The Smithsonian Documentary Gets Some of ‘El Faro’ Right, But Misses the Real Outcome — and Fabricates a Vital Scene

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Comes now the Smithsonian Channel with its latest installment of famous ship wrecks, and to its credit, presents some first rate animation and illustration of the tragic voyage of the SS El Faro.

That alone is worth your $2.50 on-demand fee and your time watching it. People need to be aware of these tragedies at sea, and the combination of actors and animation gets that part across extremely well. It’s haunting to see the El Faro entering the chop. Horrible to see it capsize. Kudos to all those in the maritime and Coast Guard community who appeared in it.

But the other tragedy here — other than the loss of the ship and 33 crew — is that at least one key part of the documentary just plain fabricates a vital part of the shipwreck, and the documentary as a whole seems to buy-in wholesale on the explanation of the ship owner and operator, Tote Maritime.

Which is this.

Geez, we don’t know why the captain did what he did but the weather reports were really off and the crew failed to close the three hatch.

Nothing we could do about it.

One would not guess, for example, that the Coast Guard criticized Tote and the Coast Guard itself for allowing modifications to the ship that decreased seaworthiness. Or that Traveling Inspectors punched through rusty ventilation ducts on the El Faro sister ship. Or that the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation suggested Tote had committed six civil violations.

Moreover, the documentary misses the fact that the El Faro investigation and final report may have well had more impact on merchant shipping in America than any shipwreck since the Titanic.

Actions by the Coast Guard and crackdowns have resulted in the scrapping of at least six old ships. Another 54% are said to have very serious safety issues. The Military Sealift Command vessels also were affected by the crackdown — to a point where the Pentagon is uncertain whether it could supply an army at war overseas.

Nope. None of that makes the cut.

Those are the sins of omission.

The sin of commission occurs when the second mate calls down to Captain Davidson in his quarters and warns they may be intersecting with the storm.

CASTINE, ME – OCTOBER 6: Students, faculty and alumni attend a vigil at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Michael Holland of Wilton, Danielle Randolph of Rockland and Dylan Meklin, both of Rockland, four members of the El Faro crew from Maine, are all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The documentary then shows Davidson (the actor portraying him) getting up from his bunk, watching the graphics on his computer and telling the mate: “No. We’re good.”

It’s a confirmation of one theory of the wreck: The cap just got too carried away with the fancy graphic weather report, which was hours out of date, and had no way of knowing he was so close to the storm.

Here’s the problem. There’s no way anyone knows what the captain did at this point and no record of what he said or what he looked at. (Despite a documentary notice that all dialogue is taken directly from a transcript.)

Do documentaries get a little room on the facts, some poetic justice? Sure. No one knows if the crew ever got survival suits on, but the depiction of them wearing the Gumbies is okay in my book. It might have happened. It’s reasonable.

But the documentary producers had no clue as to what the captain did in his state room. The voice recorder on the ship was “one way” — it recorded the outgoing call of the mate from the bridge, but not the reply of the captain.

And very importantly, no one knows if the captain looked at his computer and the graphic display of the weather forecast or not. (Or whether he even truly woke up.) And regardless, both the second mate and the third mate informed him of the up-to-date weather forecasts. Those would have contradicted any previous reports.

Yes, a major reason the El Faro sank is because its captain unwisely steered his ship close to Hurricane Joaquin.

But the Coast Guard and Marine Board reports both blamed Tote Maritime for faulty processes, and the Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping for faulty inspections.

Without major alterations to the ship, for example, the El Faro might have survived. The Coast Guard let Tote lower the ship two feet in the water — and stack containers high on deck. It is improbable that the small three hatch was responsible for major flooding. It is probable that the ventilation shafts and other lowered openings were.

It’s a shame the documentary told half the story. The captain certainly steered too close to the storm. At least one other vessel did as well — a far smaller one, and in a tougher part of the storm. She survived when the El Faro did not, and you can only assign that to the El Faro’s compromised condition.


  1. In one of the accounts there is a mention that a number of shoreside contractors were aboard to ready the vessel for Alaska service. Were these people still aboard at the sinking?

  2. I know I come to this late but I have been fascinated by the sinking of El Faro since it happened. In fact news reports before the sinking told us that the ship was sailing in that area with the Hurricane forming nearby. I followed NOAA weather on my computer and the constant updates on Joaquin’s position and gathering strengths watching it all happen in real time sort of. I am not surprised at WHAT happened but more than a bit surprised that it DID happen. I am a native of Deer Isle, ME and born into families with long seafaring heritage. Deer Isle is only a few miles from Castine by boat, the home of Maine Maritime Academy. Been a well known school for most of my 75 yrs.

