“The Captains of Thor — What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro” by Robert Frump

Hey Bob,
Any chance of this coming to print? I really enjoyed until the sea shall free them and would gladly pay for the print edition of this.

Hi…Great to hear. I’m working on an on-demand paperback version but have to check quality and proof before offering it. The way the online publishers set it up, I’ll need to charge about $9.or $10 book to set it up. Will keep you posted.

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Here’s a “vintage” piece I did on the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard some years back. There truly was nothing more stirring than to see the shift changes at the shipyards active then on the Delaware. Between them, Sun Ship and the Naval Shipyard probably put 20,000 middle class jobs into the region.

Would cracking down on old unsafe ships result in the need to order more from US yards? Probably not to a point where it would reconstitute those numbers above for sure, but surely it would produce some.

Again, thanks for the kind words.
There is now a paperback version available at $9.97.


I loved the book and loved “Until the Sea Shall Free Them”. Have you ever looked into how the airline industry handles similar issues. I have a foot in both worlds and sometimes it amazes me how things diverged between floating and flying “Captains of Thor”. A long time ago ALPA (airline pilot’s union) fought a hard fight to stop “pilot error” being the end conclusion of all accident investigations. Being sent on kamikaze missions in horrible weather in crap airplanes still exists occasionally on the lowest levels of the industry, but it has been banished from any airline the general public would ride on long ago.
If the El Faro had been a 737, the airline dispatch office would have been on the radio with the captain asking him WTF he was doing and please turn away from the storm right now.


Many thanks. Appreciate the kind words. I’ve not done anything on the airline industry but the Perrow book Normal Accidents compares the two sectors. He says basically that more of the public could be harmed by air accidents – therefore there is far more scrutiny. Makes sense. If a 737 goes down, there are 150 families throughout the country and everyone can imagine themselves in that position. I think 33 people on a ship lost moves people – but it’s kind of “Well that’s odd” sort of reaction. Plus, unfortunately, major media like 60 Minutes, sort of stopped at the “crazy captain” theory here.
My guess the regulation also has something to do with human nature. Makes all the sense in the world for a Neanderthal to hop on a log and paddle. Jumping off a cliff, I hope he had a buddy who insisted on a flight check. I thnk we are instinctively more wary. . That’s really pop anthropology, but something to it I think.
The other interesting aspect on this I’ve been told of concerns regulatory approach. The Coast Guard, great agency that it is, does not have marine safety or inspection as its primary culture. The old Steamship Inspection Service (probably not the right formal title) existed as a seperate agency until World War II when it was merged with the USCG – and then kept there. It’s kind of a step child still. Plus, if you get someone serious about it, as Admiral Lusk was, you get clipped from all sides.
Air and highways on the other hand are in the Department of Transportation where safety is more of a main stream culture. Plus, the FAA does the regulating… more or less… professionals who are appointed. And the mandate almost always is strong because the public good/bad ratio is so clear.
On the maritime side, lots of the regulations are created by legislation – and there are so many rules, it’s tough sometimes to tell who is on first. Or so thought Dom Calicchio.
The good news is however imperfect or impermanent, everyone should be on their toes now.

Loc 26 – “heavy sway” should be “heave, sway”.

Loc 119 – “man of god” should be “man of God” <-- whether you believe in God or not, Hamm did.

Loc 138 – “sings through the wire strutting” – I can’t find “strutting” except as a verb about behavior; but aside from that wire can’t be a strut because struts work mostly in compression.

Loc 145 – “leans the old girl to one side[.]” followed by “list is steep then steeper” – seems to me you’re talking to different audiences two sentences apart. Also “This leads to that” followed by a list of things creates confusion (or did for me, anyway) when using list in the heeling sense immediately after.

Loc 151 – “all god’s world/god’s doing”; "it’s not that[,] though "

Loc 157 – “Abandon ship sounds” – Suggest “Davidson sounds the Abandon Ship alarm” or similar. Or if you really want passive voice there, “The Abandon Ship alarm sounds.”

