Run the Storm
by George Michelsen Foy
George M. Foy’s collective biography of a ship and a storm, and of the crew who would die in that storm, is a tour de force of nautical expertise coupled with sensitive treatment of one of the worst maritime disasters in our history. The story that Foy, a former officer in British coasters, recounts with such brilliance provides what one historian has called, in a related context, an affirmation “of nature’s contempt for human contrivance.”
In reading Run the Storm, anyone connected to the sea — deepwater yacht sailor or merchant mariner (my own erstwhile trade) — will receive a jolt of recognition: the terrible, appalling power of wind and wave, and a reminder of the acidic taste of fear. From the first to last page of Foy’s masterful evocation and exegesis of the 2015 SS El Faro disaster, readers are led inexorably to what they must already grasp will be the needless destruction of a containership and the horrific death by drowning of the vessel’s 28-member crew along with the so-called “riding gang” of five Polish technicians.
The facts of the sinking are straightforward. The 40-year-old, 790-foot El Faro, U.S. owned and U.S. registered, left Jacksonville, Fla., late in the evening of Sept. 29, 2015, for what should have been an uneventful three-day run to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It carried a cargo of truck trailers stowed below and nearly 400 aluminum containers, filled with general cargo, stacked three deep on deck.
The weather forecast put a tropical storm dubbed Joaquin some 500 miles east-southeast of Jacksonville. Capt. Michael Davidson, 53, a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, saw little in the forecast to unduly concern him.
The storm changed direction, however. It also grew with horrific energy into a Category 4 hurricane packing sustained winds of more than 130 mph and seas cresting at 50 feet. It would be, says Foy, “the most powerful storm to hit the area in recorded history.” And so it was that at 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, as El Faro cast off her lines and headed southeast, the master, perhaps under pressure to make his schedule and oblivious of the deadly peril he was sailing into, chose the direct open-ocean course for San Juan.
The storm, by almost diabolical design, stalked El Faro like a predator scenting its prey. In the early morning of Oct. 1, Capt. Davidson contacted his company’s safety manager by satellite phone. The ship, 46 miles southeast of the Bahamas, was taking on water and listing heavily. The most immediate concern was propulsion failure — El Faro had lost power.
As Foy tells the story, 32 minutes after making that call and 33 hours after setting out from Jacksonville, Davidson, his ship, his crew and the five-member Polish engineering gang “vanished from the face of the Earth.”
A submersible later recovered the vessel’s voice recorder. With El Faro beginning to capsize, one can almost hear this final, harrowing exchange — as reported by Foy — between Capt. Davidson and Able Seaman Frank Hamm:
Hamm: “I need a ladder.”
Davidson: “I don’t have a ladder, Frank.”
Hamm: “A line!”
Davidson: “I don’t have a line, Frank.”
Hamm: “You gonna leave me.”
Davidson: “I’m not leaving you, let’s go!”
Hamm: “I can’t, I can’t! I’m gone.”
Davidson: “Frank! Let’s go…”
There would be no escape. “A yelling starts,” the author writes, “and is cut off by the termination of the recording.”