    My dad was a Naval officer in WWII. He was officer in charge of a 26 man combined Army/Navy weather detachment at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. I grew up knowing about weather believe me. He impressed upon me just how unpredictable Atlantic hurricanes can be. His father was down in the Caribbean shortly after WWI on a US Government mission to develop marine navigation charts for that area. He said everyone he knew at that time had a deep and unabiding respect for the havoc one of those storms could cause. I cannot understand that a man with the Captain’s history of seafaring was not aware of how totally unpredictable any hurricane can be and how important it is to have the most recent info on the storm that is available. I cannot understand him finding it reasonable to work with weather reports that were 8 hrs or more old. Common sense would tell a person just how dangerous such a poor kind of thinking like that could be. You absolutely need to know what is going on RIGHT NOW……and not 8 hrs ago. The other officers were getting up to date NHC reports on the storm just as I was sitting at this table. Why the captain refused to see what they were getting for up to the minute weather reports will always be a mystery to me.

    The El Faro was a very pretty ship. I have always loved a long graceful sheer on any boat, from 16 ft up to 1000 ft or more. That makes a boat or ship very pleasing to my eye. A very close friend in H School graduated in June ’63. Next morning he left Stonington, ME in his 53 Hudson Jet and drove directly to the Sun Oil Co. docks in Marcus Hook PA to sign on as a wiper in the engine room of a T2 Tanker. Right next door was the yard where El Faro was built 14 yrs later. One look at her with those containers piled 4-5 high, way above the deck and my heart sank. That ship was never ever designed to have such a high center of gravity as that! Shame on the CG and TOTE for ever trying to make that work. The ship that they had turned her into had no chance in such seas.

    El Faro was nearing the end of her life. The owners had not spent much money and attention on her maintenance for a long time. It is sad to see such a beautiful ship allowed to fall apart that badly. The ship itself was not responsible for what happened. The corporate outfit that owned her was concerned ONLY with what money they could make with her. No more was spent on maintenance than just enough to keep her operating. The corporate owners had figured just how long it took to make the run from Jax to PR and could compute how much money they could make from it. Of course I don’t think they understood that that was in good weather, not a major hurricane. The Capt had been passed over for getting one of the new LNG ships and had his hopes up to get the skipper’s job on the other one. I think he felt pressured not to deviate from his normal course because he did not want “corporate” POed at him. Pretty sure that was in his mind.

    The Captain’s #1 job is the safety of his crew, ship and cargo. His failure to adequately perform his job, in the last 12 hrs particularly, and the company’s idea to grossly overload a ship and try to do a job with it that the ship was NOT designed for, and the US Coast Guard for allowing them to do so, are all responsible for what happened.

    1. So sorry! Covid side-tracked me and I just now saw and approved this post. Greatly appreciate your comments.

  3. I am presently reading “Until the Sea Shall Free Them” and it is a great read. You seem to be a very passionate person about sea stories and it surely comes through in that book as well as your writings about El Faro. Being deeply interested in that ship’s loss led me to your site to start with.

    I agree with you that we do not know what the captain said or did, in his cabin. But looking at the history of the use of El Faro and it becomes obvious that El Faro was operated at the pleasure of TOTE, first and foremost. In statements that the captain had made to others, including his wife, it seems he felt a certain amount of pressure to maintain his schedule, in order not to damage his chances to skipper a new ship for the company. This message from the company does NOT need to be stated as it can easily be “felt” in numerous ways. Pressures on the captains seem to be common with Jones Act ships.

    I agree El Faro should have been scrapped before this disaster happened. The Coast Guard needs to be heavily criticized for allowing her center of gravity to be raised, grossly in my book, and her displacement increase of over 2 ft. Nobody in the CG was thinking on that one.

    My dad was trained in “Aerology” (navy term for weather forecasting at naval air stations at that time), in a Post Grad Course at the Naval Academy in 1942. He spent over 2 yrs in charge of a 26 man weather detachment at Dutch Harbor, AK during 1943-44. Did I sure learn about weather growing up! He gave me the idea that hurricanes are unpredictable, and can be very dangerous to shipping. Planning a course to take El Faro 60 miles south of where he thought it would be at a certain time, was grossly negligent to start with. That is way too close especially since it could have been easily avoided. No prudent sailor wants to get even that close, in any ship. He should have taken the more southerly route……but did not. The captain was relying on an out of date forecast, and worthless due to that. I was following that storm, aware of El Faro’s route, from my home in Maine. NOAA weather was giving updates from the National Hurricane Center, every few minutes. The captain could have obtained that easily. 2nd mate had up to date forecasts, and shared that with others, but sadly could NOT get the captain to consider that.

    To sail a rusted hulk like El Faro, with massive deck cargo above the main deck, into 120 knot wind was the worst kind of folly I have seen in my time. There is more than enough blame to go around on this incident. It is not one person’s doing, but lots of people involved. Both my family and my wife’s family were seafarers. The old timers had the good sense to avoid storms whenever they could. Maybe some consider that “old fashioned” now. There seems to be a considerable lack of common sense around today.

    Thank you for the great writing!

  4. I recently read “Into the Raging Sea”. And I read that huge document from the study of the disaster, which included the writings from all the recordings.
    It seems like there is a belief the captain did not know he was looking at info so old? But yes, why then did those on the bridge have the more current info. It makes no sense.
    And why were hatches not checked when sailing into a hurricane. And why does he just stay in his cabin.
    It all seems pretty crazy…

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