Are merchant mariner weather issues systemic?

I realize I joined this forum at the tail end of all the SS El Faro discussion(s), and that this may have been all hashed out before in a thread I haven’t seen, but it sure seems to this outsider that there are more systemic issues with how merchant mariners deal with weather issues at sea. The El Faro and the HMS Bounty replica are recent US examples, but every couple of years there’s a story from SE Asia about some ferry of dubious quality being lost in a storm with an inordinately high number of passengers. This isn’t a recent phenomenon either; as a native Michigander I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” every November 10th.

Oddly, this is one area that the US Navy excels in. We haven’t lost a ship to a storm since World War II, and even those losses were considered preventable (Halsey’s reputation may not have been so shiny if the war had dragged on and he was relieved of duty as King wanted). And it’s not like SWOs are weather-geniuses; in fact SWOs get almost no weather training at all. The difference is that the Navy, with its far greater resources has created a system called Optimum Track Ship Routing (OTSR) that monitors both weather and ship’s track and provides advisories and diverts around storms.

Is it too much to expect that merchant mariners do all of their own navigation AND weather forecast plotting? I get that most ships don’t have this issue; most Navy ships don’t play bumper boats either. But there have been multiple instances of significant loss of life under entirely preventable circumstances. The El Faro NSTB report recommendations spend as much time on weather training as they do on bilge alarms, but the best way to do damage control is to not get hit.

I don’t come with a solution in hand; I understand that there are commercial products that approximate OTSR but wouldn’t necessarily advocate that every ship have to clear their tracks like some maritime air traffic control system. Mostly as someone looking down the road at being responsible one day for actually doing this work for myself I want to hear about how everyone else is doing this and what issues there are. Thanks.


On the merchant side things run the entire gamut.

If you’re working for a mom and pop tug and barge outfit you’re on your own. If you find yourself working for Maga-Container Corp it’s going to be similar to how the Navy does it with a full system in place. Everyone else is in the middle somewhere.

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I don’t think it is overwhelming to navigate and plot weather data while on watch. The case of the el faro shows the mates diligently plotting weather coming in on the sat-c with apparent full understanding of the situation. If you cross check that steadily updated information with weather fax and private wx info (if available) it’s not hard at all.

I think KC has it right. If you’re company is big enough to enlist the services of a weather routing service, you’d probably be hard pressed to see a difference with the Navy method.

In the end, understanding weather is probably the most important tool you have in the box outside of managing stability. I don’t think you can broad brush paint the merchant mariner community’s weather issues as systematic.


A couple things with regards to TOTE and the reliability of their system to avoid heavy weather.

When the company was reorganized they went light on port captains and heavy on port engineers so a lot of operational expertise was lost. A large company operating world-wide would not do this because they would have a enough data on loses caused by operations, heavy weather etc that the value of operation expertise would be recognized by the bean counters.

Many larger companies also require ship’s officers to have additional union provided training in heavy weather avoidance beyond the minimum knowledge required for a license. TOTE had no such requirements.

Larger companies would likely have more comprehensive SMS guidance with regards to weather avoidance.

Leaving weather avoidance entirely up to the captains as TOTE did is a mistake. Each captain can improve their on time record by taking on more risk which, if TOTE is not paying attention, and evidently they were not, would increase that captain chance of promotion etc.


I have got some off the wall diversion reccos from OTSR over the years. That being said, it was great to see wind/wave forecast conditions over my DR track back when the commercial options we not widely used and SAT-C was what we were mostly plotting. The big diff between a NAVY asset and a commercial vessel is the Naval vessels have preset weather thresholds. If forecast conditions call for wx outside the threshold a diversion is suggested.(There are reasons to exceed the threshold too.) Just as often as we followed an OTSR recco for a track adjustment, we would come up with our own plan and use that instead.

In the aftermath of EL FARO I was hoping that NTSB would bring into the discussion vessel wx thresholds like OTSR or at least discuss the idea…the thing is as previously stated… most Merchant Vessels have a grip of wx routing and its done properly EVERYDAY… On my last ship I was using BVS to do just this.

Systemic…please be more specific about the wx issues you feel the merchant marine has. Wx forecasting? Wx routing? Wx Plotting? Wx training? Wx understanding?

Are you comparing the US Navy system to the world merchant fleet or just the US fleet?

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I don’t know what specific issues may be at play, I am observing that merchant mariners seem to have this problem and the Navy doesn’t. I cannot rationalize how a seemingly respected captain in a seaworthy ship receiving reasonably accurate wx data manages to steam headlong into the eye of a hurricane. No more than I can rationalize how a seemingly qualified OOD with an operable radar on a clear night manages to collide with a ship that was CBDR for many miles.

These are not isolated incidents. Maybe it can be all explained away by schedule pressure, I don’t know. I do know that the USN takes storms so seriously that we will sortie from the safety of our piers to wait out a storm at sea if one should be passing by. Maybe we are too risk-adverse.

I don’t have good data to create any reasonable hypotheses, which is why I put it here. My gut tells me though that for every ship lost at sea due to storm action there are a hundred that are nearly so, just like for every collision there are countless near misses.