Chapter Seven: Imperfect Storms
Tuesday, September 29
Blount Marine Terminal
Aboard the SS El Faro
About 8 PM
About 30 hours out from Joaquin intersect
On the day the SS El Faro departed JAX for Puerto Rico, Michael Davidson, a mortal, took one step from the gangway onto the SS El Faro.
At that moment he was transformed into a Captain of Thor — master and commander of all on board. Like all ship captains, he now had domain over the people and processes on the ship.
His foe was conjured in the Atlantic the day before.
Joaquin was born near Bermuda on September 28. He was a rare “non-tropical” depression and might have died away quickly. Storms need warm water to gain power. They are “heat engines.” Warmer water intensifies their cycles. Bermuda is subtropical — more Georgia than Cuba. Lukewarm waters drive lukewarm storms.
But a strong vertical wind shear dropped like a steel wall to the north, blocked the storm and drove Joaquin south. And as Joaquin moved south, the storm hit warmer waters. This fed the cyclonic energy and the whole system officially became a “he” — Tropical Storm Joaquin — early on September 29 at two in the morning, 18 hours before the El Faro departed Jacksonville.
Joaquin headed south, his engine feeding on the tropical waters. And as Joaquin headed south, the storm hit ever warmer waters.
Hotter waters hopped up the wattage. Just 24 hours after birth, Joaquin at 2 a.m. on September 30 grew to a full-fledged hurricane — and major weather data crunchers said again: Joaquin would turn soon and head north.
Everyone was watching. Even Baird, up in Maine, was texting on the phone. The second mate could not help himself. Leaning back on his couch, flipping around the channels, he saw there was something brewing in the Atlantic and he just wanted to give Davidson a heads up.
Hey, did you see that storm Joaquin?
Yes, Davidson texted back. He had the storm in his sights. Hard to miss. Everyone thought Joaquin was heading north. On the ground there, the eastern seaboard was stampeding to grocery stories for supplies. Whole Foods stores in the tonier parts of the Mid-Atlantic would be stripped of Fiji Water, cage-free eggs and organic goat milk by closing time. Doubt Baird would get hit in Maine though.
Well, if you have any doubts, you know, Baird said, you can always go the back way, take the Old Bahama Passage just as we did with Erika. Tropical Storm Erika had kicked up some big swells back in August and Baird suggested they duck down behind the string of Islands strung south from Cuba.
Copy that, Davidson said. He knew that option. He’d taken it with Erika at Baird’s advise in August.
And as a Captain of Thor, he had that option now.
In theory. On paper.
Most days the whole Thor factor made little difference with how the company might view him. His habits ran to the careful and considered end of the spectrum. No conflicts there with the company. Some other captains even thought he could be a bit too conservative.
There was the matter of pilots, for example. They came on board to help the officers navigate through the close and often treacherous waters leading from dock to the open sea. They’d come on board, take the elevator the few stories up to the bridge, and help navigate the path to the sea.
No elevators on Davidson’s watch. The pilots needed to walk up the stairs. Always. His theory? Transiting with a pilot could be the most treacherous part of a trip. What good was a pilot trapped inside an elevator? Let him get his steps in.
“Yeah, I suppose, so,” said one modern-day captain. “Not something I’ve ever done or considered but I see his point if you really want to button up the risk.”It’s a bit excessive, in my opinion…”
Davidson kept a close eye on the weather as well. Everyone said it seemed headed north. When he and Chief Mate Shultz — who was a Captain of Thor and master himself — reviewed the route plan at around 6:30 a.m. on September 30, they agreed a slight southern diversion in course was wise.
“It’s’a good little diversion — are you feeling’ comfortable with that chief mate?”
“Better,” Shultz said. “Yes sir.”
As for the Old Bahama Channel route, or some other longer diversion? The chief mate discounts it.
“Yeah like I said the other option is drastic,” he tells Captain Davidson.
“Yeah, it doesn’t warrant it,” Davidson said.
The chief mate replies, “Not for, uh….(what we have here.)”
“You can’t run every single weather pattern,” Davidson replies.
