The following is an account of the last hours of the El Faro, a merchant ship that sank off the coast of the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, killing 33 sailors (much of the crew conversation was monitored and recorded). From Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea.
At 5:00 am El Faro was drowning. An angry sea raged on, joining forces with the power of Joaquin’s eye wall to form a 35-mile-wide, aqueous tornado. Lightning shattered the darkness, turning torrents of rain whipping across the ship’s windshield into bright white claws. Furious gusts made a deafening howl on the bridge. The ship jerked and plunged as though she had lost her mind with fear.
In the oppressive roar, Captain Davidson planted his feet at the chart table, gripped the grab bars, and once again began rationalizing conflicting weather reports. BVS and NHC put Joaquin’s eye at different points on his map. Was he north of the storm? In it? South of it? Desperate for an explanation, he blamed the discrepancy on the failings of modern technology.
“Here’s the thing,” Davidson told his chief mate. “You’ve got five GPSs on this ship, so you’re gonna get five different positions. I use one weather program—BVS.”
Davidson refused to consider the idea that the BVS report was simply wrong. It told him where the ship was relative to the hurricane’s path calculated more than nine hours before but Davidson dismissed anything that countered his faith in it, including the NHC’s reports, Weather Underground, and his own colleagues. He couldn’t face the fact that every single decision he’d made since the beginning of the voyage had put his ship in dire straits. And that the course change he’d commanded Danielle to make at two o’clock in the morning—without consulting his weather reports—had sealed El Faro’s fate.
What kind of man is capable of facing such excessive errors of judgment?
Shultz knew where they were relative to the storm. He’d been keeping a close watch on the barometer. He saw that it was damn low, 960 millibars, indicating that they were frighteningly close to Joaquin’s eye. In the final hours, he would monitor that barometer as if it were his secret Cassandra, cursed to tell him the truth even when his captain refused to believe.
Instead of retreating, Davidson dug in. He killed the autopilot and called out steering commands to his helmsman, Frank Hamm, peering into the vast darkness as if staring down a mortal enemy, trying to anticipate its next swing.
Midships. Rudder left ten. Right 20. Now this was taking command.
“Hard right,” Davidson told Frank Hamm.
“Rudder is hard right,” Frank confirmed.
“Our biggest enemy here right now is we can’t see,” Davidson called to Frank with growing frustration. Then he announced to all on the navigation bridge: “We’re on the backside of the storm,” even though there was no indication that that was true.
Once again, Davidson turned to Shultz for assurance that this weather wasn’t all that bad. “You get 70 days of this shit up there in Alaska,” Shultz dutifully parroted.
Everything loose on decks below was slapping wildly in the gales; containers yawned over the decks as if weighing the odds, then plunged overboard and floated away. Jeff Mathias had watched all this from down below. He fought his way against the bucking ship up to the bridge to find out what the hell they were doing about it.
“What kind of man is capable of facing such excessive errors of judgment?”
Up there in the tower, the winds were louder. The night was blacker. The raging sea, cloaked in darkness, was chilling in its ferocity. Flashes of lightning illuminated a brutal watery world of monstrous waves and seafoam. Jeff waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, then studied the captain with incredulity. Finally, he yelled out, “What’s the wind speed?” Davidson didn’t answer. Maybe he didn’t hear. Mathias asked again.
“We don’t know,” the captain shouted back. “We don’t have an anemometer.”
Mathias was a mariner as well as a farmer. At 42 years old, he’d spent his life learning about man’s machines and man’s crops, and the colossal damage Mother Nature could inflict on both. He was knowledgeable and intuitive and he knew how a ship should feel. This one wasn’t right. When she rolled, she wasn’t coming back up to center.
“Never seen it hang like that before,” he yelled at Davidson.
“Never? We certainly have the sail area to cause a list like this,” Davidson told him, once more blaming the ship’s pronounced lean—up to 18 degrees—on the wind blowing square against the port side of the ship.
As El Faro rolled to starboard and lingered there, Mathias wondered aloud about the chief engineer, Rich Pusatere, no doubt toiling deep down in the ship’s engine room, trying to keep the steam engine going. Davidson told Mathias that the engineer was having trouble with lube oil pressure. More alarm bells went off in his head. As a chief engineer, he knew that loss of lube pressure spelled doom.
