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Lessons from the El Faro Tragedy


Wreaths on the Water

The sinking of the El Faro in 15,000 feet of water with all hands aboard was the worst commercial marine disaster in decades. It was also a reminder of one of seafaring’s most basic truths.

The media coverage concerning the sinking of the 791-foot cargo ship El Faro near the eye of a hurricane late last year (2015) in the Bahamas had a decidedly chilling effect, at least on me. Five of the El Faro’s crewmembers were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy, a school that used to exchange professors with my alma mater, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. And reading about these salty graduates—and looking at their graduation photos on the Web—took me way, way back, not only to the commercial seafaring career I exchanged for magazine writing a couple of decades ago, but, more poignantly, to my own days as a young maritime academy cadet.

I liked being at the academy. And I especially liked being at sea during the training cruises, despite the long hours involved. The cruises smacked of the far-flung solitudes the seagoing life seemed to offer, and the soldierly camaraderie that came with it. But, beyond these fine things, there was a dark, undeniably grim side to “sailing,” as we used to call it, which first announced itself, as I remember, only a month or so into my freshman year.

“Ding-ding, ding-ding,” a small bell intoned, as the entire cadet corps assembled in uniform on a long concrete pier, beyond the classrooms and offices of the academy. We bowed our heads and fell silent. Then two of our number stepped forward and committed a wreath to the cold, green waters below. The wreath memorialized two Great Lakes Maritime Academy cadets who’d shipped out on the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald, a steamship that had gone down a couple of years before during an early November storm on Lake Superior.

Certainly, the faces around me way back then were as youthful, energetic, and full of promise as the faces of the Maine Maritime cadets who, only a few short months ago, performed a similar ritual at the place where the El Faro sank in 15,000 feet of Bahamian water. But, thinking back, maybe there was some doubt in those faces, too. It’s a rare trade school, after all—and a maritime academy is in some sense a trade school—that mixes memorial services with its curriculum.

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Final location of the S.S. El Faro

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This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.