Coast Guard Presents Analysis of El Faro Sinking

Courtesy Marine Safety Center

Published Feb 7, 2017 4:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearings into the loss of the El Faro opened for the third and final time. The discussion touched upon personnel issues and the master's decision-making process before moving on to the Coast Guard's technical review of the vessel’s stability. 

In its report, the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Center found that the decks were stacked against the El Faro: she had a large free surface effect from flooding in Hold 3, which runs the full width of her beam; a large wind heel from 70-90 knot sustained winds; and heavy seas of 25-30 feet. Dr. Jeff Stettler, a naval architect with the Marine Safety Center and a technical advisor for the Board of Investigation, testified Monday that it was unlikely that the El Faro could have survived under these conditions – regardless of other factors, like the flooding of her other holds. 

The report found that the most plausible sequence for her sinking was as follows:

- Hold 3 floods, wind heel pushes the El Faro over to 15 degrees
- Hold 2A floods through through vent openings
- Loss of stability, partial capsize, port main deck awash
- Loss of containers on deck (arresting full capsize)
- Continued flooding through port vent openings
- Vessel sinks
- Returns mostly upright on her way down (due to fixed ballast)

The report noted that the arrangement of her ventilation system could have permitted water to enter her fourth deck. However, even single-compartment flooding of Hold 3 would probably have been enough to sink her, thanks to free-surface effect and heavy weather. The flooding of Hold 3 is a known factor, as the master and chief mate reported a leaking scuttle and a "considerable amount of water” in the compartment.

Separately, Stettler observed that if she had been built this decade, the El Faro would not have met stability requirements. She sailed with a GM of 4.3 feet, satisfactory under SOLAS 1990. However, under SOLAS 2009 she would have been required to maintain a GM of at least 5.8 feet. 

Monitoring fatigue

The Board also pursued information about crew hours of rest. The three mates on the El Faro worked 12-hour days, and the transcript of the Voyage Data Recorder’s bridge audio includes discussion of problems with fatigue – including a chief mate who frequently fell asleep on watch. "He got caught and nothing happened. Then he got caught again and nothing happened," the third mate said in a conversation the night before the El Faro's sinking. 

Board member Keith Fawcett asked former El Faro chief mate Randy Thompson whether the crew had usually had enough rest and whether there was enough oversight of rest periods. 

"There was no discussion that you’re aware of about [sharpening] oversight of fatigue because a senior ship officer is falling asleep on watch at sea?” Fawcett said.

Thompson replied that he did not see fatigue as an issue on board, and added that the company has rolled out a new electronic hours-tracking software system, which makes it easier for captains to monitor their crewmembers' rest periods.