Jeff’s concern spurred Davidson to adjust their course once again. He told Shultz to change El Faro’s heading from 100 degrees (zero is north, 90 is due east) to 60 degrees (northeast), closer to the wind. Davidson assumed things would shift around, but maybe getting her upright would help his chief engineer address his oil problem.
In fact, it was a huge change. Instead of running parallel to the waves, the ship would be nearly perpendicular to them. At that point, instead of rolling, El Faro would pitch. She would muscle her way up every swell, hang for a moment over the crest, then race down into the trough like a roller coaster, her bow crashing into the sea when she reached the bottom, causing a magnificent splash.
Pitching would cause new problems for the engineers: Every time the ship tipped into a dive, the propeller would come out of the water. Without resistance on the blades, the screw would spin wildly, radically changing the load on the engine. If this speed went unchecked, the force of the shaft spinning that fast would cause catastrophic engine failure. To prevent his overspeed relay from tripping (which would immediately kill the propulsion system), Rich had to gear down the shaft’s RPMs by hand each time the stern came out of the drink.
The officers on the bridge could only guess how high the waves were. Winds at 100 knots form 30-foot seas. But that’s only an average. Every third or fourth wave could be 50 feet. They were steaming their way up a mountain of water and rolling into deep troughs. As dawn broke, they would be blinded by the waves created by the bow as it crashed into the brine.
Any minute now, Davidson thought, the wind will shift, confirming they’re south of Joaquin. But he was wrong. El Faro was deep in the grip of an eye wall so powerful that no engine on earth could pull the ship out. The barometer plummeted to 951 millibars; they were right next to the eye.
With the ship rising, falling, and slamming in the darkness, it felt like a free fall each time they surfed down a wave. At the wheel, Frank Hamm was pale and stricken. His fear was palpable. Davidson turned his attention to his panicky AB.
“Mr. Hamm,” Davidson advised, “stand up, hold on to that handle. Just relax. Everything’s gonna be fine. Good to go, buddy. You’re good to go.”
“You all right?” asked Shultz the AB with compassion.
“How you doing, Frank?” Davidson chimed in. “You want a cup of coffee?”
“How do you like it? Black?”
“You want the chair, Frank?” Davidson asked.
“Yeah, yeah. Yes, sir.” The big man sat down at the wheel, no longer concealing his fear. This was the worst weather he’d ever been in.
Davidson bravely stared down Joaquin, trying to ease Frank’s panic. “It sounds so much worse up here on the bridge,” Davidson said. “Down below, it’s just a lullaby. It’s only gonna get better from here,” he announced to the troops. “We’re on the backside of it.”
But they weren’t.
At 5:43, Rich Pusatere called to the bridge with more bad news.
It wasn’t just wind heel that had sent El Faro leaning far over to starboard, he told them.
They were flooding.
The scuttle on the weather deck that led to three-hold—the ship’s largest hold—had been left open. It might have been left ajar during loading. It might have been closed but poorly secured. It might have been so banged up over time that it could never have been properly sealed in a storm like that. Regardless, every wave that washed over the deck sent an ocean through the deck opening into the bowels of the ship. The water was collecting on the starboard side, where she was already leaning due to wind heel, adding extra weight that pulled El Faro farther over, preventing her from properly righting herself. She wasn’t coming back up. Jeff Mathias was right.
Water was also coming into the engine room through a door leading to three-hold that was supposed to be watertight.
“We’ve got a problem,” Davidson said. He sent Shultz down to the second deck with a flashlight to find out what was going on. “On your way down there, knock on Mike Holland’s door.” Rich needed all hands in the engine room to man the pumps, and he had requested his third assistant engineer.
Shultz headed for the bridge door when Rich called up again. “Where’s the water coming from?” Shultz asked him over the phone. The captain took the receiver, listened, and repeated what the chief engineer told him: “Bilge pump running. Water rising.”
Davidson instructed Rich to move ballast from starboard to port to try to right the ship. A minute later, he decided to turn the bow farther to the north. They were now at close haul to the wind. He hoped that this change would help center the vessel, giving his crew a chance to see what was going on down below.
Davidson commanded Frank to steer them into a heading of 50 degrees.
“Left 20,” he told Frank.
“Left 20,” Frank repeated.
Things weren’t getting better, Rich told Davidson. If the starboard list was such a problem, the captain figured, then he should turn the ship even farther to get the wind on the other side. “I’ll get it going in that direction and get everything on the starboard side to give us a port list and then we’ll be able to get a better look,” he told his chief engineer.
