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?

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