Captain George Livingston: Four Years Since El Faro

SS El Faro

As I write on the 4th anniversary of the El Faro sinking (Oct. 1, 2015), I am reminded that those who lost their lives weren’t strangers, many shared the very same backgrounds, the same hometowns, schools, etc. as the rest of us and so we remember. Professional mariners understand the dangers professional mariners face, but it is none less jolting to hear of these things.

In late September, the French tugboat Bourbon Rhode with 14 crew members sunk in the Atlantic during Hurricane Lorenzo. Only three out of the fourteen crew members survived. In early September, the car and truck carrying ship, Golden Ray, experienced a bizarre, almost unheard of, capsizing while on a routine transit out of Port of Brunswick in Georgia. The ship lay completely on her side with some crew stuck in a dark, sideways world in whatever space they happened to have been in prior to the event. There they waited, for days, unable to escape, awaiting with great anxiety for rescue crews to finally cut holes in the side of the ship.

If a mariner has spent any time at sea, they will have experienced or known of any number of sea disasters. Having spent almost my entire seagoing career on the west coast of North America, I cannot forget my shock in 1985 when told the tug Willamette Pilot III had sunk with the loss of six local San Francisco based crew members. The Willamette Pilot III had been sent out to relive the Canadian ocean-going tug, Pacific Challenge that had a barge loaded with newsprint from Canada.

The older I get, the less I seem to know but one thing I do know, our profession is not understood today. For thousands of years ships have plied the ocean trades; legends, myths, monsters, and stories have followed. One hundred years ago, I would venture that few coastal communities around the world, and even individual countries, didn’t understand that their connection to the world beyond was reliant on ships and the people who sailed them. Why a child on the street in London, Rome, Melbourne, New York knew what a ship was, that it sailed to faraway lands in different places and foreign spaces. So what happened? What disconnected? When did we move from respect to mistrust? I have few ready answers these days, so I ask more questions.

And I would ask two things of my fellow professional mariners, first never forget those who have lost their lives at sea and two, honor their memory. Honor it by not taking for granted all the efforts of those who came before us. Honor it by understanding and acknowledging the expectations of the public and the communities that we serve in the 21st Century. That what we do (ship pilots, captains, professional mariners) is greater than self-interest and, in fact, embraces The Public Trust. We are responsible for more than manning and moving vessels, we must look after the waterways we serve, work on and around. Let us honor the memory of all those who have gone to the deep doing business on great waters by attempting to become better professionals. Not just for the communities we serve but for our fellow mariners that might very well have their lives in our hands. If you’re like me, well good luck, keep up the good fight. Just one step and then another.

To the El Faro, Bourbon Rhode, Double Eagle, Willamette Pilot III and countless others in our collective memories. Lest we forget-

We toil alone
One thousand miles from shore
Gale blowing near storm
Green water ripping by the house
The constant hammer blow of the sea
She seems to want to stop
To rest and recover
Well, stop we might
But rest? No
Just teeth clenching, bone jarring
Reverence for the new day

-Capt. George Livingstone

“No group or individuals did more for establishing our country than the American Merchant Seamen and Privateers. Their Record speaks eloquently of their devotion and sacrifices” -President John Adams

Captain George Livingstone is a San Francisco Bar Pilot, co-author of ‘Tug Use Offshore’, contributing author of ‘IMPA On Pilotage’ and a regular contributor to gCaptain.