TOTE Deck Officers Testify in El Faro Hearings
The USCG Marine Board of Investigation into the loss of the ro/ro El Faro continued Thursday with testimony from several TOTE deck officers regarding weather, vessel stability, loading practices and vessel condition.
Former El Faro second mate Charles Baird gave testimony regarding the bridge team's approach to weather. Mr. Baird has twelve years' experience on the Puerto Rico run, with about 26 round trip voyages per year; he was sailing as second mate on an earlier voyage affected by Tropical Storm Erika, which was discussed in Wednesday's testimony regarding alternate routes on the El Faro’s regular run.
Mr. Baird said that following the alternate route during Erika had been his idea, and that he had advised Captain Michael Davidson to use it so that the five men of the ship’s Polish riding crew would be able to work. If they'd followed the usual straight-line course to Puerto Rico, it “would have been too rough, really, to do any work,” he said, and the alternate route added only 150 nm. Mr. Baird said that the captain was open and receptive to the idea and approved it after about one hour's deliberation.
The route passed in the lee of the Bahamas, and the panel asked Mr. Baird what effect the islands had on the sea conditions experienced by the vessel on that trip.
“The islands are our savior. We would still get the winds, but we wouldn't get the high seas, we wouldn't get the rolling,” he said. Mr. Baird added that he expected the El Faro would sail near Erika, but did not recommend pulling back.
Shortly before the El Faro's loss, Mr. Baird said, he was watching the news at home when he saw an update about Hurricane Joaquin. He sent a text message to Captain Davidson to make sure he was aware of the storm; the captain replied that he was. Mr. Baird sent another later that day, when the storm was reported to be strengthening, asking about the captain's plan. Davidson said that he would be staying on the normal route and would “try and go underneath the storm . . . going south of it.”
Later, the board asked Mr. Baird about the condition of the El Faro's anemometer, and he responded that when he was last aboard, it was not working; he had informed the captain of it. For recording logbook entries of weather conditions, the bridge team would estimate wind based on visual observations. The anemometer was broken for “at least 2-3 months,” he said; in followup questioning from TOTE, he allowed that it could have been repaired after his last rotation on the vessel.
Following Mr. Baird’s testimony, the board questioned TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico President Tim Nolan about the division between the company's units and the factors behind the decision to replace the Ponce-class ships. Mr. Nolan described the El Faro and her sister ships as “fine vessels, well maintained, well certified,” and said that while the decision to replace them predated his tenure, he knew that the implementation of Emissions Control Areas along the coastline was a key factor. The older ships were very reliable, he said, with more than 90 percent on time arrivals.
Captain Earl Loftfield, the master of sister ship El Yunque, took the stand in the morning to discuss vessel stability and loading practices, and returned in the afternoon to give further details.
The investigators questioned the captain extensively on loading, trim and stability, and during his second round of testimony he admonished the panel that “the fact that the El Faro was decapitated is probably not a function of a couple of inches of GM” – the standard measure of stability – “it was a Category Four hurricane.”
The captain also described the El Yunque's transit of the El Faro's last known position shortly after the sinking.
“The show must go on” for marine operations, he said, even after a casualty, and under his command the El Yunque departed on her scheduled voyage October 3. The company gave him every opportunity to pass far from the site of the El Faro's sinking or to slow or delay the trip, and TOTE official John Fisker-Andersen advised him that he should “not go into harm's way,” the captain said, highlighting the firm’s emphasis on safe navigation. He thought it safe to proceed, however, and the El Yunque passed through the debris field and oil slick of El Faro at a slow bell.
Additionally, Captain Loftfield described safety culture at TOTE as “obsessive” and said the firm had a great track record.
All respondents described the late Captain Michael Davidson as a highly capable, meticulous professional.