The searchers are still out there, scouring thousands of square miles of ocean for any glimpse of bright-orange survival gear, any sign that some of the 33 crew on the El Faro could have survived hurricane Joaquin.

On its routine run from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the TOTE Maritime 735’x95’ ro/ro container ship was following a route that ferried goods and groceries and cars and trucks to the island for decades.

Captain Michael Davidson and his crew were tracking what was then tropical storm Joaquin when they departed Jacksonville Sept. 29, and following long-established seafaring standards for avoiding tropical systems, TOTE officials said.

But Coast Guard officials say Joaquin’s growth into a category 4 storm and dodgy track toward the Bahamas may have outflanked the El Faro crew – catching the ship, knocking out power and destroying their communications after last contact Thursday.

Already the El Faro loss is being compared in scale to the Marine Electric disaster of February 1983, when the 605’x75’ coal carrier outbound from Norfolk, Va., capsized in a winter storm. Only three out of the crew of 34 survived.

The Marine Electric sinking brought on changes in Coast Guard inspections, a requirement for immersion survival suits for every person on board a ship, and the Coast Guard’s inclusion of rescue swimmers in helicopter air crews. No doubt the National Transportation Safety Board’s El Faro investigation commencing this week will bring its own recommendations.

The recent Helm Operations international study looking at workboat safety shows that in the long view, working at sea has gradually become safer. While the global fleet has tripled since 1910, when on average one vessel out of 100 was lost, by 2010 the casualty rate was one out of 670 vessels.

But in the United Kingdom, the on-the-job fatality rate for mariners is still 12 times higher than the general workforce, and more than twice that in construction, the report said. That death rate in 1996-2005 was almost eight times higher for Polish mariners, who are highly represented in the world’s fleets – and the nationality of five men who worked on the El Faro, along with 28 Americans.

Apart from those mariners and their families, few people understand what it takes to supply civilization over water with its relentless demand for consumer goods, food and energy. Most of the time, the very dire costs happen far beyond the horizon.

In "Looking for a Ship," his 1990 portrayal of a dwindling U.S. Merchant Marine, author John McPhee devoted one chapter to the experiences of captain Paul Washburn and his crew in big storms, and the sheer scale of sinkings every year worldwide. “Almost every hour of every day someone is getting it,” Washburn told McPhee. “Right now someone is getting it somewhere.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.