On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard began its second set of hearings into the loss of the ro/ro El Faro with testimony from docking pilot Captain James Fudaker, bar pilot Captain Eric Bryson and former master Captain Eric Axelsson.
Captain Fudaker began the hearing with a discussion of the events leading up to the El Faro's departure for Puerto Rico. He expressed confidence in her crew and said that her final sailing began normally.
Captain Bryson testified that (consistent with other witness' recollections) the captain of the El Faro, Michael Davidson, was aware of the developing storm and was planning to "go out and shoot under it." He recalled nothing unusual during her departure.
Captain Axelsson gave testimony on weather routing, stability calculations and the El Faro’s general condition. He said that he would take a cautious approach to heavy weather – gathering information from high seas forecasts and weather alerts, getting input from his chief engineer and deck officers, pulling back early to assess the situation if necessary and making sure not to push the vessel too hard.
Captain Axelsson said that he had diverted to a sheltered route during an earlier, less severe tropical storm event in 2014. The ship's course was going to take her close to a developing system northeast of the Bahamas. "I'd have run right into it . . . I called up shoreside that I was going to come out and proceed down the Straits of Florida and cut over through Northwest Providence [channel]," he said. The weather on the diversion route was fine and the change did not have a significant effect on arrival time, and "I think I was an hour behind,” he said.
He added that TOTE Maritime, the operator of the El Faro, was supportive of weather diversions, and told him in effect to "do what you have to do, take care of the ship and keep us advised of your ETA."
Regarding the ship's condition and seaworthiness, Axelsson said that she "was a Cadillac . . . she wasn’t vulnerable.”
The Coast Guard’s hearings will run from May 16 through May 27, and will include discussion of shipboard operations, cargo loading, lashing and stowage operations for the accident voyage, stability and weather conditions forecasted and encountered. Regulatory oversight will also be examined.