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Mourning the El Faro

"I just heard from a good source that Sea Star's El Faro went straight thru hurricane and the [emergency position indicating radio beacon] is activated."

— from the online gCaptain Forum discussion thread on El Faro

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Not since 1983 has an American flagged merchant ship gone to the bottom in such an ugly way. The Marine Electric, deep loaded, departed the coal piers of Norfolk, Va., on the 10th day of February that year. The plan was to make a relatively short run up the coast to a power plant in Brayton Point, Mass. The ship never made it; 31 of her 34 crew members perished when Marine Electric went down off Chincoteague, Va., two days after it set out during a morning coastal storm. Some crew members were below deck in the engine room, some in the deckhouse; most froze to death in the Atlantic Ocean.

The steam powered, container and vehicle carrier El Faro, en route toward San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Fla., most likely capsized and sank in the eastern Bahamas on the 1st of October while trying to maneuver around and survive Hurricane Joaquin. We know she lost propulsion and had a list of 15 degrees or better, based on the last communication the ship had with her owners.

All 33 hands — 28 U.S. merchant seaman and five Polish Nationals — are apparently gone.

This is a very personal loss for me. I grew up on the Baltimore waterfront and first went to sea in 1982. Four years later, in July, I signed onto El Faro as an able bodied seaman when she was under her original name, Puerto Rico. She was on the Baltimore to San Juan run at the time.

Those of us watching for her these past few weeks held out hope for a few days that she and her crew made it, though rescue operations were severely hampered because of the slow moving, powerful hurricane. A few mornings after contact was lost, we hoped to awake to see photos or video of El Faro, beat up and limping, steaming into San Juan or Nassau. This was not to be. When the first life ring was recovered and a body in a survival suit — meant to keep you warm and your head above water — reported in the search area, it was like a punch in the stomach for many of us.

We didn't say much, but we all knew. Captain Michael Davidson, his crew and his ship were gone.

With hurricane force or better winds, El Faro could not put her bow into the wind and meet the mountainous seas — likely in the 30 to 40 foot range — straight on. El Faro would have been helpless, with her broad side to the wind and seas. Containers above deck would have found their way over the side into the ocean as lashed cargo stowed below almost assuredly shifted to one side, adding to the listing every time El Faro takes a roll.

The photo of the mangled, mostly awash lifeboat from El Faro suggests that the end must have been incredibly violent and fast. Fast enough that no one had time to push a single button on the ship's Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, centrally located on the bridge, before she likely rolled over and went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. One push of a button could have alerted the globe she was foundering and going down.

Not that it would have mattered much. El Faro was already likely lost in an unimaginable horror show at sea.

While family, friends and colleagues mourn and remember those who were lost, we prepare now for the many months of questions, investigations and finger pointing. The families will likely file lawsuits against the ship owner, unions and so on.

In the meantime, U.S. merchant mariners will continue to climb the gangways to our ships, tugboats, supply boats, barges and other assorted manned vessels and do our jobs. But, as we continue on with our duties, it will take some time to get past the hurt and sadness we feel with the loss of El Faro.

Allen Baker is a merchant mariner and tugboat captain living in Baltimore; his email is capehenlopen@outlook.com.

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