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

Re the lashing chains – it wasn’t a single chain. There were chains stretched athwartships between the rows of vehicles, to act as hard points to attach the vehicle lashings to. But compared to real hard points on the deck, there are two disadvantages: first, the geometry is such that very large stress is placed on the chain compared to the amount of tension on the lashings. And second, if the chain carries away it’s not one corner of one vehicle that’s unsecured – it’s the back ends of a whole row and the front ends of a second row.

Bull chains, or so I’ve heard them called.

We don’t use them but AFAIK if the calculations are done to ensure the chain makes a strong enough lashing point they should be OK. Indivudal car lashing can be as low as 1 ton and the chains are typically 20 tons (working) It’s a vector problem. I have seen them used from time to time. The bull chain would have to be tight as hell to prevent movement.

The forces fore and aft are lower than athwartships forces. If the parking brakes were set…

Of course likely nobody calculated and their use was not in the ABS approved Lashing and Securing Book, if that’s the case technically they can’t be used.

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Loc 1357 – “Chapter Nine: Fighting the Ship” – just a note that in the Navy, “fighting the ship” means using the ship to fight other ships. No suggestion.

Loc 1357 – “Hello [there,] Captain.”

Loc 1369 – “[”]You’ve got a point there," Shultz says…he says. “I said “this is every day in Alaska[.””]"

Loc 1377 – “[Wind pressure] on the containers”

Loc 1386 – “loading area [to] starboard [or “on the starboard side”]”

Loc 1468 – “A moment later they have reason to be optimistic…”

From the transcript:

alright @AB-1 you got some turns right now.

This is fifteen minutes after the Captain talks about having everyone awake, not a moment later. During that fifteen minutes 2/M has been setting up the emergency messages, and engineering has been getting the plant back on line. Captain has just been on the phone to engineering and gotten the news that the main engine is running, hence “you’ve got some turns right now.” This is important because contrary to what you’re saying, without the engine (i.e. without forward movement of the vessel) there is no steering aside from whatever small input the bow thrusters might be able to contribute. @Kennebec_Captain can say for sure, but I think it’s unlikely that those thrusters would have any useful steering effect in these conditions.

what’d you wanna do captain– I got it right thirty.
keep your rudder– rudder right twenty right now.

And here – I don’t think Captain is exclaiming “right now!” I think he’s more almost musing, more in the sense of “for the moment”. So he’s saying ease the helm to twenty degrees of rudder, but not barking it out.

Loc 1468 – “Level it up,” Davidson says. “And get over to starboard!” – There are three words undecipherable in the transcript. I don’t think this is an order, but rather a response to 2/M whose remark is also garbled. Suggest striking it as it doesn’t really contribute anything to understanding.

Loc 1476 – "“Yeah, but we know how to fix that one!” Randolph says. “Suck out the water.” – Yeah but etc is a response to Captain’s previous garbled statement, not to the one about water in the hold. Strike the first sentence.

[sound of multiple low frequency thuds in rapid succession.]
that’s why I don’t go out there.
that’s a piece of handrail right?
yup. you’re right.
(well) there ya go.

Here we have Captain and 2/M remarking on part of the bridge wing handrail apparently being carried away, and Captain observing that that’s why he doesn’t go outside(to get hit with stuff like that). Would be a good addition at this point I think.

Loc 1476 – “And she tries to lighten it up a bit more, offers coffee. She is the queen of coffee on the bridge, grinds her own beans.” – Tone observation – I hate this. It seems disrespectful of 2/M and of the situation. The coffee itself is a boon, no need to ham it up about her motives. And all that being said, it’s clear from transcript that her coffee routine is beyond the ordinary. YMMV of course.

they don’t have any R-P-M on it right now so you can just stand by you
don’t have to be (there).

Somewhere in the previous few minutes they’ve lost the engine again. He’s telling helmsman he doesn’t have to be holding on to the wheel right now, just stand by in the neighborhood to be available when/if the plant comes back. This is while 2/M is still asking how people want their coffee.

Oh man – transcript is pretty hard to read from this point. I’ll have to finish this later.


Thanks. Yeah. That transcript is tough

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I read this as the 2/M having high self-awareness. Without steering the task that was taking full attention has ended, time to shift gears. Need to take a deep breath and think about the new situation.

What to you do when you’ve been rattled, have no immediate tasks but want to calm yourself a bit to refocus? Have a cigarette, make cup of tea etc, some ritual to restore a bit of normalcy. Then back at it.

