The Book of the Week is “Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” by Rachel Slade, published in 2018. This sloppily proofread volume recounts a suspenseful, emotionally charged story about a rare but preventable epic fail. It is a cautionary tale of how TOO MUCH DEREGULATION in the shipping industry turned out to be penny-wise and pound foolish.
Just as a little bit of socialism is good (in the form of public libraries and the like), too much socialism is bad. So too– some deregulation might be good, but too much deregulation leads to conflicts, corruption, monopolies and crashes (financial and physical). With the ship El Faro, one thing led to another: Getting rid of pesky laws that hindered commerce ultimately increased the risk of deaths, as will be explained.
All the money the government and El Faro‘s owner thought they were “saving” with the help of deregulation, was wasted in the accident in various, extremely high costs– rescue-resources, the emotional toll taken on all of the parties involved, litigation, etc. What happened to the ship showcased the extremes of human nature– greed and hubris of shipping-company executives and their accomplices (politicians) versus the braving of life-threatening conditions, by rescuers trying to prevent deaths in the disaster.
At the beginning of October 2015, El Faro was hauling commercial cargo heading for San Juan in Puerto Rico, but ended up in the path of hurricane Joaquin. The whole voyage was one long cluster screw-up.
For starters, the shipping industry had an abusive, hierarchical culture. There had been a long period of deregulation starting in the 1970’s in the interest of political expedience and profit-seeking; safety be damned. But by the 2010’s in the shipping industry, the gravy train was over.
Due to the safety crackdown, El Faro‘s corporate owner had been doing some lean and mean cost-cutting in connection with all of its holdings, at the expense of vessels and their personnel. El Faro had been grandfathered in under older regulations that made its long-term seaworthiness doubtful. But it was lucrative enough not to be scrapped.
Architecturally, the ship had been designed for speed rather than safety, and the physical arrangement of the cargo caused the ship to ride low in the water, and list in rough seas. Rushed workers sloppily loaded the cargo– consisting of cars and other heavy, unwieldy items, and they weren’t entirely secure (both the workers and cargo). The ship’s anemometer was broken. But for deregulation, the government would have taken the ship’s owners to task on these and various other accident-prevention issues.
During this, El Faro‘s last voyage, in which it encountered a horrific storm, the captain could pick and choose from a few different sources of weather forecasts. He happened to choose the most outdated one, unbeknownst to him. Nevertheless, he stubbornly refused to consider any others, or significantly change the ship’s route, even when his subordinates tried to tell him about storm data from other sources. He needed to please his bosses, whom he knew preferred that he get the ship to its destination ASAP, to minimize costs. In transportation, time is money.
Also, the captain lacked social graces. Not only that, he was a survivalist, one of those nutjobs who was prepared for the end of the world, with weaponry and provisions and planned to defend himself if necessary, against other survivalists. Thanks to deregulation, he was still employed.
The sleep-deprived chief mate of the ship was a new employee, just getting to know the captain, so he was eager to impress him and reluctant to question his authority. The second mate was psychologically weary of her job.
Other ship workers were less than loyal, as they had no job security. To add insult to injury, racial tension pervaded the ranks. To boot, the ship was understaffed.
To be fair, the storm formed faster than anyone had anticipated. But obviously, TOO MUCH DEREGULATION played a major role in the incident.
As an aside, “It’s an open secret in the meteorological community that the ECMWF [the European weather service and hurricane software modeler] is consistently better than the NWS [American National Weather Service and hurricane software modeler].” The former collects more data worldwide and gets more funding than the latter. (Apparently, whenever a storm is brewing near the United States, the American weather media still show the projected route of the American model, as a point of pride).
Read the book to learn: other disturbing lessons; the fate of the ship; and fascinating details of the investigation.