The PJ Tatler

Missing: Why Did El Faro Sail Into Hurricane Joaquin?

El Faro, a cargo ship out of Jacksonville, Florida, with 33 crew remains missing near the Bahamas. The 735-foot ship set sail on Tuesday bound for Puerto Rico.

Course data show that the missing ship continued to maintain a heading straight into the intensifying storm even as the National Hurricane Center was providing updates throughout September 30 regarding the storm’s course and intensifying strength.

The ship continued to sail straight toward Hurricane Joaquin as the storm strengthened into Category Four status.  Early Thursday morning, the Coast Guard received an emergency alert from El Faro, known as an EPIRB.  An EPIRB is a device which can activate through contact with the water or manually.  At the imminent loss of a vessel, sailors know that activation of the EPIRB is essential to allow for rescue.

Prior to the loss of contact, the ship also radioed a distress call that propulsion had been lost, the ship had taken on water, and it suffered from a 15-degree list.

Wave heights generated by Joaquin reached 45 feet in some portions of the storm.

A ship which loses propulsion loses the ability to point its bow into the waves.  A ship without propulsion is likely to take waves broadside, eventually risking being suddenly capsized.

El Faro. (Marinetraffic.com)

El Faro. (Marinetraffic.com)

At the time the El Faro left Jacksonville, Joaquin was a much weaker storm and most models forecasted the storm to sweep off to the north or east.  But by Wednesday, Joaquin was turning into a monster and refusing to move north or east, contrary to models.

Yet the El Faro continued to sail directly at the storm, heading 150 degrees late at night on Wednesday, September 30.  Why?

Capture

El Faro’s track. (Marinetraffic.com)


Four hours earlier than El Faro’s last position fix on the night of September 30, the National Hurricane Center issued this 8pm advisory:

Recent reports from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft indicate that the maximum sustained winds have increased to near 105 mph (165 km/h) with higher gusts. Additional strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Joaquin is expected to become a major hurricane during the next 24 hours.

By 11pm Wednesday night, it was clear Joaquin was turning into a rare giant:

This favors additional intensification, with the only possible limiting factors being upwelling of cool SSTs beneath the slow-moving hurricane and eyewall cycles which could cause some fluctuations in intensity. … The updated NHC intensity forecast has been significantly increased from the previous advisory primarily due to the higher initial intensity.

The United States Coast Guard has been engaged in an intensive search for El Faro.  This search includes Coastguardsmen flying straight into a Category Four hurricane to look for El Faro.  So far, no trace has been found of the ship or crew.

The families of the crew in Jacksonville aren’t happy.

Others wondered why the ship was sent out in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. TOTE Maritime officials said that Joaquin was a tropical storm at the time, and the storm would not have overtaken the ship, except for it losing propulsive power. Officials also said that Captain Michael C. Davidson has been sailing for 20 years, and was in fact the senior captain in the TOTE Maritime fleet.  There were also questions about lifeboats, with people wondering if they were capable of withstanding the storm.

While it is true that Joaquin was a tropical storm at the time the ship sailed from Jacksonville on Tuesday, a comparison of the ship’s position on Wednesday and the advisories from the National Hurricane Center raise serious questions as to why El Faro maintained heading one five zero through Wednesday.  Even as early as Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center was publishing the “Mariner’s 1-2-3- Rule” showing the intended course of the El Faro went through dangerous waters.  By early morning Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center had expanded the danger zone to include the majority of the El Faro’s intended route.

aa