped.”

Staying the course

Schultz and Hamm returned from dinner, and Davidson showed up around sundown. To Schultz he said, “I just sent you the latest weather.” It was the BVS product depicting a forecast based on old data, with additional errors cranked in due to forecasting models. It was not exactly a fiction, but it was a poor tool for attempting a close pass across the bow of a hurricane.

They decided to turn the ship 10 degrees to the right, widening away from the storm for a second time. The new course would take them to the west of San Salvador Island, which for a while would offer some protection from the hurricane’s waves. They made the turn at 7:03 p.m.

With its engine running at near maximum speed, El Faro was riding comfortably through large swells coming in from the north-east. Davidson was pleased. For the next 45 minutes, he and Schultz calculated GPS waypoints and courses, and laid out a tidy plan for the rest of the trip, including a strong left turn in the open waters beyond San Salvador Island, and a straight shot across the bow of the hurricane.

Riehm and his helmsman appeared on the bridge for their 8 p.m.-to-midnight[watch]. Schultz gave Riehm a quick briefing.

Later Riehm invited the helmsman over to look at the BVS. He said, “Let’s see how this thing goes. We can’t outrun it, you know. It’s more powerful than we thought. This is supposed to hook right here. It’s supposed to make this stop. What if it doesn’t?”

“What if we get close?” the helmsman asked. “We get jammed in those islands there, and it starts comin’ at us?”

Riehm responded, “That’s what I’m thinking. Maybe I’m just being a Chicken Little. I don’t know.”

At 10:54 p.m. the sat-C printer delivered the latest from the National Hurricane Center. Joaquin had exploded into a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 185 kph, and gusts to 222. It was moving south-south-west at nine kph. By eight in the morning, it was expected to be sustaining winds of 202, with gusts to 250.

Riehm plotted the storm’s predicted position and looked at the escape route, which would involve a strong right turn to the south into the passage past Crooked Island and on to the Old Bahama Channel beyond. He called Davidson and said, “So at 0400 we’ll be 35 kms from the centre, with max 100 and gusts to 120 and strengthening.” Those speeds were in knots. “The option that we do have—from what I can see—is at 0200 we could head south, and that would open it up some.”

Davidson dismissed the plan and did not come to the bridge. Evidence suggests that he was still showing a preference for the animated BVS graphics, which indicated the storm progressing more slowly.

The swell was growing; the ship was moving more heavily now. At one point Riehm said, “We don’t have any options. We got nowhere to go.”

“Hello, Joaquin”

Just before midnight, Randolph arrived with Davis to stand watch. In the partial shelter offered by San Salvador Island, about 32 kms to the east, the ship was moving more easily. Riehm explained the situation. As always, Randolph tried to keep things light. She said, “This is the second time we changed our route, and it just keeps coming for us.”

At 1:18 a.m., the ship started to pitch more violently. Davis recommended slowing down. They were approaching the waypoint where Davidson’s route plan called for the significant turn to the left, taking the ship, as the captain believed, across the path of the hurricane a safe distance from the eye.

Randolph did not want to do it. She called Davidson on the house phone and proposed the escape route to the south and a smooth sail on to San Juan. He rejected her suggestion. Despite the uncertainties in the forecast, he was convinced of his strategy. He had not yet downloaded the latest BVS package, emailed to his computer at 11 p.m.

When Randolph got off the phone, she said to Davis, “He said to run it.” She meant the course as planned. She said, “Hold on to your ass!” and laughed.

El Faro entered a squall. Over the next hour, the conditions deteriorated, and the ship began to labour, unable to exceed about 16 knots. By now, the stresses on the ship were enormous. Objects exposed to the wind were banging, breaking and flying away. On Deck 2, below the main deck where the containers were stacked, water began washing in through openings on the sides, swirling around the wheels of the cargo trailers secured there and washing out just as fast. This was no reason for concern because the deck was sealed off from the engine room and the cargo holds below.

The ship kept smashing ahead. At 1:55 Randolph said, “Wooo! That was a good wave. Definitely lost some speed.”

Davis said, “Damn sure don’t want to lose the plant.” He meant the ship’s engine.

The captain wanted full speed in order to cross the storm a good distance from the eye. In the northern hemisphere, the circulation around hurricanesruns counterclockwise. The winds right now were northerly and coming at the ship from the left side. If the BVS map was correct, the eye lay ahead and well to the left. According to that model, the winds would become north-westerly (directly astern) as El Faro passed abeam the eye, and would shift to south-westerly and then southerly (on the right side) as the ship steamed beyond it. But this never happened—the ship was heading towards the storm, not away from it.

Up on the bridge at 2:42, Randolph had to sit to keep from falling down. Then the first of the really big waves reared just ahead. Randolph said, “Oh, my God! Ahhh!” Solid water—green water—was coming over the bow.

The ship kept getting knocked off heading. A steering alarm would sound, and the autopilot would slowly regain control.

At 3:20 a wave clobbered the stern. The ship veered briefly out of control.

The helmsman said, “We’re getting into it now.”