“Not for a forty knot wind,” Shultz agrees.
“Now that would be the action for some guy that’s never been anywhere else,” Davidson says and then adds later:
“For now, we’ll just sit on the bank and fish for trout.”
In other words, they’d wait until they saw how the storm played out.
If the storm broke badly? They could always divert to the Old Bahama Channel. Or what was known as the Northeast Providence Channel — and from there find the Old Bahama.
Plan C? Around Crooked Island, farther south, there was another passage to the Old Bahama, and that would be their escape hatch if they needed one. That would be Captain Davidson’s last chance to drop the hammer and divert.
The question of whether Davidson would swing the hammer of Thor seemed doubtful to
Second mate Danielle Randolph. She and Davidson were examining the course at one point, with an eye on the storm. Davidson seemed more concerned about the return trip, after the storm had passed but the heavy chop had not. Randolph seemed peripherally skeptical.
“I hope we get to take the Old Bahama Channel back,” the captain says. He had written the company an email around 1 p.m. September 30, asking if he could do that. He neglects to add that the subject line to the company had a subject line labeled “Question.” Still Randolph picks up on the nuance immediately and has to be thinking:
A Captain of Thor is….hoping? We’re taking it on the back trip, not this trip?
“Does the company want permission now?” she asks.
“Management,” Davidson says.
And Randolph presses it. The captain rules at sea, right?
“Because it used to be just we’re doing it,” she says. “you people are sitting in your
office behind a desk and we’re out here-we’re doing it, yeah.”
The “used to be” referencing centuries of tradition as well as modern day written policy at Tote.
“Well, I’m extending that professional courtesy because it does add a hundred and sixty nautical miles…,” he replied.
And Randolph counters, “Yeah but it also saves on the ship’s stress — the stress of the ship.”
Davidson replies, “That’s why you know I just said hey you know-I would like to take this going northbound.”
The message to management is in Davidson’s words, “‘I’ll wait for your reply.’”
“ I don’t think they’ll say no.” Davidson said. “I gave them a good reason why …”
What brings a Captain of Thor to fear consequences for a safe passage decision? What intimidates him from following his instincts and logic? Why does he feel he needs permission to divert?
Here, an “imperfect storm” of factors swirled about, joined and all bore down.
Commercial costs comprise one part of this storm. Add in capital costs and the daily cost of idling a ship could run into the tens of thousands — a concern for any captain.
“You delay just a little bit,” said a shipping executive, “and man you’d be surprised how quickly that spirals through your schedule and projected revenue and costs. Miss just one day, it’s a big deal by itself but it also affects future deliveries and contracts.
“A big weather delay can snake through your schedule for multiple voyages, having everything being off to the major annoyance of your customers,” he continued. “In addition, costs are increased as you often end up doing terminal work during higher cost periods to begin with and often encounter overtime charges to get vessel out quicker.
“On top of that, for priority customers you will sometimes take their containers to a competitor (if they are more on schedule), incurring additional costs doing that. The point is, being off schedule can have significant adverse revenue and costs effects on a container operator and everyone at the company (and presumably on the vessel) is aware of that.”
Then there was this. He and the company had strained the bounds of how long one should work at sea.
He had signed on with the El Faro on May 5, 2015, and, given a normal ten week rotation, left the ship July 14.
But his relief captain walked off the ship only three weeks later, and Davidson returned. Now he was scheduled to stay until December.
So by late September, with just a month break in his 13 hour days, Davidson had worked four months — was scheduled to work three more, for a total of seven months with just one break. As he took the helm on September 29, he was running on only five hours sleep.
And the months he had spent on board were very close to occupational torture. First he was all but offered a job. Then it was yanked away. Then he was told he was doing something wrong — but company officials would not tell him what.
One of his own chief mates was said to have betrayed him and the fleet was wrought with the Hunger Games virus. One part of management was actively discussing placing a spy on his ship to “rat him out.” Who was a snitch? And what was a “snitchable event?” That he had turned away a drunken seaman? But not dried him out?
