Ex-Chief Mate of El Faro Describes Captain's Plans
On Tuesday, Captain Kevin Stith, master of the Ponce-class vessel El Yunque, testified before the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigations on his final contact with the crew of the lost vessel El Faro.
The El Yunque was under way from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville during the El Faro’s final voyage. Stith said that at the time of the storm, he noticed that the forecasts he received did not match the conditions he observed, and he sped up to get clear of the weather system. Previous testimony from representatives of the National Hurricane Center and of Applied Weather Technologies, the vessel operator’s weather services provider, indicated that the El Faro had been receiving forecast data that underestimated the storm and was distributed to the ship hours after it was publicly available – due in part to a "one in one hundred" error in early forecasts, in part to a built-in delay in delivery of certain weather data from AWT.
Captain Stith informed the El Faro’s master, Captain Michael Davidson, of his weather observations by email; Davidson said that he was aware of the system and planned to follow a route to keep the El Faro from Joaquin by 65 nm. He replied to Stith’s message as follows: "Morning Captain – I've been watching the system for the better part of a week. We did alter our direct route slightly more to the south which will put Joaquin 65 nm to the north of us at its [closest point of approach]. Fortunately we departed the dock in [Jacksonville, Florida] on time last evening and making 20 knots doesn't hurt either. All departments have been duly notified . . . thanks for the heads up."
In testimony, Stith said that he thought Davidson's plan to pass south of the storm was well thought out. He had sailed as chief mate on the El Faro under Davidson in the past and respected his judgment.
On Wednesday, officials with the U.S. Coast Guard's Commercial Vessel Inspection Program testified on the El Faro's final annual inspection. Jerry McMillan, a civilian marine inspector for the Coast Guard in San Juan, Puerto Rico, confirmed that previous surveys of the El Faro found a number of fractured welds at the interface of frames 50 and 51 with the tank top in her number one port ballast tank, but these were scheduled to be addressed at a 2016 shipyard date and were not urgent. In general, his impression was that she was an older vessel, but "everything was being maintained.” He added that he'd dealt with all of the TOTE ships in San Juan, and he'd never heard any concerns from crew.