The Coast Guard board of inquiry into the El Faro sinking opened its hearing Tuesday with questions for a TOTE Maritime executive, including a focus on how captain Michael Davidson and company officials onshore consulted about the ship’s course before it sank in Hurricane Joaquin Oct. 1.

Convened at Jacksonville, Fla., homeport of the 790’ ro/ro containership and its crew of 33, the inquiry is one of the highest-level Coast Guard investigations since the Marine Electric disaster of February 1983 when 31 mariners were lost. The first witness was Philip Morrell, vice president for marine operations with TOTE Services, the subsidiary that handles operations on the company’s route between Jacksonville and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The El Faro was southbound on that route with cargo for the island when it suffered a main power failure and was overtaken by the storm, with winds up to 150 knots. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board located the ship in 15,000’ of water east of the Bahamas, and now plan a second expedition in April to look for the ship’s voyage data recorder.

In a day of questioning, the board first quizzed Morrell about the history of the ship and its operations, and then turned to captain Michael Davidson and his crew.

Routes utilized by TOTE between Florida and Puerto Rico include an “Atlantic route” east of the Bahamas, the most direct route between Jacksonville and San Juan, and the Old Bahama Channel, closer to the islands. The latter was taken by Davidson, apparently to dodge the hurricane’s forecasted track, before the ship’s power failed.

“It’s up to the master to choose which route,” Morrell told board members. “The normal route is what we call the Atlantic route.”

Davison would report deviations from a previously planned course to the company, but did not need permission from company officials, Morrell said. Questioners probed about previous emails that to them seemed to imply Davidson was asking approval of his plans, but Morrell characterized that tone as simple courtesy between a ship master and his colleagues ashore.

“Safety is our topline consideration,” Morrell added.

At the time of the sinking, TOTE was weeks away from replacing the 40-year-old El Faro with Isla Bella, a new 764’x95’ Marlin-class containership which along with sister ship Perla del Caribe are the world’s first LNG fueled container carriers. The plan was to then return the El Faro to its old run between Tacoma, Wash., and Anchorage, Alaska; among the 33 lost in Hurricane Joaquin were a Polish work crew preparing the ship for Pacific Northwest operations.

Questions for Morrell included whether he was aware of “contention” among El Faro crew members who were jockeying for jobs on the new ships — possibly a foreshadowing of more testimony in the coming days.

Morrell said he did not know about that atmosphere of competition. Board members also referred to emails that mentioned Davidson being considered by the company to command one of the new ships, and Morrell recalled that management decided to continue considering “outside candidates.”

Crewing and labor issues are on the board’s planned agenda for the coming days, and members showed they will be looking at personnel issues. They took note of a performance evaluation of Davidson that included a comment from a TOTE port engineer: “He handles a diversified and unpredictable crew quite well.”