El Faro captain was unsure of his future with Tote

The captain of El Faro was uncertain about his future with Tote Services and the company in turn had reservations about putting him at the helm of some new vessels in its fleet, the hearing into the El Faro sinking was told on Thursday.

Captain Michael Davidson and 32 other crew members went down with the cargo ship when it was caught in Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas on October 1, 2015.

The US Coast Guard (USCG) Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) into the disaster was in its penultimate scheduled day in Jacksonville, Florida.

Davidson expressed concerns about his future with Tote in an e-mail one week before the sinking. He doubted he would be offered a captaincy on a new line of vessels Tote was introducing.

An MBI investigator mentioned the e-mail to former Tote crewing manager Melissa Clark at Thursday’s hearing. Clark had written e-mails expressing a lack of confidence in Davidson’s leadership and she even discouraged Tote’s CEO from hiring Davidson for a post on a new ship.

A lawyer for Davidson’s widow reminded Clark that Davidson had quit his previous employment with Crowley Maritime because of a safety issue. Clark agreed that that was “honorable” behavior by Davidson.

The MBI is scheduled to hear one more day of testimony before wrapping up its fact-finding phase which has comprised three two-week hearings. This will be followed by a period of analysis before it issues its findings to the USCG Commandant.

Donal Scully

With 28 years experience writing and editing for newspapers in the UK and Hong Kong, Donal is now based in California from where he covers the Americas for Splash as well as ensuring the site is loaded through the Western Hemisphere timezone.


  1. To be fair, most officers aren’t entirely positive about their future with any fleet, with any owner, until you have been there many years and are allowed back. But even then, an individual sailing as Chief Mate or 1st Assistant Engineer, they may have met their professional plateau. Sometimes those individuals are provided an opportunity to sail as a “relief” Captain or Chief, but then don’t meet the expectations of their shoreside manager. So they don’t get offered a permanent full time rotating job.

    In other cases where there are fleet changes in ships, such as was the case with TOTE, some individuals have seniority over other ‘regulars’ and therefore, they are provided better known opportunities to move into new positions on new ships.

    And of course, we’ve all seen the other scenario, where it has nothing to do with seniority, knowledge, or skills and everything to do with how well an individual gets along with a senior shoreside manager. We’ve all seen mediocre people promoted over more qualified persons, simply because they were better friends with the person making the selection.

    I don’t know anything at all about TOTE’s hiring and promotion policies, be it bad or good. But I do think this specific issue is a stretch to include in the overall examination of the EL FARO accident. It appears we are now starting to ‘shape’ the outcome of the investigation to place all blame on the Master (is that any surprise?) with a bit of wrist slapping to be sure for shoreside management.

    Little else will come from this accident, sadly. But i would expect that. This investigation will ultimately conclude months from now. The report will be released on a Friday afternoon on a long holiday weekend where few media will pick it up and those that do will barely make mention of the findings. The USCG (and other US flag regulatory interests) will all hope the report gets filed away quickly with little notice and issues to address publicly. There is lots of blame here to get spread around among many different people. Much like the EXXON VALDEZ. But all people remember today is that Jow Hazelwood was the bad guy. Nuff said, right?

    I write this as one of the last sister ships to the EL FARO is now being towed to the scrapyard in Brownsville, Texas. The SS LURLINE departed the San Francisco today. The only surviving RO-RO/Con vessel that I know that is a sister-ship to the EL FARO is the SS MATSONIA. She continues to serve the Hawaii trade from California. But she will soon be laid up in the next few years, due mainly to environmental regulations that will prevent her continued operation. So a more concise effort at examining the issues unique to all RO RO vessels will likely be cast aside. Too bad.

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