El Faro captain sought command on new TOTE ships

Capt. Michael Davidson made his bid to get command of one of TOTE Maritime’s new 764’ Marlin-class liquefied natural gas containerships, weeks before he sailed with 32 others on the 40-year old El Faro into Hurricane Joaquin.

“He was brought in and given consideration…he was eminently qualified to be master of one of our LNG ships,” Philip Greene, the president of subsidiary TOTE Services and a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, told a Coast Guard board of inquiry Wednesday on its second day of hearings into the Oct. 1 sinking.

Board members are probing Greene and other company officers about who had responsibility for voyage planning, course changes and other decision making, before the 790’ El Faro lost power in its steam plant and was overtaken by the hurricane with its 150-knot winds.

Company officials portrayed Davidson, a 1988 graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy and a TOTE captain since 2013, as exercising full responsibility for setting the ship’s course and weather routes. But board members challenged that Tuesday, based on an email Davidson had sent Sept. 30 that appeared to ask approval for a plan to return from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Jacksonville, Fla., via the more sheltered Old Bahama Channel.

Apparently attempting to get past the hurricane’s path enroute to San Juan, the ship lost its main power and sank in 15,000’ of water northwest of Crooked Island off the Bahamas.

Board members asked why TOTE manager John Fiskar-Anderson replied “authorized” to Davidson’s email, if the captain did not need permission from the company to set a different course. Philip Morrell, vice president of marine operations for TOTE Services, characterized the email exchange as simple courtesy.

On Wednesday the board continued to ask questions about Davidson’s competence and relations with TOTE management, as well as the company’s safety procedures. There was discussion over what board members saw as more communication between El Faro and TOTE shoreside offices in the days leading up to Tropical Storm Erika, a weaker system a month before Joaquin threatened.

At some point top TOTE management made a decision to recruit for four captain’s slots for the new ships, Isla Bella and Perla del Caribe, from outside the company.

That move was part of TOTE’s overall trends of “new leadership…new energy, new perspectives,” Greene said. “We were moving forward with new ships, new technology.” Davidson, like all the candidates, was “eminently qualified” as an unlimited tonnage master, he said.

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Ashley Herriman

Ashley Herriman is WorkBoat's online editor.

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