“With the ship rising, falling, and slamming in the darkness, it felt like a free fall each time they surfed down a wave. At the wheel, Frank Hamm was pale and stricken. His fear was palpable.”
Davidson’s solution was overly simplistic. True, if they turned just a few more clicks more to the west, Joaquin’s powerful north-east winds would catch El Faro on her starboard bow and throw the whole ship over to port. But such a maneuver poorly timed could cause the ship to instantly capsize if the bow dives in the wind and a wave crashes onto the deck, sending her into a catastrophic roll. Anyone who has tried to handle a sailboat in huge gales knows that when you tack—point your bow to the other side of the wind—it’s very violent. The power of the sail’s boom when the wind catches it and it flies across the keel can knock a person out.
El Faro didn’t have a boom, but she did have cars, trucks, and containers straining against their chains and lashings.
“Left 20,” Davidson told Frank.
“Left 20,” Frank repeated. They were turning the mammoth ship into a heading of 350 degrees—north-northwest—exposing their starboard side to the storm.
Remembering that he’d tried to ballast his way out, Davidson grabbed the ship’s phone to reverse his commands. “Stop transferring the ballast from starboard to port,” Davidson ordered his third engineer.
Danielle came up to the bridge at six o’clock. It wasn’t time for her watch, but she couldn’t sleep through the storm. When she saw their new heading, she was astonished. “Three-five-zero!” she cried out. Why had they changed course? Were they heading back to Jacksonville?
“Hi,” Davidson said to her casually.
“Hi,” she said, echoing his apparent calm. “How are you, Captain?”
“How are you? A scuttle popped open and there’s a little bit of water in three-hold. They’re pumping it out right now. Chief’s down there with Jeff Mathias. They’re closing the scuttle.” No big deal, he implied.
Rich called up to the bridge with more alarming news. Water wasn’t just coming through the scuttle. It was coming through the ventilation trunks. The ocean was pouring through the louvered vents above his engine room and flooding everything. It could short out his console.
The lube pressure wasn’t coming back, either, in spite of their course change.
Davidson confirmed that they were bilging as much as possible, then turned to steering the ship, reversing his commands.
“Right 20,” Davidson commanded, sending them back through the wind.
“Rudder right 20,” Frank repeated.
Shultz called up to the bridge on the handheld radio. He was on the second deck with his flashlight, knee-deep in water, trying to steady himself while looking through the scuttle above the three-hold. With every slam of El Faro’s bow, however, water splashed out from the hold over the edge of the open hatch. The massive cargo space must have been heavily flooded. Thousands of gallons of water had somehow gotten into the belly of the ship. It wasn’t wind heel that had pinned her down to starboard. It was the weight of the water.
In the whipping winds and waves, Shultz secured the scuttle.
But it was too late.
Danielle stood on the bridge next to Davidson, waiting for orders. When the captain talked about getting the latest BVS report, she quipped, “It’s stormy.” What else did he need to know? She was exhausted by nerves and fright.
“If you don’t need me—” She was about to leave. But there was something about Davidson in that moment that appealed to her compassion.
“You want me to stay with you?” she asked him.
“Down to 950 millibars,” Davidson noted. That’s astonishingly low. “Feel the pressure dropping in your ears just then? Feel that?”
Frank Hamm had his hands on the wheel, but he was visibly shaken.
“Take your time and relax. Don’t worry about it,” Davidson told the panicking man standing before him, gripping the small ship’s wheel. They couldn’t just pull over and wait it out.
“Stand up straight and relax,” Davidson told him.
“I am relaxed, Captain,” Frank replied.
“Relax. Steer the direction we’re going.”
At that moment, the wind finally caught the starboard side and violently threw the ship to port, along with everything she carried. Below, a tidal wave of water, cars, and trucks crashed against the inside of her port hull, pulling the ship into a deep roll. If El Faro capitulated far enough, it would exceed its stability and capsize.
The lube oil in the sump sloshed over to the opposite side of the pan, too, far away from the suction mouth. Pusatere lost oil pressure completely. Without oil, the emergency trip shut off the turbines. Although the boilers continued to crank out steam, the giant shaft in the engine room came to a halt. Three minutes later, El Faro lost propulsion.
Davidson, Danielle, and Frank waited in shocked silence on the bridge. Time slowed to a crawl. The sky began to take shape. Dawn.
From Into the Raging Sea. Used with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Slade.