Randolph said, “Hello, Joaquin.”

joaquin-intensity_090820031820.pngVisible satellite imagery of Hurricane Joaquin at the time of its peak winds on 3 October, 2015 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Rule of thumb

At 3:45, Chief Mate Schultz arrived for the next watch. He said, “So you can’t see a thing?”

Davis answered, “Yeah. If anybody’s out there, they gotta be a damn fool.”

The ship was drifting south of the track line. Schultz ordered a heading correction to the left. Hamm showed up for his turn at the helm. Schultz said, “Don’t like this.”

A huge wave reared up. Hamm said, “Hold on!” The ship slewed when it was hit, and the steering alarm sounded. The waves were coming about every 13 seconds, and the autopilot was having a hard time keeping up Hamm said, “How much longer of this?” and Schultz answered, “Hours.”

Not long afterwards, Davidson entered the bridge. He said, “There’s nothing bad about this ride … I was sleepin’ like a baby.”

Schultz said, “Not me.”

Davidson said, “Well, this is every day in Alaska. This is what it’s like.”

Speaking of the wind, Schultz said, “Can’t tell the direction. Our forecast had it coming around to starboard [the right side of a ship when one is facing forward. Port is left].”

“It will,” Davidson said. “Eventually.”

Here’s a rule of thumb for the northern hemisphere: Whether you are travelling by ship, aeroplane, car or horse, if you have a wind from the left you are moving towards lower atmospheric pressure—and that means moving towards worsening weather.

Davidson left the bridge to check on the galley. Immediately afterwards the sat-C printer spat out the latest missive from the National Hurricane Center. It contained a reasonably accurate report on the eye’s current position. Schultz retrieved the page but did not have time to plot the coordinates.

The house phone rang. It is not clear who the caller was, but the conversation was about problems with cargo on the second deck—the one the seas were sweeping through. The ship was listing to starboard, which was mentioned as a factor. Schultz did not seem too concerned, and said he would inform the captain.

No sooner had he hung up than the phone rang again. This time it was the chief engineer down in the engine room. The conversation was brief. Schultz rang the captain in the galley. “The chief engineer just called … Something about the list and oil levels.”

The time was 4:41 a.m. The hurricane was raging. Davidson returned and got on the phone to the engine room. After he got off he said, “Gonna steer right up into it. Wants to take the list off.” He intended to feel his way upwind until the aerodynamic pressures were sufficiently reduced that the ship would come closer to level. Beyond the windows all was blackness and driving spray. He did not know the wind’s direction except that it was coming from the left.

Hamm started a slow turn into the wind. Davidson had been on the phone again with the engine room. When he got off, he said, “Just the list. The sumps are actin’ up. To be expected.” The sumps had pumps that supplied lubrication to the main engine.

They had turned 35 degrees to the left. Hamm was now doggedly steering to the north-east. The sea conditions were atrocious. They were no longer normal for Alaska.

The ship was pointed almost directly into the wind, but Davidson had no way of knowing it. On a clean upwind heading any list caused by the winds should have come to an end; the list, however, continued and, if anything, was steeper than before, suggesting that something besides wind was causing it—such as flooding.

Hamm was having a hard time keeping his place at the helm. Davidson said, “Stand up. Hold on to that handle. Just relax, everything’s gonna be just fine.”

The recording was difficult to make out, but Schultz then appears to have reported the list at 18 degrees. Think of the angle of a wheelchair ramp and then multiply times four.

Flooding in three-hold

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.

At 5:43 a.m., the seriousness of their predicament suddenly became clear. Up on the bridge the house phone rang. Davidson answered and listened for 15 seconds. He hung up and turned to Schultz. “Go down to three-hold and start the pumping right now. Water.”

Three-hold was a vast space below the second deck, just forward of the engine room. It was loaded with cars. The problem was a series of scuttles—heavy watertight hatches—that allowed access from the second deck to the cargo holds below. The crew had secured them the day before, in preparation for the storm. But if one had been overlooked or had failed, the flooding would be severe.

The house phone rang. Davidson answered. It was an engineer calling in with a report. The bilge pump was not keeping up—water was continuing to rise. The source of the water was unknown.

El Faro had a closed system of two interconnected ballast tanks—one on the left, one on the right—that were used to balance the ship during cargo-loading operations by means of water transfers. Davidson ordered the engine room to start transferring water from the starboard tank to the port tank in order to lessen the list, thereby distributing the floodwaters more evenly.

Five minutes later the chief engineer rang with the news that the source did indeed appear to be an open scuttle on the starboard side. Access would be difficult unless the floodwaters could be lowered. Davidson said, “I’m going to turn the ship and get the wind on the starboard side, get everything on the starboard side, give us a port list and see if we’ll have a better look at it.”

