NTSB goes overboard faulting El Faro skipper — Part II

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), among others, appears to view El Faro’s Capt. Michael Davidson’s failure to alter course farther away from Hurricane Joaquin as a smoking gun. The truth is that he did change course. Arguably it was not change enough, but it was a reasonable one.

Nor, critics say, did he consult with his crew, but that is not exactly the case. They were well informed, and in at least one instance Davidson asked the chief mate what he thought.

And while the voice record from the bridge makes clear he had his doubters, my experience on fishing vessels, both as a crewmember and as a captain, taught me that second-guessing of skippers is a way of life at sea.

Lastly, there is the volatility of weather. Based on concerns raised by crewmembers, the NTSB would have us believe Davidson ignored forecast updates. In truth, the storm was well south of its forecast track. The El Faro had passed the point of no return hours before Joaquin’s ominous turn — or failure to turn — was an issue.

When the weather came down, Davidson played the hand he’d been dealt, confronted by circumstances — loose cargo, flooding, and an idled power plant — that exponentially raised the risk factors associated with the weather.

I never regarded myself as a risk taker in my fishing days, but there were a few times when it blew hard enough that, but for the heartbeat of a diesel, we could have lost the boat. We didn’t court weather, but sometimes it courted us. I committed to preventing surprises via maintenance, and we had good survival gear — immersion suits and covered life rafts. By comparison, the El Faro had lifeboats that since the time of the Lusitania have proved themselves incapable of being launched. Why stern-launched freefall lifeboats are not the law on old sleds like the El Faro is beyond me.

Davidson’s record does not suggest recklessness. He lost one captain’s site for refusing to take a ship to sea with unsafe steering. And in this instance he had informed the El Faro’s owners he would be returning from San Juan by way of the Great Bahama Bank, a longer route.

Years ago an old swordfisherman asked me what my job was as trawler captain. “Nope,” he said, when I replied I was responsible for getting the crew home safely with a trip of fish. “Your job is go fishing.”

He said, “When you’re catching fish the guys are going to want to go in and get paid, and when you’re not catching fish they’re going to want to go in anyway.

“Your job is to be the one guy on the boat who wants to go fishing.”

It’s not perfectly analogous to Capt. Davidson’s situation, but you get the point. He was trying to get to San Juan, as best as he knew how.


About the author

Jerry Fraser

Jerry Fraser is the publisher of WorkBoat Magazine and WorkBoat.com.


  1. I sailed El Faro for about a year. I sailed under Davidson and knew all the crew except the polish riders. Davidson was a lousy Captain, Lazy, arrogant, and dangerous. He thought more about his future with TOTE then he did about the crew. No sympathy for that scum bag. Tote was the worst company I ever worked for. Micromanage everything, cheap, lack of safety caution for us. All they cared for were profit. Speed and greed. ABS were bought out by Tote to look the other way. Guilty too. Coast Guard wasn’t funded correctly to oversee what was going on.
    And there you got it, end of story. A great book if someone will publish it soon. A book about deception, greed, lack of compassion and care. I miss that voyage by the skin of my teeth and poor Jack Jackson took my place on that voyage. I think about they had to go through the last hours aboard the ElFaro in the horrible storm. Laws need to be changed to make it safer for us at sea. Make the company responsible as well. Monitor the ships you coward

    • Are you the same Kurt Bruer that Captain Davidson fired because you threatened to beat someone with a hammer? May God have mercy on your soul. Your words are meaningless to others as you have no merit, but they will put you in hell.

      • Interesting statement Chris. Where did you get that information regarding myself? Who are you? Seems odd that what I have said from day 1 of when the ship sank it was all true huh. I have no merit but everything I said was true. Captain, Company, ABS all GUILTY. I hate to say it but I told you so. Want to bring up why I was fired well it’s because I brought safety issues regarding El Faro and Captain and they fired me because of it. I didn’t know SPA at the time and OSHA. But I guess you are a company puppet that supports the captain and company and don’t care about any of the 32 people that were killed. If anyone that is going to Hell its you Chris. You and Davidson can enjoy each other’s Company in the depths of hell.

  2. It is easy to blame a dead man. I did not hear any blame being spread to the owners/operators who always want the vessel kept on schedule, always and under all conditions. Was that even a consideration?

  3. Captain is responsible. I don’t care what the Company supposedly told him or wanted him to do. Even if they threatened to fire him for not keeping the vessel on schedule, you take the damn vessel to port, get off, and report them to the USCG for unsafe policies. Then you find a new job. Its better than being dead. I will say it again, THE CAPTAIN IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE VESSEL. There are no other outside forces that should change that. If the company is stupid, you should of worked for a different one, possibly one that cared more about life and the cargo. There is a specific email back to the company that Davidson said “I will be 67 miles south of the eye of a hurricane”. That email alone is enough to cause most mariners to loose their crap and say “NO WAY WILL I GET THAT CLOSE”. Facts are facts.

  4. In my sailing papers I have long-carried a quote listing the three elements of “Effective Leadership at Sea”;
    * You have to look like you know what you are doing
    * Your men have to believe that you know what you are doing
    * Everybody else gets to have an opinion but it is the captain who has to make a choice

    Blaming a dead captain for a disaster in light of inaccurate weather forecasting, loose cargo, mechanical failure and loss of propulsion is simply wrong; contingency planning can never factor in every variable and while a tragedy Captain Davidson made voyage planning changes relevant to the information available at that time; the cascading series of events noted above were the root cause not the initial actions of the Master.

  5. My brother tows a 780’ triple deck RoRo barge between Jacksonville and San Juan. He departed Jacksonville on the same day as the El Faro. Instead of taking the direct route, he chose the southern route through the Old Bahama Channel. While this track added half a day to the voyage, he was well south of the forecasted track line of Joaquin. The captain was responsible for a number of poor seamanship practices which started with not ensuring the cargo was properly secured, and ended with planning a voyage which could have easily routed south around the storm.

  6. I have said all this from day 1. People believed me some people doubted me. For all the doubters and people that have said really negative stuff about me. I just want to say “How do you like me now?”
    Who’s a liar again?

    Larry Brennan, a maritime law professor at Fordham Law School and retired U.S. Navy captain, said the NTSB’s meeting highlighted major safety problems in the entire shipping industry, including the Coast Guard and so-called “classification societies” like the American Bureau of Shipping, or ABS, that are in charge of inspecting vessels for safety.

    “El Faro was a worn, aged ship which succumbed to heavy weather in large part because of multiple unseaworthy conditions, poor leadership and bad decisions by the captain, ABS, the owners as well as inadequate surveys and inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard,” Brennan said.

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