I didn’t read it as someone totally out of touch, the opposite, sees the tension, inserts a little routine into to ease, refocus on the new situation.

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Out of touch? Hardly.

“New situation is We’re Screwed, Blued and Tattooed. We’ve lost the plant again, it’s not likely we’re getting it back – although you can never count the engineers out in a pinch; but unless they can get suction on the sump we’re not getting turns. We’ve got an 18-degree port list, so just moving around is taxing in this universe of no handholds and even staying put is no picnic; we can’t launch, and the boats wouldn’t swim if we did. And the Old Man is losing the bubble, blithering about courtesy to The Office and how the crew is safe when we’re so obviously not. If I can’t find something to do I. Will. Scream. Sure could use a cuppa – we all could. Why not? Could be our last.”

That’s what I get from the transcript – but I’m projecting into it just as we all are. We haven’t got the audio and I’m grateful that we don’t – the flat words on the page are bad enough. I just think a plainer writing style would suit the moment better.

Yes, “out of touch” is not right.

I’ve seen the coffee thing (sugar or sweet n low?") described as just a random, somewhat inexplicable act .

I saw it as a deliberate act appropriate to the circumstances

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Coffee’s always appropriate to the circumstances when it’s howling outside – but yeah. And part of me is resisting casting 2/M as Mom, whether or not that was the case.

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Yes,I see what you mean, that would be incorrect in my view.,

I saw it as trying to control some aspect of the situation in the wheelhouse, hey, let’s just take a little step back for a few seconds.

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Didn’t the NTSB report say that it was unlikely propulsion was restored? No change in SOG or heading?

Very unlikely thrusters would have been any help.

I think this is the captain losing track of his last command. If you give open-ended commands (hard right for example) rather than rudder commands and courses it’s best not to have any other distractions. Otherwise each time there is an interruption the conning officer has to recall the situation.

The captain might have been better off turning the conn over to one of the other deck officers and giving most of his attention to the unfolding emergency.

Previous helm command was ten minutes earlier, after which he gets a pleasing phone call from Engineering and says they’re about to have the plant very soon.

(hand steering) * * *.

    • *.
    • (thirteen/thirty).

I’m betting on thirty, since he later says he has thirty on when Captain says they have turns (after second phone call from Engineering).

(still have the) rudder on?

Back-and-forth with 2/M about message setup elided…Captain now on the blower with Engine room:

hey chief @CAPT here.

  • (yea).
    alright that sounds good.
    that’s fine.
    uhh– nope. that’s good news. that’s– that’s good
    news. thank you very much.
    alright and then just wanna– okay that’s fine–
    that’s fine.

okay. thank you.

Off the phone now.

yeah we’ll see– they’re gunna get that boiler back up online any (mi-)
any second.


(they’re just uh)– they’re gettin’ that boiler back up. they(‘re) gettin’ lube
oil pressure up.

Ten minutes later:

[sound of electric telephone ringing.]
bridge. captain.
yes please.

I surmise that “yes please” was his answer to “are you ready for the engine?” or similar.

alright now is @3AE1 there?
yup. I– I just want to know that we’re pumping from
port to starboard on the ramp tanks.
alright. thank you very much.

Off the phone

alright @AB-1 you got some turns right now.

And then Helm says “What do you want; I got thirty on now” and so forth.

Sure sounds to me like they got the plant back at least briefly.

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No, you’re right. Three minutes later:

they don’t have any R-P-M on it right now so you can just stand by you
don’t have to be (there).

and then ten minutes after that:

they havin’ trouble gettin’ it back online?
yeah because of the list.

And then he’s on the horn trying to talk to the DPA. Which must have been utterly maddening even though it only (!) took seven minutes to get connected.

Five minutes on the phone with DPA. And just under half an hour after that, it’s all over. May they rest in peace.

Loc 1508 – "[Captain: “The uh – the cars that are floating in three hold --” Chief mate answers “There are. They’re subs.” and the captain laughs briefly.]

the uh—
the cars that are floating in three hold…
there are.
they’re subs.
[sound of laughter]

Loc 1600 – “found the SS El Faro – [15,000] feet below”

Loc 1649 – “and did [so] skillfully[,] as they ought to have”

Loc 1699 – “if the vessel experience[d] severe”

Loc 1722 – "Worst Ships list is [one possibility.]

