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El Faro Hearing Day 3: Board Questions Lack Of Tracking, Life-Boat Training

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Ryan Benk
/
WJCT News

Coast Guard investigators heard from former crew members of the El Faro cargo ship Thursday in Jacksonville. The Marine Board of Investigation is three days into a hearing on the cause of the October sinking that killed 33 crewmembers.

Navigational Equipment And Alternate Routes

Some of the testimony focused on questions about the El Faro’s use of an outdated weather-tracking system.

Charles Baird, who served as the ship’s second mate, says he was on vacation when the El Faro went down. He says he warned Captain Michael Davidson via text message about the forming Hurricane Joaquin. Baird says Davidson said he’d skirt the storm by sailing south of its path.

Baird also told investigators Davidson received weather data every six hours, and that data would need to be manually inputted into the ship’s routing system, Bon Voyage.

“On the El Faro, to my knowledge, it was sent to the captain, and the captain would forward it up to the bridge, where we would open it up and update the weather system,” Baird said.

Bon Voyage helps captains chart alternate courses to avoid severe weather. On newer vessels, the re-route system updates automatically in real time. TOTE Puerto Rico, which owned the El Faro, says it’s added the technology on other ships following the tragedy.

The El Faro was also missing its anemometer, which tracks wind speed and direction, but Baird and Earl Loftfield, Captain of El Faro sister ship El Yunque, agreed that it isn’t instrumental in planning voyages. It also isn’t necessary to help avoid severe weather, they said. Both crew members said an experienced mariner could accurately estimate wind speed and direction simply by looking out the window at the water.

Using weather data from NOAA and their own intuition, captains of the El Yunque and El Faro would then decide which course of three available to choose.

A Captain’s Qualifications

When it came to Davidson’s ability to lead his crew, there was no question that he was “eminently qualified,” his colleagues said. Those who worked with him and above him described him as “meticulous” and “professional.” El Faro Second Mate Charles Baird said Davidson always “crossed his T’s and dotted his I’s,” but he was still passed up for a promotion to pilot a new class of ship.

TOTE Puerto Rico President Tim Nolan testified Davidson had asked him to put in a good word to TOTE Services, which manages crews, and he did. Nolan said it was that reference that led to Davidson's getting an interview to helm a marlin class ship, but ultimately he was rejected because of a lingering “administrative issue.”

On Wednesday, the Marine Board of Investigation heard testimony regarding an incident when Davidson barred a crew member from boarding the El Faro because he was intoxicated. It’s unclear if that’s the same “administrative issue” mentioned today.

Maritime attorney Rod Sullivan suggested that his being passed up for the new job could’ve led Davidson to feel obligated to get his cargo to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on time and to abandon safer, slower routes.

Still, TOTE Puerto Rico President Tim Nolan says there was neither an incentive from his company nor bonuses for crews who reached their destinations on time. Nolan says his company doesn’t provide any delivery-time guarantees for its customers.

Safety Equipment, Training And Protocol

In December 2014, another shipping company that competed with TOTE Puerto Rico, Horizon Lines, exited the Puerto Rican trade, leaving a vacuum. Nolan says TOTE Puerto Rico picked up the slack, taking on 30 percent more cargo in the process. Nolan says the company then employed smaller tugs and barges along with its larger cargo ships to transport the extra load. But even with added loads, crew members testified Thursday they never left port with more weight than was safe.

But there are no specific protocols for dealing with severe weather including hurricanes. If heavy weather is anticipated, captains use general guidelines that include securing cargo with “extra lashing,” but there is no process for unloading cargo at sea when weather turns ugly.

Perhaps more importantly, the company had no standard training for unloading lifeboats and rafts during severe weather. General emergency training took place shortly before every launch, but the crew didn't train for using lifeboats on rough seas. However, severe weather plans have been implemented in the four months since the tragedy, says TOTE Puerto Rico’s Tim Nolan.

In addition, TOTE Puerto Rico was questioned about its seemingly behind-the-curve way of tracking its ships. The company and its sister company TOTE Services relied on daily "noon updates" from its captains, but didn’t utilize digital technology to track its cargo in real time.

Nolan estimates $16 million in cargo went down with the El Faro.

The hearing continues Friday.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.