Saturday, October 1, 2016

Remembering El Faro


The last few nights, while the crew has been eating dinner, as is Standard Operating Procedure, the television has been tuned to the local news station.  There have been plenty of things to report on; a train crash in New Jersey, a man saved by a Chinese cargo ship after being in a liferaft for a week, and, of course, all the political banter one could ever hope for. But when the local weatherman has been cued up to start his report, it gets very quiet in the galley. 

There is a hurricane in the Caribbean. 
A big one. 

At one point it reached Category 5 status, the highest category issued by the National Hurricane Center. It’s currently taking aim at the islands of Jamaica and Cuba. After that, the forecast is somewhat uncertain. It may head for the East Coast of the United States, or it may head “safely out to sea”. No matter what course it will take, one thing is certain, Hurricane Matthew is not going to be a storm to trifle with. 
Current forecast track of Hurricane Matthew
Exactly one year ago today there was another hurricane spinning in the Caribbean. Hurricane Joaquin, with winds in excess of 130 mph was battering the islands of the Bahamas. It was also battering a 790-foot long US-flagged cargo ship, the El Faro. On board that cargo ship were 33 fellow mariners involved in a fight for their lives against the powerful storm. 
The El Faro
One of those 33 sailors onboard the El Faro was an Engineer named Jeff Mathias. Jeff was working as a contractor preparing the ship for some work that was going to be done in an upcoming shipyard period. As the eye of the storm approached perilously close to their location, the ship lost power. With no ability to maneuver, there is no doubt that every member of that engineering crew, Jeff included, was using every trick in the book to get the huge engineering power plant back online and running. Unfortunately, the storm proved to be too powerful. So powerful that when the El Faro was located 15,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, the top two decks of the ship’s superstructure, including the wheelhouse, were ripped off from the rest of the vessel and found a half-mile away from the rest of the wreckage. All 33 sailors were claimed by the hurricane and the sea.
The wreckage of the El Faro
The wheelhouse located 1/2 mile from the rest of the wreckage
Two weeks ago, at the Homecoming celebration at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, they dedicated the Diesel Engineering Lab to Jeff Mathias. Two weeks ago was the celebration of my 20th year reunion of me graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Had he not been on the El Faro, Jeff would have celebrated his 20th year reunion as well. Jeff was a classmate of mine at the Academy.

Over my career, I have lost numerous good friends to the sea. During that same span, many mariners, though not personal friends of mine but still ones with a shared kinship, have been taken by the unrelenting waters as well.
So when I hear a local television weather personality say that a powerful and dangerous hurricane or storm is going, “safely out to sea”, you can probably see why this simple, unassuming statement causes me such ire. 
It is a pet peeve of mine.
I think reasonably so.

Alas, I’ll keep one eye watching the television personalities recite their forecasts, and I’ll keep the other one on the skies. A hurricane spinning off the coast of Cuba may not be a concern for many, but for me and my fellow mariners, it could very well be a matter of life and death.

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