The SS El Faro Sailed into Hurricane Joaquin and Maritime History Seven Years Ago Today to Become the Most Significant American Wreck of the 21st Century

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The SS El Faro and her crew of 33 disappeared in Hurricane Joaquin seven years ago today and the matter seemed settled at the time: a captain unwisely had sailed into the path of a hurricane.

But the Coast Guard investigators and the National Transportation Board had an additional take on the matter. Inspections by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping had deteriorated 30 years after the wake-up call of the SS Marine Electric disaster. America’s old fleet of modified rust buckets were given a pass. Particularly, merchant ships serving the military functioned with serious malfunctions.

The El Faro, the report said, at. an age when many ships are scrapped, was modified in ways that compromised her seaworthiness. Those modifications and the condition of the ship strongly contributed to the disaster.

Most observers — me included — concluded that the El Faro final report was a dud. It recommended relatively weak sanctions agains the owner TOTE — and the company’s crack legal time beat most of those.

I was wrong. The Marine Board of Investigation was far more focused on future policy not punishment for past deeds. The Coast Guard, led by the elite Traveling Inspectors, cracked down hard. The ABS also was goosed up by more oversight from the Coast Guard. When field inspectors seemed not to get the message, Coast Guard command issued “stand down” orders. In essence, stop what you are doing now. You are doing it wrong. Start doing it right.

The result was indeed a sea change. The military command suddenly realized they did not have functional ships for future wars. Dozens of old ships were either scrapped or repaired. In terms of American maritime safety, the report on the El Faro was the most significant of this century.

Here’s a piece I filed awhile back on the impact. And here is the free online version of my book, “The Captains of Thor” about the El Faro.


  1. No matter how you cut it, the Captain failed to at least try to determine why his officers were concerned and continued to utilize information that was older than the information that his officers had. A tragic loss of life.

    1. But other ships were out there, in even worse conditions, and survived. There’s no escaping that the ship was not fit.

  2. I’d like to read “Here’s a piece I filed awhile back on the impact.” but I can’t get the link to work. Also, how come the Captain was the only one represented at the MBI? I thought there would have been someone representing the various union members who were lost that had some questions.

  3. Bob, Thank you for your continued attention to bring change for a safer maritime world. From the loss of the Marine Electric to the El Faro, you have taken a big picture perspective to the personal level – where tragedies are felt the most. Greatly appreciate your work with all hope you carry on.

  4. Just finished reading “Until the Sea Shall Free Them” a few weeks back and read your book about El Faro before that. In both cases the ships were in deplorable condition. Unsafe to be at sea in bad weather for sure. Like El Faro, these ships were OK as long as nothing went wrong. Well we see the fallacy behind that kind of thinking….now!

    I grew up on the Maine Coast, in a seafaring family. Was accepted at Maine Maritime Academy in 1965 yet opted to go in another direction at the last moment. I was working in a commercial boatyard in Stonington, ME in the early 1970’s. At that time Maine had a “dude schooner” fleet. Still does now but more up to date. These carried paying passengers on week long cruises. In that era they were all original and wooden construction. I worked on many of them. Rot was prevalent in most all of them. I was present for several coast guard inspections and assisted in them as I was needed. They were a joke then.

    Yet if you read about the sinking of the tall ship Bounty replica you will read of tremendous heroism of the CG personnel, flying the C-130’s, flying the helicopters, and above all the rescue swimmers. It is miraculous that all the crew except one, and the captain, survived that night, All survivors owe their lives to those coast guard people who risked their own lives to save others. Such a tremendous comparison between those who put their lives on the line, when necessary, and those who did the inspections. Like 2 different worlds. I hope it is better now after all that has gone down since El Faro but won’t hold my breath. In this age, in my opinion, cutthroat corporate ownership can destroy everything it touches.

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