Chapter Five: “Hunger Games” Posted Now. Free serial book: “Captains of Thor: What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro?”

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Chapter Five:  Hunger Games 

Blount Island Marine Terminal
Jacksonville
August 27, 2015
Two months before Hurricane Joaquin

Like a Star Wars walking tank, the giant container crane reached out over the big ship, arched its long neck forward, down and over the El Faro and then ministered to the stacking of cargo container on the ship below.  Out ran a tons-heavy truck-sized container.  Cables moved, cogs clicked. The crane adjusted, calibrated, then clamped down the container hard into its rack on the ship.    

Slam and a bang and the container locked in.  At the hull, far down below, the water tension pulsed one-tenth of an inch, so solid was the ship at the loading wharf, indifferent to the new twelve-ton weight.  

High above, Charles Baird, the second mate, walked from the wing of the El Faro bridge away from the bazaar of activity on the dock. Creosote, diesel, astringent welding oxides, the fecund smell of the tide lands — all these rose up to him.  

Chaos was his enemy. Baird, 52, wore creased khakis, an ironed shirt, and a precisely trimmed and beveled mustache.  His decisions meant tons of metal cleared hard rock bottoms by inches. He required precision and order and walked toward it now — into the bridge area. 

But he and all the other crew members knew the ship itself — its “feel,” its culture, its morale — was anything but ordered.  It was a steaming mess of toxic rumors, grudges, innuendo and back stabbing.    The word was that Captain Davidson, considered a “lock” for one of the new ships, had been pushed aside and one of his chief mates got the plum assignment. 

All over the El Faro and throughout the Tote fleet, the word was out: This was a maritime version of The Hunger Games, a fight for survival among the older in-place captains and a good many of the chief mates. 

It was a shame because this was such a sweet run. “Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama” was the Beach Boys lyric. Baird and the others got paid to cruise through waters they wrote songs about. It was sweet gig. 

But the Hunger Games vibe was spoiling it.  Whether true or not, the rumors were that some chief mates were stabbing captains in the back — spreading rumors and complaints that reached the human resources and ship manning divisions of the company. 

Baird once asked Davidson why he had not gotten one of the new ships and Davidson blew it off.  

“I must have said something wrong in a meeting,” he smiled and shrugged his shoulders.  That’s the way it goes. He would survive, Davidson said, no big deal.

But it was a big deal. Davidson had indeed been very close to claiming one of the new ships. 

It had gone down pretty much like this. 

Davidson had good reason to dream good dreams in pillow talk in April.  But in May, the company was polite and professional and clear.  Phil Morrell, the vice president of marine operations, told Davidson they liked him a lot but right now they were going another way with the new ships.

Davidson could live with that.  They were straightforward.  The time wasn’t right, but doors weren’t closed.

He hung in.  He wrote an email in July asking the president of the company to recommend him and reconsider him for the captaincy of a new ship and Davidson’s gambit worked. They were actively considering him again — in fact had a hiring date for him. 

But then Jim Fisker-Andersen, director of ship management for TOTE Services, Inc., the operator of the vessel for its sister company and shipowner, TOTE Maritime, Inc., sent a searing email back to the hiring executives. 

“Captain Davidson is a stateroom captain,” he wrote.  “I’m not sure he knows what a deck looks like, period. Least engaged of all four captains in the deck operation.
Morrell was surprised at the tone of the note and thought it emotional.  Davidson had the reputation as a solid pro.  A “stateroom captain” was an insult. It described an officer who barricaded himself off from the rest of the ship and could not be bothered with the management of the crew or the securing of cargo. Morrell instinctively discounted it and moved ahead to offer the job to Davidson. 

 Morrell and the Tote CEO, Phil Greene, interviewed him again and Davidson thought it went well.  Sometimes you could just tell. 

And he was right.  On August 4th, Morrell wrote a note about it to another executive, confirming Davidson’s promotion to the new LNG ships — the Marlin class. 

“After thorough assessment of Captain Davidson I’m pleased to inform you that
Captain Davidson will be offered a position of Master on Marlin 496. Captain Davidson will be assuming Master of the El Faro on Tuesday, so it affords us to meet with Captain Davidson face to face to convey our desires for him to sail as Master on 496.

“Will you be available on Tuesday to kindly join me so we can deliver the positive news together? “

But Davidson’s opponents ambushed the plan.  Morrell just needed to check in with  the crew manager for hiring Melissa Clark and Kondracki — but that meeting went poorly.  The exact discussion is unknown but earlier Clark had thrown her weight behind the promotion of one of Davidson’s chief mates and stated in an email that she would brief the mate later on “the divide and conquer strategy.”   (Later they would say this was an effort to bring the crew and officers together.)