Loc 157 – “She promises…promises…darts down…near-fall…” To me this implies that 2M was promising deceitfully. Maybe something like “She went for lifejackets for the three of them, but the angle of heel made her return doubtful”?

Loc 157 – “She tilts hard, listing.” Suggest “She suddenly heels over even farther.” or similar. Note again the divided audience – tilt/lean vs heel/list.

Loc 180 – “Mistakes were made.” That phrase is so contaminated by weasel-wordery that it can’t be heard otherwise than cynically. Was that your intent? If so I’d suggest making it explicit by enclosing in in quotes.

End Chapter 1.

9 posts were split to a new topic: Modern Accident Theroy and Aviation

Really appreciate it. Will fix soonest.


Wow. Hurricane Michael is now upon us. Hope lessons learned…are really learned…

Well worth it. As soon as I find where I set down the Kindle I’ll do the next chapter.

Loc 249 – “…looked over at the bow section [as the] half-ship… Then [they] swiveled…”

Loc 255 – “acknowledged [what] everyone knew…crackups [–] that the…”

Loc 255 – “steel [became brittle when cold] and could not be fixed. [And the use of welded rather than riveted construction meant that cracks could propagate clear around the vessel in a few milliseconds.]”

Loc 299 – “stay at sea[;] as they approached…”

Loc 329 – “merchant marine fleet [–] and the fleet…”

Loc 329 – “fracturing from [unsuitable steel] in the hull, but from the dangers of [corrosion and wear] on…”

Loc 329 – “stopped during a storm [–] age made…”

Loc 341 – "assessed the situation [thus:]

Locs 349 - chapter end – fourteen false characters displayed as raised dots (some of them probably soft hyphens in the source document): “ship, there ^were”, “ship ^going”, “con^gressmen”, “we^made”; “when^ a ship,”, “ship^would keep on”, “economically^viable”, “we ^hoped”, “eco^nomics”; “saw^value”. “found the^ same”, “steel^ships”, “used ^in the tramp”; “take a ^chance”.

Loc 349 – “powered by steam, [wooden sailing ships] continued…”

Loc 359 – missing line break after “tramp trades.”, extra line break after “February storm.”.

End Chapter 2

Loc 376 – “cold [s]pring nights…”

Loc 384 – “powered by [liquefied?] natural gas…”

Loc 400 – “The El Faro…” – strike the “The”? The the lighthouse…

Loc 420 – As a non-expert, seems to me you can make a vessel fast using any form of prime mover – recip. steam, steam turbine, diesel, CODAG, diesel-electric…it’s vivid writing, but is it accurate?

Loc 429 – high-density ballast strikes me as a technique rather than an accessory to be “tricked out” with.

Loc 437 – “undeniable[,] and repeatable”

Loc 652 – “predicted then that the system [might/would] again turn bad”

Loc 667 – “the water tension pulsed one tenth…” – no clue what you’re trying to say here. The ship settled a tenth of an inch? That would give about ten feet difference between empty and loaded draft, seems possible.

Loc 709 – “so it affords us [an opportunity?] to meet”

Loc 751 – “where that [led] at Crowley”

Loc 777 – “Or at least [discreet]”

Loc 818 et seq – “the cap” – seems to me this ought to be capitalized where it occurs? I dunno…

Loc 818 – “in the Bahama[s]”

Loc 835 – I thought she’d be going faster than 13 knots. But “tons”? About fifteen thousand of them! Worth spelling it out IMO. These vessels are huge beyond the conception of most shore people, I think.

End Chapter Five.

You’ve got it right. TPI, Tons per Inch Submersion. (or TPC).- There would be a table in the Stability and trim book and posted somewhere in the house. Depends on draft but C/M and capt likely can estimate without the table.

Maybe it was economics, capital costs vs operation cost but in practice it did seem like the steam ships were faster then the diesel ships that replaced them, at least for a while. The older Tote ships running to Alaska were faster then the newer D7s using low-speed diesels on that same run. Of course the steam ships were using a lot more fuel.

