Award honours author who exposed El Faro’s horror story

It was Halloween (31 October) when I was a guest at the UK Maritime Foundation’s annual Maritime Media Awards dinner and it was a horror story that won Rachel Slade the Mountbatten Award for Best Book that night.

Her account of the El Faro sinking, Into the raging sea, which was published last September, had been chosen from 68 entrants as the book “that has contributed most significantly to public awareness of maritime issues,” the award’s criteria specify. Over the past year, it has certainly done that.

El Faro was a US-flagged steam-powered ro-ro container ship operated by TOTE that sank on 1 October 2015 in severe weather during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 on board were lost and the final 26 hours of their voyage was recorded on the ship’s VDR, which was eventually recovered from the wreck at a cost of US$3M nearly 11 months later. The bridge conversations it had captured were carefully transcribed and its 510-page text is harrowing to read.

When the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published its report into the disaster in September 2017, ShipInsight said it should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the safe management of ships. What Rachel Slade’s book has done is to bring the implications of that wild voyage to the attention of a much wider audience, garnering reviews in many mainstream publications. One, published in the New York Times, was particularly glowing, describing it as “a powerful and affecting story, beautifully handled by Slade, a journalist who clearly knows ships and the sea.”

In fact, far from clearly knowing ships and the sea, she did not have a maritime background before embarking on this project so the NY Times’ remark underlines what a thorough job she had done in understanding what had happened and giving it a human perspective that the official report could never do.

I spoke to her after the dinner and she told me that she had first heard about the incident in a news clip that sparked her “burning curiosity about how this could possibly happen to an American ship in 2015. It seemed impossible.” She listened to the public hearings into the accident “and I got into the mind of the mariner. It was just the most intense two years of my life,” she said.

That is why hers is such a powerful book and its success over the past year has surprised her. “I don’t think anyone thought it would be this big because it’s such a niche market.”

Its message, she told me, is twofold. The VDR transcript showed that the ship’s captain took the ship into the eye of the hurricane and remained upbeat until the end, despite concerns expressed by the crew. So one obvious message is that crew should “speak up and stay safe. … It’s important for young mariners to understand that the decision makers can be flawed.” But she also sees El Faro as “an allegory for our time. We see things happening that will affect us and if we don’t speak up we will end up at the bottom of the sea.”

She made a similar point in the final sentences of her book’s epilogue. “The tragic loss of El Faro and her crew serves as a dire warning against complacency,” she wrote. “Humankind may chart a noble course but progress, like every voyage, requires strong situational awareness and a vigilant helmsman.”

‘El faro’ in Spanish translates as ‘the lighthouse’ and since its publication, Into the raging sea has used El Faro’s awful beam to illuminate what the award judges called “the maritime industry’s dark side”.

• Listen to Rachel Slade talk about her book in the first 23 minutes of this NY Times podcast.

• Watch NTSB’s animation of the ship’s voyage

• A number of images related to the El Faro investigation can be viewed on pages 3 and 4 of this NTSB image library.

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