The El Faro and Commercial Pressure

I don’t know if we can say it wasn’t the case, but it can’t be proven.


Perhaps it depends upon past experience. It never made the least sense to me that Tote would explicitly tell the captain to take excess risk.

I can’t imagine some puke office weenie with zero experience at sea telling a ship captain how to handle bad weather. And it would be easy to explain an office weenie with experience at sea why a safer route was being taken.

I’m sure they didn’t, but saying “don’t be late or else” isn’t saying “hey cap, take extra risk for the hell of it.” (It’s just insinuating it…)

The lowly “puke office weenie” never would, but higher officer types definitely would put on the pressure.

That’s who I’m calling puke office weenies. Seamanship is the exact center of expertise of the captain. Who gives a shit what some bean counter thinks about heavy weather avoidance?

They don’t ever talk about “heavy weather avoidance”, unless you don’t avoid it and cause damage. They pressure you to keep your schedule, “don’t be late”, “what’s the hold up?”

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Davidson was in the doghouse for very appropriately taking the Old Bahama Channel on a previous trip. Davidson was angry about that. They didn’t have to say anything else. Davidson at least thought they would not tolerate him doing that again. While Davidson may have only inferred the pressure from Tote, it was there. Even if Davidson was incorrect about the consequences of deviating for weather again, Tote did nothing to let him know that it was ok for him to deviate if he thought it advisable.

The office weenies obviously either had a high tolerance for risk, or they could not perceive risk. They sat quietly while both their ships steamed right through the hurricane. Apparently, the office thought this was appropriate conduct.


The idea that there was some larger purpose and control behind the EF decision is the same exact error as believing that there was purpose and control, a explicit decision by the captain of the EV to take a short cut inside Bligh reef.

If the EV was to happen now this forum would be demanding that the email be found telling Hazelwood not to be late to the discharge port.

The Narrative Fallacy reflects our tendency to see the world as a story: “a linear chain of cause and effect, with a beginning and an end.” We create a screenplay in our heads, a battle between forces of good and evil, with each event leading to the next logical step, until we reach a conclusion and denouement.

This is what the NTSB says in the final report:

With regard to commercial pressure, it was unlikely to be a matter of the company directly asking the captain to do something unwise and the captain having to either do it or refuse. If the captain was expected to meet the estimated time of arrival, he might have felt pressure regardless of the changing weather forecast. Another element is that when people make decisions under pressure, their judgment suffers, and they tend to accept more risk. A schedule can produce pressure just because it exists—delays are costly, and decisions to change a route must be justified and explained. Sometimes the greatest pressure is one’s own internal, self-induced pressure. The captain rarely arrived in port late and may have been highly motivated to meet his schedule, which
could have increased his risk tolerance and blocked his full situation awareness of the weather.

Thus, the NTSB concludes that although there is no direct evidence that the company applied pressure regarding the vessel’s schedule, inherent pressure could have influenced the captain’s decision to continue on despite the weather.

This matches my experience. I don’t think the company even knew where the ships were.

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anybody that thinks office pressure wasn’t a real concern is a fool


That shit stain of a bean counter approved the bon voyage system and the computer network and system hosting it. I know the company, they are happy to provide training on the use of the software… didn’t seem to happen here. The also have a team of weather routers who monitor your ships routes directly and make a call to your ship if you are heading into trouble. Tote declined this service.

Of course it’s concern. But what do people mean when they say commercial pressure is a factor?

It’s like saying the reason some one fell is because of gravity. Without gravity life as we know it would be impossible. Without commercial pressure ships wouldn’t move from departure port to arrival port.

What’s being claimed is that the EL had specific instructions to take high risk on that voyage or that he had been disciplined on a previous trip. While that claim has not been disproved there is no evidence that it’s true.

While lower level employees, would have been of course tracking the ETA to schedule pilots and labor etc it doesn’t seem plausible that upper level management would be tracking the day to day movements of the ships.

Tote made a management decision to shift operation decisions to the individual ships. They made this claim several times at the MBI hearings. The ship managers were from the engineering side. Tote saw the problem of moving cargo JAX/SJU as a engineering problem.

