The U.S. Navy's towing and salvage vessel USNS Apache, equipped with remotely operated vehicles, is en route to begin searching for the wreck of the El Faro, believed to be on the bottom in 15,000’ of water northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

The 226’x42’x15’ 7,200 hp Powhatan-class fleet tug is undertaking the search under contract with the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation into the Oct. 1 disappearance of the TOTE Maritime ro/ro containership and her crew of 33 in Hurricane Joaquin. The Apache departed Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek near Norfolk, Va., at approximately 4:30 pm on Monday, Oct. 19, the NTSB said. 

The Navy deepwater search and salvage team was joined by the NTSB investigator-in-charge, Tom Roth-Roffy, along with representatives from the USCG, TOTE and ABS, all parties to the NTSB investigation.

A towed hydrophone will be used to listen for pings emitted by theEl Faro’s voyage data recorder, which was on the bridge of the 790’x95’ ship. “We estimate that if there’s enough battery power, it should last about 30 days,” Navy spokesman Chris Johnson said.

If that fails, sonar can still be used to locate the sunken ship, still a very large target even at 15,000’ depth. NTSB and Navy officials say the plan is to deploy a deep-diving ROV controlled from the surface to recover the data recorder.

The Apache is expected to arrive at the last known position of El Faro on Saturday, Oct. 24. Once the search operation begins, the NTSB said it was expected to take at least two weeks, with duration dependent on the circumstances encountered.

So far, NTSB and Coast Guard investigators know only that El Faro captain Michael Davidson reported a failure of the ship’s main propulsion on the morning of Oct. 1. The ship was making its usual run from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with cargo and vehicles.

But Coast Guard officers said a prolonged power failure and Hurricane Joaquin’s track toward the Bahamas would have left the ship a target without any way to maneuver in the category 4 storm, with winds of 140 mph and seas of 50’.