Moreover, he’d seen what happened to Captain Kearn when you bucked Tote. He was aware of the Captain Konrad firing at Horizon — and them persecuting him. And of course, the Crowley firing — “Captain Davidson resigned,” Crawley said officially — still weighed on his shoulders.
You could swing the hammer as a Captain of Thor, but the examples ship lines had made of captains was crystal clear. Crowley fired him. Tote fired Kearn. Horizon fired Konrad.
The one ray of light in all of this, he thought, was the ship. He and Randolph are talking about the El Yunque, the sister ship of the SS Elf Faro, on the bridge after they leave JAX. The captain of the El Yunque had emailed Davidson at about 10 a.m. on September 30.
“Do you know if the El Yunque took old Bahama?” says Randolph. She is referring to the sheltered passage the El Faro traversed a month earlier. Islands shield ships from wind there.
“She did not,” Davidson said.
“Really?” Randolph says in surprise.
“They put some turns on her and they’re staying ahead of her,” Davidson said. The El Faro and the El Yunque were built for speed and the El Yunque had just outrun the storm.
“Oh okay,” says Randolph. “So they did get ahead. That’s good.”
“Said he saw a hundred gust, to a hundred knots,” Davidson said. The El Yunque captain sailed through 115 mph winds.
And that became another part of Davidson’s “imperfect storm” of pressures: The El Yunque was in the same storm. Same type of shape. The El Yunque had made it. Why, Tote might ask, did Davidson divert the ship when El Yunque did not?
“We’re going in to it,” Randolph said.
“We’re going to be far enough south,” Davidson assures her. “We’re not going to hit the thing. Watch. These ships can take it.”
“Yeah,” Randolph said. “They’re built for Alaska.
“Exactly,” said Davidson.
Only they weren’t. The question was whether either ship should be at sea.
The El Yunque’s ventilation trunks were riddled with corrosion, as were seals and gaskets. Was that a proxy for the El Faro? A sister ship under similar conditions with the same company? The Coast Guard Commandant — generally not a foe of commercial interests — thought it a fair compare.
The main deck “gauging” — measurement of the thickness of steel — was poor. The deck was in fact rusted through with wastage — and had been for a long time. Air supply vents for the holds — six of them in total — had missing gaskets, holes in the vent ducts, wasted flanges and holes in the side shell of the vent inlets.
Moreover, the earlier ship modifications on the El Faro and El Yunque had given “sail” to the ship with rows of container stacks on deck, and lowered the vessel two feet in the water as well. The ventilation trunking — designed to be closed and watertight while the ship was underway — always was run with the trunk fire damper open, assuring flooding if the ships dipped too far.
Fleet-wide, there was worse news later. Traveling Inspectors, in a crackdown on ABS inspected ships, found hundreds of fittings that were unsafe and need to be replaced or repaired. The hatches, gaskets, fittings, and vents of the old ships were pretty much all in question in their view.
Of this Davidson was unaware — or seemed to be. As were most captains in the trade — many of whom compared the El Faro to an old 1970s muscle car, a bit rusty perhaps but strong as American steel could be.
All of these matters affected Davidson. The swirl of this imperfect storm of fear and uncertainty coupled with the misplaced confidence in the ship, was enough to put any Captain of Thor in a twist. He and the ship were in downright peril.
This was not evident to him. And his comprehension was not helped by technology.
Joaquin appeared on his terminal as a clear entity on the Bon Voyage system — a display of weather data that he could animate if he wanted to.
Applied Weather Technology supplied service to the El Faro based on National Weather Service data. The National Weather Service data is three hours old when it enters the company’s computers. The Bon Voyage system crunches it for nine hours and then relays it to ships like the El Faro.
So a normal up to date forecast is 12 hours old — which all parties knew and accepted.
But on this trip, the Bon Voyage system blew it. By mistake, they sent an old forecast — not a new forecast — to Captain Davidson.
So when he plotted his initial course, Captain Davidson’s main source of weather information was 21 hours.
And worse, the National Weather Service later would say its initial Joaquin estimates were more than 500 miles off placing the path too far to the north too soon.
