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.


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  1. Avatar

    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

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      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.

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        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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    The ship was in peril almost from the get-go, and this “captain” spent hours and hours in his room sleeping and playing video games. Ultimately, he was more concerned with protecting his position than his crew and ship. That you defend him is simply bizarre. If your son went down on that ship, knowing everything we know now about the captain’s behavior, you would just be writing off your boy’s death as business as usual, huh?

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      Jerry Fraser on

      My background is commercial fishing, specifically trawling, so I was not a merchant mariner. I did not fish in hurricanes, but we saw some weather.
      With the caveat that icing is nothing to fool with, I did not in my time as a skipper dwell on the prospect of foundering (I left fishing for journalism in 1987), but I was aware that if we hung up [the trawl] in rough weather we would need to be very careful about trying to get it back. And there were times when I knew that if we lost the engine we could lose the boat. Arguably, that is what doomed the El Faro.
      On the other hand, if we were steaming in bad weather I may have been wary or uneasy, but I don’t recall feeling imperiled.
      Bottom line, my my default is to sympathize with an experience skipper trying to get where he is going. With hindsight it can be said that the risk management strategy of the El Faro captain was flawed — he thought he’d elude the weather, but didn’t — however, there were enough contributing factors in the tragedy that I am reluctant to come down on him too hard.

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    Fare enough. Thanks for the response.

    You should do yourself a favor and read, “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro”. Picked by multiple respected journalism sources as one of the best books of the summer, it is a searing indictment of both the captain and his company, TOTE.

    While the rest of the crew on the bridge was extremely worried about the weather they were about to face, the captain disappeared into his quarters for eight hours. People that knew him guessed he was either sleeping or playing video games during that stretch.

    He would emerge displaying weather reports nine hours old, talking about sleeping like a baby, when no one else could sleep at all, sure they were facing a watery grave.

    When things were starting to go sideways, the captain continued to maintain everything was just fine. He was more intent on keeping to the schedule (diverting from the hurricane’s path would have cost time) than he was saving lives. Maybe that’s why he refused to call the storm a hurricane at any point, calling it “a low” instead, to diminish the threat.

    When the ship was in deep trouble, he continued to pass it off as weather no different than routinely seen in Alaska and was no big deal. Over and over, he made the Alaskan analogy.
    There’s a good reason the Coast Guard declared that had Capt. Davidson survived the storm, he would have lost his license to pilot.

    The entire transcript of all conversation on the bridge from departure to loss was recorded, and it’s hard to read it and not rage at the stupidity and the lackadaisical criminality of the captain, and his abject refusal to ever takes this storm seriously.

    The book describes in detail the good captains that were dismissed from TOTE because they thought of their men first, both in terms of TOTE ships being seaworthy and avoiding catastrophic weather.
    Captain Davidson was shown to be interested in neither. Worried that the El Faro would be dry docked soon, and his position be put in danger, he was intent on showing management he was their man, regardless of the circumstances.
    The aforementioned captains are certainly worth defending, Capt. Davidson not so much.

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      Mr. Lawson,
      All you say may be true, but what about Davidson’s firing from Crowley Marine for refusing to sail a ship with steering problems? We all know that there are too few jobs for mariners in this country, and with a family to feed, risking one’s job is a hard thing to do. I believe Davidson was partially at fault, but ship companies have to be held accountable for the pressure they put on bridge staff to “get the job done” over safety. Davidson was already worried about his future at TOTE, while he asked, and got permission to sail back from San Juan via Old Bahama Channel, I wouldn’t be surprised if TOTE held it against him afterward.

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      I read “Into the Raging Sea” last summer and just finished another book about the El Faro disaster entitled “Run the Storm.” Both are excellent and essentially tell the same story but “Run the Storm” goes into more detail about the ship and the crew’s day-to-day routine/life aboard ship. What struck me, in addition to the Captain’s reliance of the weather forecasting system in his stateroom office (BVS – Bon Voyage System), was the breakdown in Bridge Resource Management (BRM). All three of the mates expressed their concern with the discrepancy between the BVS and the SAT-C forecasts. Unlike the BVS, SAT-C was located on the bridge level office. At 1600 on 9/30, the Chief Mate recommended sailing to the west of San Salvador in order to be in the island’s lee, with which the Captain agreed. However, he also recommended continuing a southerly route though Crooked Island Passage to Old Bahama Channel which the Capt rejected. At 2200 on 9/30, the 3rd Mate got the SAT-C updated forecast showing that the Capt’s projected course and the direction of Joaquin were on a collision course. He called the Capt , who was in his stateroom sleeping, to share this information and suggested the same course change. Capt. Davidson didn’t even come up to the bridge but summarily rejected the recommendation. Finally at 0200 on 10/1 – only five or so hours before the ship began to sink – 2nd mate Randolph made the same recommendation which the Captain again rejected. If only the Mates had conferred and together voiced their objections more vociferously about the conflicting weather reports, perhaps they could have convinced Capt. Davidson to change course. The downside of the route not taken would be a delayed arrival in San Juan. We know the downside of sticking to the Captain’s voyage plan.
      I sailed as a mate on tankers for six years advancing to Chief Mate. I remember a number of voyages in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean where we had to dodge hurricanes and tropical storms. In those cases all the mates and the Captain were involved with evaluating the weather situation. It was quite some time ago and we didn’t have weather routing services. We received forecasts via low-resolution weather faxes. It is a pity that with all of the information available to the El Faro that this tragedy occurred.

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