It was an audacious plan. In a badly wounded ship, he was going to use the hurricane itself as a tool for damage control. He said to Hamm, “Put your rudder left 20.” El Faro began to turn. The winds had further intensified. The seas were mountainous.

el-faro-joaquin_090820025921.pngSatellite image depicting the approximate final position of El Faro in relation to Hurricane Joaquin (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The hurricane shoved El Faro into a port-side list. Water was now pouring out of the open scuttle. When it stopped, members of the crew would get it closed. Randolph showed up on the bridge. Davidson said “Hi!” with a rising inflection. He was obviously pleased to see her there.

Before long, Davidson got word that the scuttle had been secured. But the ship continued to list badly—now to the left. Water must still be coming in from somewhere.

Then suddenly at 6:13 a.m. the ever-present tremors of the ship’s propulsion stopped. Davidson said, “I think we just lost the plant.” Three minutes later, the chief engineer called. The problem was with lubrication-oil pressure at this angle of list. He said they were trying to bring the engine back online. Meanwhile, the ship had plenty of standby power for running the pumps and electronics.

It was morning twilight, and the scene slowly coming into sight was calamitous, with huge breaking waves, churning foam and wind-driven rain and spray. The hull lay below the bridge, taking a pounding from the storm. There was a sound of multiple thuds in rapid succession. Davidson said, “That’s why I don’t go out there … That’s a piece of handrail, right?”

Randolph decided that this was the time to grind some gourmet coffee. She said, “Coffee? Cream and sugar?” She added, “Sugar is fine with the captain, right?” Hamm said, “Give me the Splenda, not the regular sugar.”

In reply to a question, Davidson said, “Should get better all the time. Right now we’re on the backside of it. OK?

But they were not on the backside of the storm, and conditions were not going to improve. They were in the northern eye wall, and getting pushed to the south-west. Joaquin, meanwhile, was intensifying into a Category-4 hurricane.

Davidson called the engine room. The chief engineer explained that he would not be able to get the lubrication pumps going until El Faro gained more of an even keel.

Full daylight had come. The chief engineer called, and Randolph told him there was nothing more that could be done from the bridge about the list. Davidson instructed her to send an emergency message to the Coast Guard and the company via the security alert system.

Speaking of the outside world, he said in an urgent tone, “Wake everybody up! Wake ‘em up!”

“Everybody get off!”

El Faro had two outdated lifeboats hung from davits on its port and starboard sides, open to the sky, extremely difficult if not impossible to launch from a listing ship in hurricane-force winds and certain to capsize in breaking waves. It also had five inflatable life rafts that were easier to launch but more difficult to board, and nearly as vulnerable in the storm. The only hope was to take to the life rafts.

Davidson radioed to Schultz, who was somewhere on the ship trying to monitor the flooding. He said, “Just a heads-up. I’m gonna ring the general alarm. Get your muster while you’re down there. Muster all, mate.”

Schultz answered, “Roger.”

Davidson called the engine room and got a junior officer. He said, “Just want to let you know I am going to ring the general alarm. You don’t have to abandon ship or anything just yet. All right, we’re gonna stay with it.”

When he got off the phone, Davidson shouted loudly, “Ring it!” A high-frequency bell could be heard everywhere.

Schultz called Davidson on the radio. He said, “Everybody starboard side.” The starboard side was the high side, to windward.

Davidson answered , “All understood.”

Hamm was trying to climb the slanted deck of the bridge, but he was exhausted from steering. He said, “Can’t come back over!”

Davidson said, “Hold on a sec. Take it easy there.”

A radio call came in, possibly from Riehm. “Cap’n, you gettin’ ready to abandon ship?”

“Yeah. What I’d like to make sure everybody has their immersion suits and, uh, stand by. Get a good head count.”

The radio said, “Mustered, sir.”

Randolph yelled, “All right, I got containers in the water!”

Davidson said, “Ring the abandon ship.” The bell sounded: seven pulses followed by an eight-second ring.

Davidson said, “Bow is down. Bow is down.”

Davidson radioed, “Everybody get off! Get off the ship! Stay together!”

Hamm said, “Cap! Cap!” He was having a hard time climbing the deck.

Clinging to the high side, unable to reach Hamm, Davidson kept urging him to try.

Hamm said, “You gonna leave me?”

Davidson answered firmly, “I’m not leaving you. Let’s go.”

A low rumbling began and did not let up. It was the sound of El Faro going down.

The last words heard on the bridge are Davidson’s. He is crying out to Hamm: “It’s time to come this way!”

el-faro-collage_090820030815.png(Left:) A US Navy screen capture showing the stern of El Faro; (right:) NTSB model of El Faro's resting place on the seabed (Photos via Wikimedia Commons)


The sinking of El Faro, 685 kms south-east of Miami, was the worst US maritime disaster in three decades.

A massive search over the following week turned up life rafts, immersion suits and other debris from El Faro, but no bodies were ever recovered. The ship was found resting 15,400 feet beneath the surface and the data recorder was eventually retrieved.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that a combination of factors contributed to the catastrophe, including Captain Davidson’s reliance on outdated weather reports, the failure of crew members to assert their concerns about the ship’s course and lack of adequate safety training for crew members by TOTE.


From Vanity Fair (April 2018), Copyright © 2018 by William Langewiesche
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