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9 posts were split to a new topic: History of Diesel Displacing Steam in U.S. Merchant Marine

Loc 884 – “some [tenets] of the hard sciences”

Loc 926 – “What this meant was unclear except that it would cost money. And perhaps affect stability.” I’m sure it was very clear to Tote’s favorite firm of naval architects. And the change in stability that would be – no perhaps-- required would be to increase it.

Loc 926 – “same ones the [Travelers] hammered on”

Loc 926 – This is the first mention of ducts in the book, so the reader will be puzzled. I think you’re referring to El Yunque’s failed inspection which had not yet happened either in real life or in the book.

Loc 926 – “and the [request] was [also] to permit the ship to [be loaded] two feet [deeper] in[/into?] the water”

Loc 926 – “waterproof when the ship”, “how waterproof were they” – suggest watertight instead of waterproof. Also, of course, changing the draft doesn’t affect the watertightness or otherwise of the ducts, but only how much heel will put them under water.

Loc 938 – “Lusitanian devices” – suggest “open boats”.

Loc 954 – “was “yachtish,” “not squatish.”” – Squa[r]ish? Also misplaced quotes before “not”.

Loc 971 – “Saltchuk’s Sea Star” – this is the first mention of Sea Star Lines, so it’s rather confusing, at least until you get to the next paragraph. Suggest something like “Saltchuk’s Sea Star Lines (later renamed Tote as a result of the scandal)”

Loc 992 – “wind would [press on] the containers”

Loc 992 – "command, the ship would [heel farther than expected].

Loc 1009 – “Base[d] on later inspections”

Loc 1017 – “natural lifetime [and?] stitched together”

Loc 1025 – “ever-[hairier], ever-wilder”

End Chapter Six.

REALLY appreciate it.

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Loc 1123 – “Cr[o]wley said officially”

Loc 1140 – “in the same storm. Same type of [ship].”

Loc 1165 – “source of weather information was 21 hours [old].”

Loc 1165 – “500 miles off[,] placing the [predicted] path”

Loc 1165 – second mention of wind shear. Might be nice to define it? First mention ~1045.

Loc 1173 – "track errors from the NHC [were more than twice the size of the largest errors in the previous five years forecasts].

Loc 1216 – “sail below Samana [Cays].”

Loc 1216 and others – inconsistent treatment of quotes – some with quotation marks, some without.

Loc 1216 – “a seaman ask[ed] the captain…Davidson [said]…”

Loc 1224 – you’re changing to present tense right after “Joaquin was…” so it should be “It’s about five after 11…”

Loc 1224, more inconsistent quoting.

Loc 1275 – “could go south[,] through the Old Bahama”

Loc 1275 – “A few moments later, [they feel the deck tilting beneath them. “Wind heel,” the helmsman says].”

End Chapter Seven

Loc 1315 – "the same trunks and ducts that were [later] shown to be [heavily rusted and unsound on El Faro’s] sister ship[, El Yunque].

Loc 1315 – "on the original ship – but [the conversion to add container stowage abovedeck brought them two feet closer to the water].

Loc 1315 – "hold three. [Each vehicle should be lashed to four hard points on the deck; but contrary to El Faro’s loading manual, the lashings from multiple vehicles were carried to long chains stretched across the deck, so that if a chain should break many vehicles would no longer be secured].

Loc 1315 – “[The same deck carries an emergency fire pump] – suspect”

Loc 1324 – "normal seas. [But at eighteen degrees of heel to port, the system loses suction and the engine shuts down. And with no engine to keep it moving ahead, the ship rapidly loses the ability to steer as water no longer flows past the rudder].

Loc 1340 – “The [ship] heels”

Loc 1340 – "vehicles are not [individually lashed to the deck,] they strain against the [large chains linking them together].

Loc 1349 – "engine shuts down, [and as the ship loses way, it soon cannot be steered.]

Loc 1349 – “maneuver, pump, dump and shift” – “Pump and dump” is a term of art in the manipulation of stock prices. Suggest alternate wording.

End Chapter Eight.