El Faro captain’s management style probed at hearings

Inevitably, just about any witness who spent time underway on the El Faro gets the question: what did they think of captain Michael Davidson?

The Coast Guard marine board of inquiry sitting in Jacksonville, Fla., is looking into the conduct and competence of everyone who had responsibility for the 790’ ro/ro containership during her last voyage toward San Juan, Puerto Rico, and into the teeth of Hurricane Joaquin with 33 on board.

02.26.16 ElFaro CaptDavidsonCapt. Michael DavidsonMuch attention has been focused on Davidson – his management style, communications with his crew and corporate offices ashore, and his demeanor in the weeks before the Oct. 1 sinking.

Davidson had applied for a job commanding one of TOTE Maritime’s two new Marlin-class liquefied natural gas fueled ships for the Jacksonville-San Juan run, but had been passed over.

The board asked former bosun Kenny Walker: Did the captain’s attitude change then?

“No, I don’t believe so,” Walker replied. “He did say he was going to stay on, and take the ship to the shipyard” at Grand Bahama before its transfer to TOTE’s Alaskan route, Walker added.

In questioning John Fisker-Anderson, director of ship management for subsidiary TOTE Services, the board had him review emails about Davidson’s performance. Fisker-Andersen had described Davidson to others in the company as “the least engaged” of their four ship masters, and called him a “stateroom captain” – a master who spends much of the time engaged in the office work.

That drew fire from William Bennett, a lawyer representing Davidson’s widow Theresa at the hearings, who asked the board to disregard “rumor and supposition.” TOTE officials have stressed Davidson’s responsibilities for how the ship was handled, but family members of the lost crew have complained too much blame is being cast on the captain.

Bennett also drew out crew members on management style, to make the point that a captain delegating, not micro-managing deck matters, can be a positive influence on a crew.

“The captain, he would make his rounds, make his observations, and make them known to the chief officer,” Walker said.

Former third mate Alejandro Berrios remembered Davidson as providing “very good” leadership “95% of the time.”

In testimony Thursday the board heard from an unusual outside observer: Lt. Kimberly Beisner, a Coast Guard ship rider who was hosted on the El Faro to learn about ship operations.

Once the crew got to know Beisner was there for training and not as an inspector, they were welcoming and open, she recalled. A big topic among the crew was the new LNG ships Isla Bella and Perla del Caribe – and their chances of landing a job on them.

“There was a lot of discussion about who was going where, and who wasn’t,” Beisner said.

Beisner got to know second officer Danielle Randolph, and related her impressions of Davidson.

“She told me he was very hands-off,” Beisner said, and “had a temper and would get angry.”

Asked about the “stateroom captain” characterization, Beisner agreed.

“Captain Davidson was very enthusiastic about his job…but I didn’t observe him in a hands-on role,” except on the bridge, she said.

Under questioning from Bennett, Beisner said she believed the crew respected Davidson and trusted his judgement.

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Ashley Herriman

Ashley Herriman is WorkBoat's online editor.

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