A Dicey Departure

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Lessons from the El Faro Tragedy, by Capt. Bill Pike (continued)

A Dicey Departure

Another memory the El Faro tragedy dredges up for me is perhaps even darker, more unsettling, than the one just described. It opens alongside a loading dock in Duluth, Minnesota, on the western end of Lake Superior, more than three decades ago. At the time, I was in my second year at the academy and serving aboard a beautiful, 630-some-foot ore carrier, American-built and, unlike the 40-year-old El Faro, just about brand new. Although cadets on board such vessels in those days occupied a low rung on the social ladder, I had somehow managed to acquire enough status on board to be in charge of what the skipper called, “the weather map.” Weather’s important to those who transit Lake Superior, especially in November.

The specifics concerning the map, essentially a whiteboard I populated daily with isobars, wind arrows, and other symbols, escape me now. But I do remember following the development of a monster low-pressure area that was working its way toward us from the Great Plains as we offloaded coal in nearby Superior, Wisconsin, and then shifted to Duluth to load iron ore. Ultimately, the isobars I drew with a black felt pen as the days went by got so close together they began blending into one. Isobars packed tight, of course, spell one thing—wind!

How low the barometer slunk as the storm drew nigh I’m not sure. And precisely what shifts in wind direction the storm’s movements were predicted to produce over the lake I don’t recall either. But there is one thing I do remember well—the stunned response from the crew when the first mate announced we’d be departing Duluth on schedule.

“We’re f---ed!” opined the bosun, as the two of us stood on the fantail with the lights of Duluth fading behind us. Although this statement was a seasoned one, I nevertheless persuaded myself that our captain, who was a very competent-seeming guy, knew what he was doing, in spite of all the expletives he himself had uttered earlier over the weather map.

“Wind’s not that bad right now,” I remember offering as our ship slowly but steadfastly picked up speed.

“We’re f---ed,” the bosun retorted vehemently, “F---ed!”

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The stern of the ship.

After a 15,000-foot dive, a submersible remotely operated from a Navy vessel
captured the images of the El Faro shown above.

The empty main deck, which was reportedly fully loaded with cargo when the ship left Jacksonville bound for Puerto Rico.

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