“The Clock Is Ticking”: Inside the Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster in Decades


My take on Joaquin and Davidson.


this is mine



Actually, TOTE is a well run company and very responsive to maintenance issues. I worked for TOTE for thirty years, in every deck officer position, the last 17 as Master. I was Master of the El Faro when she was the Northern Lights. TOTE always responded immediately to maintenance, preventive maintenance, and never pressured me regarding the schedule. An inexperienced 1st failing to keep the LO sump topped led to a loss of propulsion. The loss of propulsion doomed them, not the route. Granted, it’s all tied together, avoidable, etc…don’t get me wrong. A tragic and avoidable accident.
Badly run company? Nope. Ill informed crew? Nope. A shit bucket? Nope.

I worked for TOTE for thirty years, the last 17 as Master. I was Master of the El Faro when she was Northern Lights. Never once, not even once, did TOTE pressure me about the schedule. I worked my entire career in the Alaska division, where weather was a constant challenge.
TOTE was responsive, didn’t pressure, and doesn’t deserve the armchair quarterbacks.
I speak from experience and knowledge of the company.
I don’t pretend to know what Davidson was thinking, we can all agree his thinking and process was flawed. It ultimately led to the tragedy, with a huge contributing factor of the inexperienced 1st not keeping the LO sump topped.

Unless the El Faro was run differently than any other ship I have been on, it is the C/E that set the policy with regards to sump levels. I (as C/E) checked the sump levels as logged by the watch standers and directed the 12-4 3rd to add oil when the levels got low.

Loss of propulsion certainly didn’t help but if I read the transcripts and what was reported correctly they had flooding problems which ultimately doomed them. The route is what put them in the cross hairs.

When you work where weather is a constant challenge you do things different. When you are on a “good weather” run it is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.


To distribute blames to many people is nice. Everyone at home can think ‘my’ relative was at least not responsible for the disaster; it was a chain with a lot of responsibilities.
However, reading the VDR transcript, I think El Faro’s sinking was an example for a single, enduring error.

The ship was sailed into Joaquin’s core. What could the mates do, short of a mutiny?
Could the ship survive with the famous scuttle firmly shut, and therefore no water ingress?
Maybe, we will never now. Not all ships are always in a perfect overall state, and even then, they should not sail into a hurricane.

As for the ‘failing’ forecasts:
During the last decades, with better near real-time data collections, ever more sophisticated satellites and growing computer power, the weather forecasts became better and better… but they are still not applied science.

Rapidly deepening depressions grow out of nowhere, independent depressions suddenly merge or dying depressions return vigorous and change their path. Everybody depending on the weather, at sea or in the mountains, knows or should know this.

September 28 at 12:30 EDT, El Faro docked at Jacksonville.
Out in the Atlantic, at the latitude of the northern limit of the Little Bahama Bank, 500 miles eastwards (27.6°N, 69.3°W) was the Tropical Depression 11 (later Joaquin), with 35 knots wind, proceeding WNW and then N.
This was of no interest for El Faro’s last voyage from Puerto Rico, but it was the single phenomenon in this region, and could not be missed, looking at the weather charts.

September 29, before departure to San Juan at 20:00, the off-duty second mate asked the captain about his plans with the forming storm. The captain discussed it with the TOTE port engineer too. Hence, he was fully aware what happened.
At this time, the now Tropical Storm Joaquin was 130 miles SW of the location at arrival (26°N, 71°W; proceeding WSW and later N, with winds of 65 knots, becoming hurricane.

From now on, each new forecast showed the center more in the SW than the precedent forecasted, and much stronger winds. Even the retarded BVS charts showed this.

Seeing this evolution in the forecasts lets only one explication: They have very big difficulties to forecast path and strength of Joaquin.
Translated: Do not play or gamble with this thing!

It seems, an irrational hope let the captain think, Joaquin will shortly return to North as forecasted at departure time

1 Like

“Loss of propulsion certainly didn’t help”. Ya think?
On that class of ship, being an old design, it was imperative that the 1st know to keep the sump topped in heaving rolling. Wasn’t just a “routine” thing, it was a flaw in the class. Something we dealt with all the time, hence my comment on the inexperienced 1st. Not comparing it to the CE standing orders on the sump.
As I did mention, Davidson’s decision on his route led to the accident. It is probable none of the flooding, listing, loss of propulsion, etc would have occurred had he not been complacent.
However, the moment they lost the plant, they were doomed. It was the “oh shit” moment.
Agreed complacency is a killer.