Loc 1819 – “tempting, but [belying] that”

Loc 1854 – Epilogue chapter heading isn’t formatted like the rest, and font becomes tiny and remains so for the entire chapter.

End of book.

A fine book, sir. I was happy to pay Kindle’s price for it, and look forward to seeing the results of my suggestions.


Can’t thank you enough for this, David! I’ll have a revised and reformatted version available and would like to make it a point of getting that to you. I’m at robert.frump@gmail.com for direct contact.

All the very, very best, Bob Frump


dbeierl at gmail
dbeierl at attglobal dot net

Actually dbeierl anywhere on the 'Net is most likely me.

I feel the need for some gallows humor. Here it is:

I forgot to say that you’re more than welcome.

Yes there are many similarities in training between the two industries and BRM as well as many of the required STCW certs we are blessed/ cursed with come from CRM and other airline firsts. However your reference to ground control of aircraft reducing the cockpit crew into semi-automatons obeying the orders from “shore” is not the template we want nor should want the maritime shipping industry to adopt. The master and top 4 are already under the nonstop comms deluge from the owners/charterers.class and regulators, second guessing, countermanding and watering down the master’s and Chief Engineer’s judgment and experience. The nightmare specter already being proposed by some voices in the IMO of actual real time shoreside control and now automated unmanned ships is a bean counters nirvana until a totally unprecedented tragedy strikes. Knee jerk reactions and proposals from an industry which in effect has an operating space of 3 square meters and minus the wait staff, I mean flight attendants, has absolutely no commonality with a 18-23 crewed vessel of 160-350 meters with massive cargo holds, engineering and operational/habitation spaces. One point which a certain Mr. Quick brilliantly pointed out is, only because the technology and equipment allows you to do it does not mean it should be done.

Actually Mr Frump, the Marine Inspection and navigation functions including licensing and documentation of seafarers are two of the twelve major missions of the USCG. True the Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation amalgamated from the former steamboat inspection service around 1884 was transferred to the CG during WWII when the CG itself fell under the command of the Navy Dept and after contentious Congressional hearings around 1947 it remained in the USCG dept of the Treasury until the entire USCG was transferred to DOT in the JFK administration. Yes it was and still is the less glamorous “M” now Prevention" part of the servive versus “O” now called “Response” side of the house which includes the cutter fleet and SAR Small boat stations. It is less career enhancing and commissioned officers have had a more arduous task at successfully competing wihth the operational side of the house. Despite major modernization initiatives such as creating the NCOE centers of expertise in the 2007-2009 timeframe and threats of ripping it away and giving it to the Commerce dept in 2008. In my opinion and many others, until the USCG stovepipes the inspectors both warrant and commissioned where they can operate and advance in an LDO type program, prevent loss of institutional knowledge, prevent being rotated just when proficiency is achieved in order to create the “well rounded officer”, while desired by a military service is anathema in an ever increasingly technically demanding and regulated industry. There is some extraordinary talent in the Coast Guard and unlike OSHA, the EPA and other government agencies, the USCG is both a military service and a regulatory and task oriented agency which does not replay of prescriptive one size fits all solutions but rather has relied on an outcome based solution to inspection and regulatory challenges. Congress passes legislation which is turned into US Code. The USC in turn allows the agency to create regulations in how the US Law, as codified in USC is to be met and satisfied, instead of Congress creating a straightjacket mandate. In some instances such as the ISPS Code, it became the exception where the ISPS Code was incorporated by reference in its entirety into the CFRs as ready made regs; in so doing there is virtually no leeway and wiggle room allowed in how to meet the requirements,. Mind you this was a knee jerk post 9/11 short fuse security piece of legislation but I digress. If you want to read an interesting piece of marine safety history, find the Congressional hearing minutes of the 1947,(or 1948-1949?) where the same issues of the adequacy of marine inspection and the USCG as compared to the FAA and DOT inspections of trucks, rails and air are compared to the military agency inspection vessels. (I have the transcript somewhere as well as the complete history of the USCG Marine Inspection Program.

A small anecdote.

Friend of mine is a retired pilot from one of the biggest low cost airlines in Europe. He said they were awful people wo work for. His job was to fly the pre planned flight plan. If ever he diverged from the flight plan, even for absolutely correct aeronautical reasons he was always hauled in front of an investigation. He described it as being watched all the time.

I can only speculate the companies main interest was always to save fuel costs. But it makes me wonder to what extend such pressure may influence decision making.