When I first heard that a U.S.-flagged ship called El Faro had gone missing somewhere off the Bahamas’ Crooked Island amid Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, 2015, I felt an instant foreboding. Like many sailors, I’m a weather geek, and I’d been following the storm’s development through Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Center forecasts for days. And for days, he’d been sending up all the red flags about this one — erratic, unpredictable, potentially explosive once it hit the Bahamas’ warm, shallow waters.
What the hell was a ship doing there? El Faro took 33 mariners with it, shattering hundreds of lives and hearts. With all of the weather, routing and navigation technology available even to the average cruising sailor in 2015, how could El Faro’s highly trained master and officers have miscalculated so horribly, pinning the ship between a Category 3 hurricane to windward and the Bahamas’ outer islands to leeward, with nowhere to run?
Rachel Slade, a Boston-based reporter, was also asking such questions, and she’s turned her extensive research on the U.S. Merchant Marine’s worst catastrophe in 30 years into a book, Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro. It’s easy to read because the narrative rips you along; it’s difficult to read because it’s always hard to endure the dissection of totally preventable tragedies.
The backbone of Slade’s narrative is the 26 hours of bridge conversation recorded on the ship’s VDR, its black box. The location and retrieval of this vital piece of gear in 15,000 feet of water is, in and of itself, an incredible story, which Slade illuminates well.
She also does a thorough job describing the mangled state of U.S. merchant shipping, and how it manifested in El Faro and the various entities of TOTE Inc., which operated and owned the ship. This is not news — Robert Frump’s excellent book Until the Sea Shall Free Them, documenting the 1983 wreck of Marine Electric off the mid-Atlantic that killed 31 men, laid out a distressingly similar picture of money over mariners. But Slade makes a compelling case that fundamentally little has changed in the maritime industry’s culture, and that inertia helped pave the way, in ways subtle and blatant, for El Faro’s catastrophe. You cannot read this book and not feel despair and anger at how predictable and preventable it all is (and the obfuscating from TOTE officials will make you want to throw the book across the room).
Despite our history as a maritime nation, we are dismally oblivious to the difficulties and risks facing the men and women who deliver our precious stuff across the sea. Ultimately, Slade provides some justice to the 33 dead of El Faro by reminding us of the systemic and human consequences of this inattention, apathy and neglect.