The worst that could be really said of Davidson?  He had been slow to relieve a Chief Mate who fell asleep on watch.  

And then there was some futz-up with a drunken crew member refused entry to the ship and Davidson sent down a chief mate to deal with it.  The drunken man never entered the ship area — as per company policy.  But Davidson’s detractors said he ought to have taken some sort of pro-active measures — an interesting temperance proposal in an industrial sector not known for its temperance.

And Davidson’s foes remained on the hunt.  There was no proof that he was a “stateroom captain.” Clark checked once and the report back was that he was out and about making certain the ship was secure, checking with the chief mate, inspecting the lashings — in fact all the things a stateroom captan did not do.

Challenged by Davidson not being a stateroom captain, management emails suggested the possibility of placing a spy onboard the ship to “rat him out.”  

The result of the criticism was that Davidson — so close to getting the offer — instead was left hanging.  Morrell could not ignore the hits.  If Clark and Kondracki were not on board with the promotion, he and Green could not move forward.  Davidson would not get the new ship. 

But that message was never conveyed to Davidson.  All through August and September, he was waiting in anticipation.  The interview had gone so well! You could read their body language. 

But he would write more than a month later, “I have no idea if I am even going on the Marlin Class vessels yet,” he wrote to Teresa. “It’s looking like I won’t be home until 03 December…. Again, I feel taken advantage of…but they pay really good.  Who knows how long this good fortune will last?”

In fact, his evaluations by Tote had been positive. One reviewers had noted that the captain “handles all aspects of the master’s position with professionalism” and “handles a diversified and unpredictable crew quite well.”

In such an environment, the crew and officers of the fleet believed the company was pitting the chief mates against the masters so that the younger, less experienced men would ascend and the older men would be pastured out. 

Kurt Bruer, a seaman who had no love for Davidson, explained what he saw happening. 

“When Davidson got word that his chief mate was promised a captain job (on the new ships) it ate him up. They sent an email to him stating if you the right thing and behaved well they would consider him a job as well.”

So where did he stand exactly?  At one point, he wrote an email about his quandary and confusion. 

“Is there any particular reason or reasons why I was not considered as a candidate for the Marlin Class Vessels?

(Answer: )“No Tote is going in a different direction.

 “Are there any qualities and/or qualifications that you (Tote) were looking for in the candidates, so that in the future I might be better prepared, should an opportunity present itself?

(Answer:)“Yes and I am not going to discuss that with you.”

 

What were the issues? How could he improve?  No one was talking.  What was he doing wrong? There were problems. But they weren’t going to talk to him about it?

No one was saying he was out of the running either.  And he told Teresa there was still hope.  If he worked hard, did the job, he still had a shot at the Marlin class ships.  If he found those qualities that Tote wanted — but would not tell him about — he might just make it. If he proved himself with Tote. 

One sure thing he did not want to do: Swing that hammer of Thor too hard.  He had seen where that lead at Crowley. 

And therein lay a bit of a dance.  On this voyage, for example, would he need permission if he needed to divert?  Officially, he could make the decision on his own — drop that hammer! This was not just hidebound tradition spanning centuries, but company police. 

But in reality, Davidson had learned caution and nearly always sent out emails to the company advising them — giving them the courtesy as he sometimes phrased it — of his plans to divert. And they always replied in one manner or another. And always said he did not need to ask. 

Both sides were being coy of course. 

He and Danielle Randolph, the second mate, had a conversation about it once on the bridge during another voyage.  The Captain was considering a course change, but first sent a heads up to the company — an act by all rights no Captain of Thor need make. 

“Does the company want permission now (for diversions and course changes)? Randolph asked. “ ‘Cause it used to be just we’re doin’ it. you people are sitting in your office behind a desk and we’re out here– we’re doing it. “

And Davidson replied, “Yeah, well I’m extending that professional courtesy because it does add a hundred and sixty nautical miles to the (distance). 

“That’s why you know I just said ‘hey you know-I would like to take this going northbound,’” Davidson said. “I’ll wait for your reply. 

“I don’t think they’ll say no,” he said.  “I gave them a good reason why because if you should follow this (down) then look what it does on the third– fourth and fifth. and that’s right where we’re going.  

“So I just put it out there to see what happens,” Davidson said. 

But of course what he was really saying is that he was asking permission.  He felt he could not make the decision by himself — without incurring great job risk with the company.  Whatever they said the policy was, he felt he needed to ask — however you wanted to euphemize. 

