The El Faro blame game begins

It is said that the struggle to improve on safety at sea “progresses from sinking to sinking”. It is likely that last week’s tragic loss of the El Faro and all 33 souls aboard will, as usual, provide lessons — learned the hardest way possible. Few or none of these lessons are likely to be new.

The plain truth is that no one can yet answer the critical question: how did it happen? Unlike the case of Malaysian Airlines’ Flight 370, which seemingly vanished last year, we do have some grasp of the course of events. What’s missing is knowledge of the decisional process that drove the tragic sequence of events. All will have the opportunity to mull over whatever information is brought forward at the forthcoming inquiry, which will largely be conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

It is important to point out that in the US, unlike the United Kingdom, government procedures mandate a relatively prompt start to the public hearings that may give us some answers.

It is now recalled that more than 30 years ago, there were two sinkings, with heavy loss of life, of US flag merchant vessels — the Marine Electric and Poet. Both losses spurred changes in the way that condition surveys and equipment certification by class societies and the Coast Guard were undertaken. The El Faro outcomes may be comparable.

As the El Faro investigation process, followed by hearings, gets under way, attention is likely to be drawn to possible causes of the ship’s loss of power, after it left Jacksonville. It is also probable that documentation and testimony bearing on the condition and type of the ship’s boilers and general power system, before and at the time she sailed from Jacksonville, will be given attention.

One mystery that needs to be cleared up is why El Faro took the particular course she did, after leaving the Florida coast en route to Puerto Rico; there were, after all, a number of course options available to the ship’s officers, once it became known that Joaquin was gathering in force. This is where an analysis of the course decisions that were made, by whom they were made, and their timing, will be instructive. There are a lot of “ifs”, just as there were several possible ways of evading a tropical hurricane whose location and likely course were known.

A grim United States reality of accidents of this kind, where there has been loss of life, is the impact of the Death on the High Seas Act and other seafarers’ ordinances. To put it indelicately, the process of what lawyers call ‘discovery’ will proceed alongside the formal investigative process. The litigative interests of family members, cargo owners and others with a stake the process will not be delayed.

Inevitably, there will be those who point fingers at classification and Coast Guard inspection and permitting processes and issues, particularly for the ship’s power system. There will be live witnesses to testify on these and other things, and experts of all kinds, and diverse reliability, to offer their views. The usual rumours and speculative theories are blossoming, as they always do in tragedies of this kind. Facts will eventually come out, and much if not all of the truth will be known.

There are, as a Florida lawyer put it this week, lots of folks with a dog in this fight.

They will be heard from. That being said, one final sad statement should be offered: if El Faro had gone done in Philippine waters, or anywhere else like that, would the loss of 33 lives have attracted much notice? Just asking….

Clay Maitland

Clay Maitland has worked in the shipping industry since graduation from law school in 1968. Clay has been employed by International Registries, Inc. for 39 years and is now a managing partner of the company, which administers the Marshall Islands Ship Registry – the third largest registry in the world. He is President of the Trust Company of the Marshall Islands (TCMI), the statutory Maritime Administrator of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Prior to the year 2000, Clay held similar positions with regard to the maritime administration of the Republic of Liberia.


  1. Thank you for that, Clay.

    Two thoughts come to mind.

    One, in the minds of anyone of a British persuasion, is How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!” or in this case, “How unlike the procedures of our own much admired Marine Accident Investigation Branch”. I know from personal experience just how good, and how thorough, your National Transportation Safety Board are in cases of this kind, but what a handicap they are forced to operate under!

    Such has ever been the American way, ever since the Founding Fathers, reading Blackwood’s Commentaries in the libraries of their country estates, decided that the concept of equity reeked of monarchical privilege, and chose to do without it.

    The second point is that, as I once said to a former Director of Marine in Hong Kong, a register is judged on its formal enquries. The Philippines, a nation that I tend to have one foot in, so to speak, has no independent system of investigation into maritime casualties whatsoever, and no budget for one.

    1. Addressing Clay’s well expressed above, it’s elementary my Dear Mister Watson as such, our American National Transportation Safety Board has no power of “Enforcement” to insure the regulatory and/or statutory rules enforce are complied with technically for practical applications on board. Simply put, in these days there are few and far between former deck plate maritime officers now “working in office” who put reliability and responsibility first and foremost and least on the their priority list regarding technical study – comprehension for decision making is; the political and “rice bowl syndromes” commonly found within the private sectors, classification societies along with the maritime flag states bureaucracies’.
      Ship safety and survivability doctrines and applications works well on board navy vessels because there is in place an immediate power of enforcement given to and executed by the DCO (Chief Engineer) and/or XO (Chief Mate).
      Therefore the question begs, how do “we” come even close to accomplishing the same on commercially owned and/or operated cargo and passenger ships along with MODU’s?

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