Early forecast models for Joaquin did not accurately predict how the storm would react in moderate wind shear — where the shear is neither light nor strong. Models showed the shear would be too strong for significant development and that Joaquin would remain weak, moving to the west and northwest.
Instead, Joaquin strengthened. He moved southwest, Around three to five days out, official track errors from the National Hurricane Center more than doubled the official errors for the previous 5-year period.
All that aside, you had to ask. What was he even doing there?
“Look, once you get into the bull fight arena, it does you little good to complain, ‘No one told me the bull would come from that direction,’” said Michael W. Carr, a former Coast Guard officer who captained ships and taught marine weather courses. “The important thing is: Don’t get into the bull fight arena.”
Meanwhile, Tote seemed unaware of the storm. No one was on alert on land. No warnings of caution were sent. No one checked in, said to Davidson, do what you need to do, captain. Safety is prime here.
With all of that, this was undeniable:
Davidson had to know the fierce storm was a threat. The captain of the El Yunque had warned him. His on-leave second mate had warned him. And yet, and yet… he was heading toward the storm.
Without doubt, he believed that he was a careful, veteran mariner — and that this was his “value proposition” to the company. It is what distinguished him from younger chief mates elbowing him out of the way for the new ships.
He believed too that he knew very rough weather from his days in Alaska and that he had a strong fast ship that would easily beat the hurricane and ride through rough water and winds.
And in his state of mind, it is very probable that the very careful Michael Davidson was following his own logic, which psychologists and others call “confirmation bias.” The concept was simple: If you want something, confirming data is taken seriously, while “disconfirming” data is treated with skepticism.
In ancient times, Thucydides described the phenomenon.
For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.
Author Upton Sinclair updated it for the 20th Century:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Yale Professor Charles Perrow applied it specifically to maritime captains:
…we construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it.
Warren Buffet took into the 21st Century
What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.
Perhaps this arm chair, pop psychology approach to the behavior of the captain is too facile.
Still, in the next several hours, Davidson would check most of the boxes for confirmation bias. He rejected data and the warnings of his own officers, and continued to steer toward Joaquin.
He knowingly entered the bullpen. And the bull was coming.
Weather alerts warned around 6:30 p.m. that Joaquin was producing seas of up to 30 feet and still heading toward the Bahamas. A hurricane warning advised that mariners “use extreme caution.”
“Wow,” Davidson said. But he took no action. The ship was just north of Great Abaco Island — close to the entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel, one hurricane escape plan for the ship.
Are we going to turn around, a seaman asked the captain after the advisory?
“No, no, no. We’re not gonna turn around, we’re not gonna turn around,” Davidson said.
Then the ship drew east of the first escape channel a little before 7 p.m. on September 30 and the National Hurricane Center upped the ante as El Faro passed east of Great Abaco Island. Joaquin now had sustained winds of 75 knots, gusting to 90 knots, the center reported.
At that point, Davidson and the chief mate huddled together and discussed altering course. They settled on a new heading that would take them farther south — between the islands of San Salvador and Rum Cay.
Could we extend that and go farther south and sail below Samana City, the chief mate asked?
Keep it simple for the officers on watch, the captain replied. Let’s just have one course change.
A little before 8 p.m., a seaman asks the captain whether the storm will get worse. Davidson says not to worry. They had picked a new route that would get them away from Joaquin.
He then told the third mate he would be awake most of the night. Call me if you need to. Davidson then left for his stateroom.
At that time, Joaquin was a category 3 Hurricane with winds estimated at 100 knots, still heading south.
It was about five after 11 on the night of September 30 when Third Mate Jeremie Riehm first senses the captain is making a mistake.
Riehm tells his helmsman Jack Jackson: “Well right now, we got nowhere to go…Later on there’s a gap in the chart, you can head south, you know, (and) it’s a good idea to have an alternate– you should have a backup route””
Jack Jackson, says of the weather, well some captain would have taken one look at that and (went) “we’re gunna go the Old Bahama Channel.” “we’re not we’re not takin’ any chances (here).”
Riehm decides to calls Davidson in his quarters below.
