Chapter Three: “Pillow Talk” The Captains of Thor — What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El faro?

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(Editor’s Note.  To start at Chapter One, please click here.)

Chapter Three: Pillow Talk

April 2015

Davidson Residence

Windham, Maine 

In pillow talk, on cold Spring nights in Maine, Michael Davidson told Teresa, his wife, that this might all turn out well after all. 

Or at least it was looking better – far better than three years ago when he parted ways with Crowley Maritime and went from being a sea captain, the master of a huge ocean going vessel, to third mate. 

Big new ships were coming down the ways.  The “Marlin Class” they called them.  Captain Davidson might just get one.  He was interviewing. 

These new ships were beautiful, powered by natural gas, and equipped with state-of-the-art navigation. The first vessel, Isla Bella, had just been launched in April 2015, and a second vessel, the Perla del Caribe, was scheduled for August. 

His new company, Tote Maritime, owned by Seattle-based Saltchuk, seemed visionary at a time when American ship lines and ship builders were moribund and cynical, supported largely by the Jones Act. A full third of the 100 or so American flag ships were older than a ship’s normal lifetime of twenty years and few new ships were planned. Many existed only because the Jones Act required American coastal shippers to use US-flagged ships. 

Contrast that philosophy with Tote and Saltchuk. The best view of it? For them, the Jones Act seemed a shining light and these companies beacons of hope. 

Just last year, the privately owned firm was named one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute. And this year, the company was delivering on those new Marlin Class containerships, thanks in part to a $300 million plus loan guarantee from the US Maritime Administration. 

More than 600 workers at the General Dynamics yard in San Diego crowded around in February 2014 as a “steel cutting” ceremony – no flimsy ribbons in a shipyard please – marked the beginning of the construction.  

“These ships, will be the most advanced, environmentally progressive vessels of their kind,” US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation said, “but they also represent $350 million in U.S. investment, 600 American shipyard jobs, and the bright future of the indispensable domestic maritime industry.”

So there were jobs in shipyards, new ships, and jobs for Davidson and his crew.  And the United States of America had a trained corps of professional merchant mariners. 

Even if he got turned down for the new ships, Captain Davidson told Teresa he was in good shape.  He was captain now of one of the old ships, but a good ship. 

The “El Faro” she was called – “the lighthouse” is the way that translates into English.  

And like the Isla Bella and the Perla del Caribe – the “beautiful island” and the “pearl of the Caribbean” – the El Faro once was young and beautiful — her own technological marvel.

“She’s built for Alaska,” Davidson would say, and she had sailed those tough seas. 


Truth was though, always: she was built for speed.

Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania, was famous for its fast ships and in 1975 produced the El Faro — then called the Puerto Rican.  This was an era where speed counted more than economy, before fuel prices went through the roof. 

And it was an era of robust shipyard innovation and government partnering.  Sun Ship had created the Glomar Explorer for Howard Hughes and the CIA, and also refitted the Manhattan tanker as an ice breaker – the first commerical ship ever to make a true Northwest Passage.

Some federal funding helped build the El Faro type of ship and Sun asked, “What do you really need?”  Military sealift replied:


They wanted the “roll-on roll-off” merchant ship available in an emergency to handle tanks and armor headed to war, and to move those weapons fast.

And Sun and the government reached a deal.   If the ship prototype topped out at 25.8 knots, the yard got a ten percent bonus.  It was deemed unlikely. The smart money was not on Sun.

But Sun built the prototype of the ship with the “thin hull” and lines of a cruise liner.  Then Sun dropped in the maritime-equivalent of a “hemi engine” used in muscle cars. Steam engines were out of date the day OPEC raised oil prices, but, holy god, steam engines were fast.  You could almost see the inner “hot rodder” smiles of the engineering team at Sun as they devised how exactly they would fit an oversized steam engine into the prototype that would beget the El Faro.   

Then they tricked out the ship with one other accessory — a new feature that would help with stability.  To keep the raked, sleek lines of the ship upright, the yard created a super heavy ballast by using QCM — heavy lead ore pellets from the Quebec Cartier Mining company dropped into the bottom of the ship.

“We figured out that mixing that with the electrostatic precipitate waste from power plant effluent would make the mix even heavier,” a Sun Ship executive recalled.

On trials, the prototype ship hit 26.35 knots – more than thirty miles per hour.  

This was faster than a white tail deer. Incredible. Yet undeniable and repeatable trial after trial.  The yard banked the bonus. The ship sailed. Based on the prototype, Sun began building commercial ships based on the prototype, including the El Faro vessel. 

She could look chubby viewed straight on when loaded.

From the air? At the right angle? You could see her lines and the graceful curve of her hull. 