——————————

Randolph was on leave still in Maine on this trip but the toxic cultural cloud on the ship rained down on her even there. The talk among the crew was all about betrayals.  

The buzz was all about who was winning and losing in the Hunger Games. Who would go to the new ships?  Who would stay behind?  Were the chief mates knifing the captains?  Were there stealth campaigns among the officers to gain advantage? Whose side should you be on?

  

Even during her leave, Randolph was just sick of it.  She was the rotating second mate on the El Faro. Seventy days on, seventy days off.  She would rotate back on soon, but seventy days leave had not done it this time and she was thinking about her options. Law ol. Oil rig platforms.  She was good. She could move on form this. 

 

Returning to the toxic culture of the El Faro depressed her.  The sniping and rumors that never stopped were diminishing to everyone. And they were so out in the open. Every ship had its share of grudges and issues among crew and officers.  But they mostly were just grumbles. Or at least discrete. 

 Not on the El Faro. Not now. 

Danielle befriended a Coast Guard woman officer traveling on the El Faro for training and even the young lieutenant picked up on the discord. Kimberley Beisner, the Coast Guard trainee who “rode the ship” between San Juan and Jax bonded with Randolph and they told stories about their shared issues in an industry still very much a male world 

Even Beisner on just one trip picked up the full story.  No one told the Coast Guard anything.  But here she knew it all. What is the problem on this ship she asked Randolph.  The tension among the officers, engineers and crew hummed like a tight cable. 

And what normally was unspoken on board a ship was discussed openly and with malice. One seaman said he had never heard officers talking smack about other officers in front of the crew — the ordinary seamen.  But on the El Faro, such disrespect was common. At one point, a master was informed he would not be captaining one of the new vessels and he resigned on the spot — just walked off. 

Officers selected for the new ships were said to have “blood stripe” promotions. You got your stripes, but they’re covered with the blood of the colleague you knifed to get promoted. 

 So this was disorder that Second Mate Baird found himself managing.  Well, soon he would be off for 70 days and Randolph could deal with it.  Baird would be back in Maine, feet up on the sofa. 

——————

Any musings about Maine by Baird were quickly displaced by the appearance of a new storm in big splotches on the full color screens.  Large splotches of red surrounded by larger swirling fields of yellow and green. 

Out there was Tropical Storm Erika — the latest “named” storm of the 2015 hurricane season — and she was trying hard to be a hurricane.  There had been a lot of wanna-bees this year. Ana, Claudette, Bill and Danny but none of the named storms had amounted to much for the Jacksonville run. Only Danny was classed a hurricane. 

Tote Services, Inc., the ship’s operator had put out an alert a few days earlier, noting storm season was here and might affect the ship’s route.  And storms might also hit the company’s port terminals, one in Jacksonville, the other in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So, you know: heads up out there. 

No way Erika was going to mess with the El Faro, Baird figured.  She was moving west and north and the ship could cut south on her regular straight-line route to San Juan, no problem. And besides, the storm seemed to be flaring out, dissipating. 

But the El Faro would take some seas.  Erika would kick up some swells, that was for sure, and for a moment the sound and rhythm of the voices of the Polish “riding gang” rang clear in Baird’s mind.  

Five of them were working below, converting the El Faro for service in the Alaskan trade, installing steam pipes that would de-ice the loading ramps, welding down rock steady large derricks that would hoist cargoes off-ship to the Anchorage docks. They were good guys, and many spoke English.  Hard workers all. 

Well, they aren’t going to get much work done if we’re rocking and rolling in the rollers left by Erika, Baird thought.  He thought the captain would buy his idea.  The plan would add six hours and make a 2 1/2 day trip a full three days almost but that might be worth it to let the riding gang get their work done. 

Here’s the plan he laid out to the Captain:

How about they moved out of Jacksonville and then swung south toward Cuba? Took what mariners called the Old Bahama Passage — a route that threaded its way through the Islands of the Caribbean?  

Rather than cutting across the broad hypotenuse of a triangle through open seas, they would scoot down one leg south and then head east on the other leg. They’d find shelter to the west of the islands. 

“The Islands are our saviors,” Baird would tell landlubbers who did not understand the concept. “If it’s rough out there, we can duck inside and use the islands to shield us.  We’ll get the wind but not the waves. The islands block the waves.”

That might steady the seas enough to let the Poles continue work.  So you had safety and economy working for you.   