Can the cap check out the new weather report? he asks. And, hey, maybe they should tweak the course, get them a bit farther away from the storm?
“The current forecast has max winds a hundred miles an hour at the center,” the third mate says. “…and if I’m looking at this right…it’s advancing toward our trackline…and puts us real close to it.”
He promises the cap more details. Rings off.
A few moments later he is back on the line with the captain:
“So– at oh–four hundred (4 a.m.) we’ll be twenty-two miles from the center. with uh max one hundred wind gusts to one-twenty and strengthening so– the option that we do have– umm from what I can
see– is at oh-two hundred (2 a.m.) we could head south. and that would open it up some.. so I mean of course I’d want you to verify what I’m seeing.
Riehms hangs up and turns to ___ Jackson and says the cap
thinks they’ll be okay, that they’ll be in the southwest quadrant of the hurricane and the winds will speed their passage south away from the hurricane.
“Nantucket sleigh ride,” AB Jackson says.
Riehm replies, “I trust what he’s saying– it’s just being twenty miles away from hundred knot winds — this doesn’t even sound right.
Jackson agrees.I got a feeling. I’m going to get my poopy suit and my life jacket.— laid out..(His immersion suit.)”
“We don’t have any options here,” we got nowhere to go,” Riehms says. .
“Jesus man,” Jackson says. “Don’t tell me anymore.”
Then the helmsman breaks the tension with an Elmer Fudd voice, “ Th-th-t- th-th these are b-b-b-b-b big waaaves.
“Jesus– it’s a hurricane,” Jackson says.
Second Mate Danielle Randolph is on track with Rhiem questioning the captain. Around 3 p.m. on September 30, she yawns back the zzZquill, knocks back the coffee, points at a ship on the radar screen.
“They’re trying to get away from the storm too,” she says.
“Nobody in their right mind would be driving into it,” her helmsman says.
“We are!” she says, laughs, then adds on a sarcastic: “Yaaay.”
She’s back on the early morning shift — the watch that follows Rheim and they compare notes — and doubts.
She points at a chart and says: “Our best chance is catch the Old Bahama Channel here. we’ve got umm– he’s not gunna like this. comin’ through here.”
Riehm says, “ I’ll go look at the Bahama Channel charts. That would be the only thing we’ve got …”
“That should work, she says and then adds:
“Unless this damn storm goes further south. Can’t win: Every time we come farther south the storm keeps trying to follow us.”
Riehm leaves and they plow through the waves for the next hour or so. The weather is worsening.
At around 1:15 a.m., Randolph’s helmsman cautions her, “You can’t pound your way through them waves– break the ship in half.”
Randolph replies: “(I know) we’re going to hurry and get out of it. That’s what El Yunque did. Went full speed ahead.
“Well I knooow what they did,” her helmsman replies. “But they knew, they knew they was going to get out of it.
“We going in to it,” he adds.
“That’s the thing I mean yeah we’re going into it,” Randolph replies. “But it’s not going to last long. We’ll be out of it pretty quick.”
Does she believe that for real? They get weather reports that show them headed toward the hurricane.
“ I’m going to give the captain a call and see if he wants to come up and (look at it),” she says.
Captain, she says, I just wanted to see if we could go south.. through the Old Bahama Channel.
“We’ll be meeting the storm,” she explains. “It isn’t lookin’ good right now.”
She gives him a track line and course that will take them through the Bahama Channels but he says no. Hold steady.
“He said to run it,” Randolph says to the helmsman. Then adds in a dramatic, loud voice with laughter:
“Hold on to your ass!”
A few moments later, the helmsman feels the ship lean,
“Wind heel,” he says.
At around 345 on the morning of October 1, the chief mate relieves the second mate. She notes only that she called the captain. There is no discussion of her doubts or the Bahama Channel.
The chief mate takes over and notes, “Hard to tell which way the wind is blowing.”
“I assume that we’re heeling to starboard,” he says, “It must be blowing port to starboard.”
He is right about that but wrong to be looking for threats that are just outside the ship. They are inside, already.