Another line of questioning at the MBI revealed that captain interviewed had received no heavy weather avoidance (HWA) training. Many of the companies I’ve worked for require HWA training and most officers I work with have had it.

HWA can be done shipboard or shoreside, or ideally both. In Tote’s case apparently it was left to ship’s officers who had received no relevant training.

That’s just a function of standard legal advice. Never directly tell the master what to do, or interfere with the master’s operation of the ship, because if you do, a court may refuse limitation of liability.

Tote was founded and operated for many years by a very good lawyer who also founded one of Seattle’s biggest and best law firms. Tote is now owned by his three daughters.


I have a framework within which I can push back against pressure. That is the guidelines to avoid seas more then 7 meters and wind over 50 kts. I will never lose an argument with shoreside.

Tote’s instructions for HWA were buried where evidently no one saw it. The instructions were to follow Bowditch but not specific wind or wave height limits.

At the MBI hearing the Tote captain said he’d never used or even heard of using wind limits and related a story where he used ship’s motion as the only limit.

I was the CE on a large ATB that usually carried just shy of 240,000 barrels running in the GOM.

We were loading when a Hurricane was heading in the Gulf, so the Captain notified the office that he was going to suspend cargo and depart to avoid the storm. (points for the Captain) The office told the Captain to continue with cargo and they would “find” a lay berth. (points for the office) The office informed the Captain that we had a lay berth so we continued loading to our max draft of 34 feet.

As we got close to finishing, the Captain called to port to ask which berth we would be going to and was asked what our draft was, guess what 34 feet was to much. Captain calls office and we are ordered to sea as the dock would not allow us to stay. (minus point for office and Captain for not making sure of the draft restriction, which was well known)

So, we sailed and got caught between Florida and the storm. All totalled we had over $250,000 in damage and had to visit a SY for repairs.

This Company preached safety but when it came to Chartering all bets were off! In my 20 years there, I personally know that Captains sailed due to Pressure from the Office. Most of the times it would be a newer or relief Captain but the story above happened to a Senior Captain that should have known better.

So, to say that it never happens is BS and we all know it.


Tugs, you’ve told that story before and it’s a good one. My closest call with a Tropical cyclone was similar in that I was trapped in port and was not in control of my own ship’s movements, I need tugs, pilots, port clearance etc. Like your situation I was lied to. The agent told me one day of cargo only. They had the upper hand.

But the EF case does not seem similar. I think that the layout of the voyage and the nature of the forecast errors better explains the decision making errors than explicit pressure from the office.

Anyone who sails master understands full well that commercial pressure exists. But when the top end risk is loss of ship and crew of course the master can push back if the ship is at sea and is free to maneuver.


No doubt, there was a mix of commercial pressure and onboard errors. Davidson’s cavalier approach to the risks and the concerns of the mate’s seems inexplicable. Could it be that pressure from the office, and anger about that pressure, created a toxic environment that set the stage for Davidson to make errors?

The improbable unraveling of this mystery may reside in speculative but unknowable psychological factors. That’s what makes it a mystery instead of a puzzle.


Indeed. My crew is my top priority. Their safety and ability to hug their kids after payoff weighs heavily in every decision I make.


Agreed. But I think it’s a mistake to see this a top down decision made by the company. What incentive does the company have to take a big risk for a single ship on a single voyage? The company would have taken into account the bigger picture. There’s going to be so many delays each year, why focus on this one?

Davison had a different point of view. He couldn’t help but focus on that single trip. To him, the ship being delayed was a personal problem. A view that (presumably) would not have been shared by upper management.

The fault still lies with mismanagement at the company. It was their idea to let each captain make decisions without oversight. And that’s their job, management of the company. But they weren’t paying any attention.

In technical terms Davidson is going to attempt to maximize personal utility at the expense of the company’s goals (presumably the safe operation of the ships)

Edit: By way of analogy it’s similar to a ship’s PPE policy.

Sometimes it’s in the interest of an individual crew member to do a quick job without proper protective gear. The gains (comfort, convince, don’t have to travel back to the bos’n locker ) seem to outweigh the risks (low probability on individual level on a quick job). From the ship’s point of view, to get the annual safety award with half a dozen crew working better to enforce the PPE rules at all times in every situation. The ship has very little to gain by letting each crew member decided on his own.