Causes

The Hurricane

Map of Hurricane Joaquin. Courtesy of The National Weather Service

Hurricane Joaquin, the storm that sealed the fate of the El Faro, began its life as a tropical storm on the 27th of September, 2015. The storm was born in the Atlantic Ocean, from where it then intensified, moved westward, lashed the Bahamian islands and boomeranged back into the Atlantic. At the time of El Faro’s departure on September 29th, Hurricane Joaquin was still classified as a tropical storm, not reaching Hurricane status until September 30th. The storm became the strongest in the Atlantic since 2010, with surface wind speeds coming just 2 mph shy of reaching category 5 status. Aside from the loss of the El Faro and the 33 mariners aboard, Hurricane Joaquin also claimed one life and caused millions of dollars of damage in the Bahamas.1

Bon Voyage System

For the monitoring of weather conditions and its route, the El Faro used the Bon Voyage System (BVS). BVS presented processed tropical cyclone data in a graphical desktop program. Its advantage was that route and storm information could be plotted on screen. However, crucial to the fate of the El Faro, a disadvantage was that the tropical cyclone information was typically 6 hours old when delivered. BVS files were sent only to the captain’s email address on El Faro. Along with a 6 hour delay in receiving the BVS files, there was also a subsequent lag that occurred when downloading each file.2

 Due to the latency that came with the BVS updates, the captain relied on outdated information to navigate his way around Hurricane Joaquin. The captain seemingly did not did not consider this latency associated with the latency of the BVS files, which caused him to adjust El Faro’s course slightly southward3, on a course the captain thought would steer the ship to safety.

The BVS vendor could also send email updates, which provided current tropical cyclone information, if a user specifically requested them. During the accident voyage, however, El Faro’s captain did not request any.

In 2017, a 7 million dollar lawsuit was filed against StormGeo, the creator of the Bon Voyage System. The suit alleges that the BVS 7 software that the captain relied on to navigate the storm, “provided delayed, inaccurate, and misleading information the Vessel about the position of the storm and was a substantial factor in the Vessel sailing nearly directly into the eye of the hurricane.”.4

“The late Captain was clearly unaware of the delayed and inaccurate Hurricane locations and projections being proffered by the BVS 7 Product, and thus erroneously relied upon them as current and accurate. Indeed, so strongly did the late Captain trust the accuracy of the BVS 7 Product, that when, on several occasions the Vessel’s mates suggested a change of course, he rejected those suggestions,”

– Plaintiff Insurance companies

Example of a BVS graph. Courtesy of StormGeo

Communication

“There is no one in the company
that formally provides oversight for nautical.”

-A TOTE Maritime executive

Though the captain favored the information provided by the BVS, the El Faro had several other weather information systems onboard. For one, at least one crew member aboard the El Faro repeatedly referenced The Weather Channel, but this crewmember constantly deferred to the captain.5 

Satellite radio could have also been used to properly navigate the El Faro. Satellite Radio broadcasts on the bridge repeatedly provided updates about the direction and intensity of Hurricane Joaquin. Announcements such as the increase of Hurricane Joaquin from a category 2 to a category 3 hurricane which happened in the early morning of October 1st. 

Satellite Radio was used however to communicate with El Faro’s sister, and fellow TOTE ship, El Yunque. El Yunque was traveling northward to Jacksonville from San Juan. Both captains used satellite radio to talk about the storm, even swapping BVS emails.6

A US Coast Guard aircraft which was patrolling the hurricane also made contact with El Faro. The plane provided El Faro hurricane watch and broadcasting information, adding “mariners use caution” on September 30th. The captain and second mate of the El Faro both responded “wow” to this announcement.7

Two members of the bridge team subtly conveyed their disagreement with the captain’s decisions, yet their concerns were dismissed by the captain. Meanwhile, the bridge crew opted to defer to the captain’s authority and experience rather than assertively voicing their own concerns. However, even when the crew did express their worries, the captain chose not to heed their warnings. The fact that not just one, but two officers raised objections should have prompted the captain to at least revisit the bridge and reassess the weather information.8

El Yunque, sister ship to El Faro, was scrapped after the El Faro disaster. Image courtesy of Shipspotting.com

TOTE Oversight

TOTE Maritime, the owner of the El Faro, regarded most of their captains as primary maritime experts. This is despite TOTE Maritime not providing their captains and crew with proper training. The company failed to properly train crew members to use BVS and other systems aboard their vessels. 

In addition to this, TOTE failed to track the EL Faro, provide it with information and keep in touch with the vessel during the doomed voyage.9

Illustration of the sinking of El Faro by Yuko Shimizu. Courtesy of Vanity Fair

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