The numbers used for the amt of LO was based on the entry the mate had entered into the stability program. From my experience likely that number was entered once and never changed.

Even if the number was right, which seems unlikely it also requires the assumption that none was added anytime after departure.

Even with the LO at the correct amt the plant is still going to shut down on low LO pressure once the list reaches a certain point. The actual amt of list at the time of shutdown is not known.

1 Like

Blaming the 1 A/E is some fucking bullshit. Unless you can prove that fuck off


This is from TOTE

Information was presented during the MBI investigations using CargoMax to determine
main engine sump levels. (MBI Ex.412, p.3). TOTE expert, Mr. John Daly, determined that this was not a reliable record to rely on for the purposes of defining the precise level of oil in the lube oil sump. The volumes of liquids in most engine room tanks, and changes to them, have an insignificant impact in calculating vessel stability, and, therefore, these records are generally not maintained with the same level of regularity as engine room logs. (Appendix A (J.Daly), pp.13-14). We believe the MBI’s use of the assumed lube oil sump operating level of 24.6 inches is likely in error and, based on the available evidence, it is more likely that the engine log for the El Faro was for September 1, 2015 (26 inches) provides the most reliable figure. (MBI Ex. 341); (Appendix A (J.Daly), pp.14-15).

I certainly don’t know what the engineers were doing when things got bad but I would venture to say that once they started getting low sump level alarms (from the rolling & pitching) first first course of action would have been to add oil. It was reported they were having problems with lube oil pressure before they actually lost propulsion.

Once oil pressure was lost they should have been doing 2 things. Obviously, reestablish oil pressure. But just as important if not more so, stop the shaft to prevent turbine and reduction gear bearing damage from lack of oil. A free wheeling shaft would have wiped every bearing there.


sounds like just the response one would get from a “golden boy” who is kept on because he is a consummate “company man”

there is an underlying reason why Davidson stayed on such a perilous route and did not even pull back a few knots to allow Joachim to decide where it was going to go before barrelling headlong into it. either he was utterly blind and obtuse to the danger of what he was choosing to do (which I doubt) or he was trying to please someone somewhere. maybe his masters did not DEMAND he challenge the storm but I say he was given a good reason to do so. or can you pose a third option why?


well stated sir…

maybe we should say an AB who left the scuttle open killed them all or the person who said they had no good reason to replace the forty year old open lifeboats with modern, fully enclosed freefall ones


Wait a minute…It was my understanding that the ship’s list/being down by the head is what caused the LO pump(s) to lose suction and thus you could have had the sump overflowing and it wouldn’t have mattered. Is that not the case? I find it hard to believe that if simply topping up the sump would have solved their problem, that they wouldn’t have done it.

I’ve never been on that ship so I’ll give @CaptainRon1 or (preferably) an engineer who served on those vessels time to clarify, but I’m like @W.T.Sherman and have my double barrelled “fuk you’s” at the ready if this guy just besmirched a dead man (and the whole engine dept.) of that vessel in an effort to shine TOTE in a better light.

1 Like

IIRC from the drawings, the tanks and pickups were such that the difference of an inch in oil level would mean a change of several degrees in how far it could list before losing suction.

I see. I just find it hard to believe that if low oil level was their main issue as “Capt Ron” implies and thus dropping oil down to the sump would solve their suction problem, that they wouldn’t have done it


It is believed that the vessel’s substantial list, coupled with trim by the bow, caused the main engine lube oil pump to lose suction. A detailed modeling and static analysis of El Faro’s lube oil system determined that a severe inclination of the ship, coupled with a relatively low volume of oil in the sump, would likely result in a loss of pump suction.

Nice to hear such a well formulated and intelligent response. Trump voter, right?

It’s possible that higher LO levels would have enabled the ship to keep propulsion longer but what would Davidson have done?

At 0545 at full power the ship was down to 2.8 kts, the crew did not know why the ship was listing, did not realize the #3 hold was flooding and they were in error with regards to the location of the eye.


Bingo, and this guy’s responses sound exactly like a lot of Davidsons remarks as per weather on the Alaska run versus the hurricane they were encountering. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s just online spin control these days…