She was sleek, fast, stable.  Inside the ship, ramps and special exhaust vents allowed the longshoremen to drive trucks and cars efficiently onto the vessel in what amounted to a parking lot nearly three football fields in length.  

She was lengthened once in the early 1990’s but kept those sleek lines and when Captain John Hearn stepped on board her in 2003, he was to develop an emotional attachment for the ship and the family-owned company that operated her.  His devotion was such that when Hearn heard a bad word uttered about the Saltchuk family of companies, he set the bad mouthers straight right away.     

The El Faro was called The Northern Lights then and good god, Hearn thought it all marvelous. The way the whole system was supposed to work. And did. The Jones Act protected American shipping for a reason.  So America could have a strong defense.  So America could ship weapons and ammo in a time of need. 

And there he was, February 2003, master of a sleek fast ship designed to carry trucks and tanks, His cargo? A vast load of Humvees and a security detail of 12 armed US Marines along for the ride from San Diego to Kuwait. 

They arrived amid a small invading armada of ships.  Right off the bat:  a SCUD missile scooted over the horizon and landed very close.  No warning! Hearn hit the alarms. 

Even the cook wore a hazmat outfit with mask at the ready should another missile come. They expected a gas attack at any moment and the peril was real. 

Hearn wrote in his log: 

0940: Chemical alert — Once again, no siren alerts the port. A car drives down the dock blasting three short honks on the horn, repeatedly. The signal is recognized, the driver is wearing a gas mask. Then the port sirens sound. Personnel in all areas calmly drop their tools, don their gas masks and move to shelters. 

Cargo is almost completely discharged. The ship is scheduled to depart at 1700. It is amazing that the ship’s crew has adapted to wartime conditions within 48 hours. There are no complaints of fatigue though the overworked crew has not slept peacefully for days. There are no complaints of danger though the attacks have been steady. Not one man has suggested not leaving the port until the area is secured and deemed safe.  

And the service was rewarded.  The ship received military honors and once she was sent back to regular duty in the Seattle trades, the Saltchuk family and company honored the ship, the crew and the captain. 

“It was stirring,” Hearn recalled. “The family, all the executives, they just drove onto the ship, up the ramp and personally got out and thanked us.  There were no dry eyes.”

And for years, Hearn had little but scorn for those who took shots at the Saltchuk operation – family and companies. 

“You heard a lot of crap,” Hearn said.  “Mike Garvey built the company and then turned it over to his three daughters, Denise, Nicole and Michele and their husbands are the executives who run a lot of the place…

“People would say, ‘Oh those guys just married into the family,’ and I’d set them straight:  Old man Garvey ran their asses off for ten years before they got to sharpen a pencil at that place and they earned every bit of it.

“Then some crew would joke about the women and call them spoiled rich girls, and I’d let them have it,” Hearn said.  “To meet them, to see them at benefits, they were ordinary people, warm hearted, well meaning, like PTA members, with no hint of being spoiled or pampered or anything other than the responsible community members you would want to see…”

And Hearn would pause then, telling the story from his home in Lewes, Delaware, an old pilot’s town at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. 

“And I don’t know what happened,” Hearn would say. And he’d pause and then swallow down his words. 

It would be a moment before he could finish the story about Tote and the El Faro.  It was as if he were talking about a best friend who had died.  And in a sense, perhaps he was. He had loved the company, loved the ship, loved the whole tribe and trade. Now all of them were gone for him. 

 “I just don’t think they really knew what kind of people they had hired to run the company,” he said. “I can’t believe the family really understood what was happening.”


                                    —— ———

As for Captain Davidson, he knew all he needed to know: he had a good job and a good ship.  Yes, she was old.  Yes, you had to keep patching her.  

Still, now in his fifties, with two college-aged daughters and a mortgage, he faced the same slow agony many land-based executives shared:

Would the company lay him off? Demote him? Fire him?  Would he be back “on the beach?” Were his prime earning years over?  Would he have to start over again somewhere else as third mate? 

Then too there was a creeping toxicity you cold sense seeping into the culture. Not everyone would get the new ships.  A “Hunger Games” attitude seemed to be forming and was it just imagination, or were some of the chief mates waging an end run around some of the captains.

That agony he would not share at home.  And in pillow talk, he did not have to tell Teresa. He’d been at sea 25 years, which meant they’d been at sea for 25-years.

She knew the score, she knew the life.  That’s how mariners and spouses stayed together:  that understanding.  She’d watched him do the right thing, suffer for it, then do the right thing again and rebuild his career.    

Her respect was monumental.  Mike was careful.  Mike was smart. Mike did the right thing and still made ships work. 

Sink that old ship in the middle of the Caribbean, she would  say later. 

No worries.  

Mike would swim up on some island and call home. 

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