If the cap thought the Old Bahama Passage was too long, Baird had a Plan B.   El Faro could head straight toward Puerto Rico on her regular passage.  Then, if Erika had served up swells too rough, they could duck down into the islands halfway to San Juan. 

A perfect place to do this was at Crooked Island —  a large island near a series of small islands in the Bahama.  All the islands joined in what was known as The District of Crooked Island, but sometimes people called them “The Crooked Islands” or sometimes just “The Crookeds.”    

  

Get west from the regular passage and transit through the Crooked Island Passage and you’d miss the pounding of the waves. East of the Crookeds would be rough.  But west of the Crookeds, the Poles could do their work.  The route might even save a few dents in the cars. It was not unheard of for the big waves to set some of the cars and wheeled trailers rolling into each other.  It was not unheard of for the lashing to snap and pop down on the ro-ro deck. 

He thought the captain would buy the plan. In normal times at least.  Davidson was a careful captain, Baird thought.  

And for Davidson, “careful” had dual meanings.  

Every decision he made now could affect his future.  He needed to have one hand making the right decision for the safety of the ship. He needed one hand to steady his future.  

If he delayed the ship?  That could feed his enemies — those who were talking about spies who would “rat him out.” 

 Yet, he knew Baird was right — that diversion was the right thing to do. 

An hour had passed since Baird posed the question on the alternate route.  Davidson called Baird over at the back of the bridge where the charts were stored. The two men stood together both dressed in the khaki shirts and pants that comprise a merchant mariner officer’s uniform. 

The Old Bahama Passage plan?  That was smart, Davidson said. 

“Go for it,” the captain told the second.  That was a favorite phrase.  Not “approved” or even “yes.”  Always, “Go for it.”

And Baird did.  They were rolling south now — a huge warehouse traveling at the equivalent of 15 land miles per hour, filled with tons of household goods, refrigerated fresh chicken, automobiles, flat screen televisions, toys, light bulbs, washers and driers.  Anything that filled up a big box store in Puerto Rico filled up the El Faro first.  Anything the good citizens on the island of Puerto Rico might need in a grocery store, car sales lot, lumberyard, or furniture store, El Faro brought them.  Anything the mainland could sell, those things shipped out of Jax and much of it moved through Tote Maritime. 

Around a point off Vero Beach, Florida, Baird could feel the shift in the sea as they turned toward the safer passage west of the islands. 

Off to the East now were the first of the Bahama Islands – the buffer to the storm.  Baird’s saviors had appeared.  The wind was sharp still but somewhere out there, the Grand Bahamas caught the worst of Erika on the far shores and the El Faro faced fair seas. The rock and roll turned to a gentler waltz.  The Polish crew could work safely, weld and run pipes. 

Baird and Davidson steamed south and on August 30, they brought the ship in just a little late to San Juan. No damage inside the ship with the cars, nor to the containers above.  The Poles had gotten a lot of work done. 

More than 200,000 residents were out of power in Puerto Rico because of Erika, but the El Faro was just fine. That’s what good weather routing and navigation could do. 

Big cranes stretched out over the ship in San Juan, and lifted the big boxes off the ship and onto trailer tractor trucks.  Longshoremen gunned the motors of the cars and trucks in the ro-ro section of the ship and parked them in holding areas surrounded by fence and razor wire. 

Tugs chugged, the El Faro turned. 

And then El Faro made the pivot out of San Juan, bid farewell to the pilot and his little boat, and, riding a bit high because she was empty, the ship set sail for Jax with nothing but blue sky and sun ahead on the straight run back. 

 Baird’s attention turned now more and more to his leave and to Maine. 

Davidson?  Who knew what he was doing right?  What he was doing wrong?  Would that little diversion he just approved be viewed by the brass as a wise decision?  Or a wasteful one?

At one point, on another trip, he has a discussion with his chief mate about  their career horizons. 

“When they lay this up they’re not going to take us back,” the chief mate says of the El Faro. 

“No,” says Davidson. “I know.”

Says the chief mate, “I hear what you’re saying captain.  I’m in line for the chopping’ block.”

“Yeah, Same here,” says Davidson

Says the chief mate, “I’m waiting  to get screwed.”

“Same here,” says Davidson. “Next they’re going to come back (and lay me offi) ‘Well you know it’s a long time for you to be out there-it’s not safe’ (so we’re laying you off).”

“They’re just going to say the opposite to me,” the chief mate says,  . “‘We want you to stay through– uh– to Alaska.’.. and make me work five months straight. I’ll be a walking zombie.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” says the chief mate. 

Me either, says Davidson, who is about to start his sixth month straight. 

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