On October 1st, 2015 two ships sank during Hurricane Joaquin, a monster Category-4 storm that devastated several districts of the Bahamas. The 790-foot El Faro tragically went down with all hands, but the crew of the smaller 230-foot Minouche survived thanks to the leadership, critical decision-making skills and bravery of both her skipper and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue team flying out of Great Inagua. In Into The Storm, a recently published book that reads as much like a fast-paced thriller as a straightforward account of what took place aboard each ship just prior to its sinking, Miami-based journalist Tristram Korten offers a host of lessons that will likely prove useful not only to modern shipmasters but to captains of recreational vessels as well.
Korten’s approach is far from heavy-handed. For most of the book he simply hammers out the facts, based on recordings of conversations that took place in the El Faro’s wheelhouse as well as numerous interviews with Coast Guard operatives, survivors and representatives of a variety of investigative entities and agencies.
Some of the facts are flat-out shocking. For example, according to Korten, although the El Faro was within a few miles of the storm’s eye during the early hours of October 1st, with no propulsion, a wicked list and 30- to 40-foot seas downflooding her holds, Capt. Michael Davidson (an aloof “cabin captain” who’d ignored the weather-related concerns of two junior officers) did not send a distress message to the Coast Guard until just six minutes—six minutes!—before his ship went down. Moreover, once the message was dispatched via email—the gist was that the El Faro was having difficulties but not in imminent danger—Davidson complained that it would probably cause trouble with his bosses at TOTE Inc.(the ship’s owner/operator) who might consider it ill-advised and alarmist.
Korten presents Capt. Renelo Gelera of the Minouche as infinitely more engaged. Not only was the highly experienced Gelera on top of weather forecasts from the National Hurricane Center (Davidson used a derivative, TOTE-favored forecasting system that lagged behind the NHC’s data by at least six hours), he was deeply trusted by his crew, primarily due to an intuitive grasp of the vagaries and vicissitudes of the sea. Hours before he gave the order to launch the liferafts, abandon ship and notify the authorities, he mustered his crew on the bridge with their survival gear. “This ship will not reach its final destination,” he is quoted as saying to his first mate as winds and seas increased. “Call the crew.”
If there’s another hero in Korten’s book besides Gelera, it’s the incredibly talented and resolute helicopter rescue team that responded to the sinking of the Minouche. Rescue swimmer Ben Cournia saved the entire crew, facilitating hoist after hoist, while intrepid helicopter pilot Rick Post hovered a Jayhawk far above in total, disorienting, storm-tossed blackness as a wild, nerve-demanding 10-hour nighttime operation wore on.
Korten entitles the last chapter of his book: “The Master’s Judgement.” In it, he takes a broader view of the dire events that occurred during the El Faro’s final hours, while using additional investigative findings, interviews, voice and data recordings and court proceedings as background. To even outline the resulting inferences and deductions here would steal Korten’s thunder. But trust me—it is a gloomy, albeit exceptionally instructive and engaging read.