The SS El Faro


The SS El Faro was a U.S.-flagged cargo vessel that tragically sank on October 1, 2015, in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 of the crew members on board died as a result of the disaster. It is credited as being the deadliest American maritime accident in over 30 years1. On its final voyage, the ship took off from Jacksonville, Florida, and was headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico. However, the ship never reached its destination. Near the Bahamas, a series of events related to Hurricane Joaquin caused flooding and technical problems on the ship, eventually leading to its sinking2. Our goal is to determine how and why the ship sank and what this can tell us about humanity’s place in the oceans.

Captured from a U.S. Navy video exploring the ship’s remains

History of the Ship

El Faro in 2009, Courtesy of Matt Seferian

The El Faro was built initially by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Corporation in Pennsylvania in 1975, meaning the ship was already 40 years old when it sank3. This is an important fact to consider, as the average age of cargo ships today is about 20 years, half of the El Faro4. Throughout its life, the ship went through multiple modifications. One in 1992 added additional cargo and deck space. In 2005, reservations were made to add specialized cranes and various technical improvements to the ship5.

When first built, the ship was named Puerto Rico and operated under the Navieras de Puerto Rico Steamship Company, primarily moving cargo between the U.S. East Coast and Puerto Rico. In 1991, Saltchuk Resources (parent company of TOTE Maritime) bought the ship, renaming it Northern Lights and sending it to be used around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Right before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Military Sealift Command chartered the ship to transport Marines and military equipment from California to Kuwait. After the ship’s chartering service, TOTE Maritime placed it under the control of their subsidiary Sea Star Lines in 2006, where it was once again renamed, this time to El Faro. The ship returned to routes from the U.S. to Puerto Rico until it sank5.

The Company and Crew

TOTE Maritime is divided into two sectors: an Alaska division and a Puerto Rico division. The company focuses on domestic cargo transport in these regions. TOTE supplies services and crews to both privately owned and U.S. government vessels6. At the time of its sinking, El Faro was operating under TOTE. Many people have attributed the company’s oversight of safety and management practices to the disaster.

There were 33 crew members (28 Americans and 5 Poles) on board when the ship sank, captained by Captain Michael Davidson. Tragically, all these people lost their lives as the boat sank7.

Pictured is the El Faro Crew, Courtesy of People’s World

Container Shipping

Container shipping is the backbone of our global capitalist economy, allowing resources and goods to be shipped around the world. Global production depends on the reliability of cargo ships in delivering the resources it needs. When delays happen with cargo ships, there are large consequences for our economy. When the supply chain had issues during the peak of COVID-19, prices across many industries went up, causing difficulties for companies and families struggling during the pandemic. Furthermore, when a cargo ship got stuck in the Suez Canal, economic impacts were felt globally. The global economy is very interconnected between many industries and countries. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that cargo ships get to their destinations safely and on time.

Because container shipping plays such an important role in our economy, it is in the government’s best interest to prioritize the safety of the people and cargo aboard these ships. This is likely why when the El Faro sank, the government worked very hard to come up with the causes of the sinking, and propose regulation changes to ensure the tragedy does not repeat.

Why the El Faro?

With modern technology, we often think we are immune to tragedies that involve human error. However, as we have determined using this case study, that is still a real possibility. We dramatize historical stories such as The Titanic, but ships still sink every day due to both technical malfunctions and human error. We aimed to explore the ways in which modern shipwrecks occur and what steps can be taken to avoid them. The story of the El Faro reveals that we are far from having control over the oceans. We are still subject to the water’s unpredictability.

Additionally, we want to explore the larger impacts of the maritime cargo shipping industry on our economy and society. Disruptions in the shipping of goods cause major issues for the rest of the economy. The government and shipping companies are both responsible for maintaining the safety of the vessels and crew.