Shared blame in El Faro disaster, Coast Guard says

Both the classification societies that inspect Jones Act vessels and the Coast Guard need to do a better job of finding problems or potential problems before signing off on a ship’s seaworthiness. That was the message delivered by Capt. Jason Neubauer of the Coast Guard’s office of investigations and at the Passenger Vessel Association’s  Annual Convention in Savannah, Ga., this week.

“We’re going to change the way we hold third parties responsible,” Neubauer said. “ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) and the Coast Guard were not meeting up on the ship’s deficiencies.”

The final voyage of the 790′ roll-on/roll-off containership El Faro has been well documented. The ship, which regularly sailed from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, left the Florida port just as tropical storm Joaquin was gaining strength and growing into a hurricane. The El Faro’s captain, Michael Davidson, was locked into a particular weather forecast package that was as much as 12 hours old and told him he was south of the storm when the ship was actually north of Joaquin. As a result, he headed directly into the cyclone that would eventually send the ship, with 30 crewmembers aboard, to the ocean floor more than 15,000′ below on Oct. 1, 2015.

Capt. Jason Neubauer led the Coast Guard's investigation into the sinking of the El Faro on Oct. 1, 2015. Ken Hocke photo

Capt. Jason Neubauer led the Coast Guard’s investigation into the sinking of the El Faro. Ken Hocke photo

Neubauer headed up the Coast Guard’s investigation of the El Faro sinking. Its report found that Capt. Davidson’s egotistical attitude and poor decision making contributed mightily to the disaster. In addition, the practice of using authorized classification societies to determine whether Jones Act vessels qualify for a loadline certificate needs revision.

Neubauer played two eerie tape recordings taken from the ship’s black box that have the captain unsuccessfully calling someone at Tote Maritime, which owned the El Faro at the time of the sinking, and a call to the Coast Guard whereby Davidson is frustrated by the operator’s unwillingness to get him the help he needs until he answers all of the questions the operator had been trained to ask.

The Coast Guard has been boarding Jones Act ships and finding a plethora of problems to the extent that a number of them have been taken out of service by their owners rather than pay for costly shipyard work to get them in compliance. Among those taken out of service was the El Faro’s sistership El Yunque. “All these deep-draft vessels look good on paper, but not when you go onboard,” Neubauer said. “A lot of these boats are supposed to go to North Korea [as part of the Military Sealift Command]if we need them in the future.”

Later in the day, part of Rear Adm. Paul Nadeau’s address concerned the El Faro disaster. He said all the findings of the Coast Guard’s investigation have been put online. “It was important that we were as transparent as possible,” he said. “It was important to get this done.

Nadeau is scheduled to appear before Congress today concerning the El Faro sinking.

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About the author

Ken Hocke

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.


  1. John R. O'Reilly on

    I am old enough to remember inspections before 3rd parties. 3rd parties came into existence because of another marine disaster, the MARINE ELECTRIC. In that incident the USCG Marine Inspection service drew a lot of fire and 3rd party was invented to to help spread the blame around in case of another disaster. (Of course these are my opinions) Mission accomplished! Adding another layer only confuses the matter by adding more lines of communication that have to connect. We need to return to the basics. 1) The USCG is responsible (period) 2) Marine Inspectors need to be highly trained (Wasn’t there a requirement that at least 10% of all inspectors should have a Merchant Marine license?) 3) The Congress needs to adequately fund the Coast Guard especially when it comes to Marine Inspection.

  2. Not a fan of this author calling the Captain egoistical. The last recordings show a man knowing he will die and loose his crew but is calm and level headed, Actually amazing. Also the author knows nothing about ships. If during every inspection, the inspectors enter voids and other hard to get to structures, every ship over 10 years old would require repairs that would hold the ship up from trading and be so costly that the repairs would not get done. Even on many Ready Reserve ships cargo hold gaskets are seldom tested or repaired. The author has no knowledge about the pressure Capt. Davidson was under to meet sailing departure and arrival times regardless as are most captains. The Coast Guard does not have and never did enough adequate properly trained or experienced inspectors, and has never been funded properly to do so. That is my understanding as to why or how third party inspectors were given the added authority.

    • I was on the El Faro for a year and 3 months before she sank. I sailed under Captain Davidson and found him to be very unprofessional and lazy. The company always neglected our safety and the ABS was bought out by the company. Coast Guard also needs to be better funded

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