Interview With El Faro Author Rachel Slade

El Faro Book Cover Slade

by John Konrad (gCaptain) Rachel Slade is a journalist and author of the bestselling book about the El Faro incident. Her book Into the Raging Sea has received keen reviews from the NY Times, Kirkus, Diesel Duck and gCaptain. 

Acclaimed maritime journalist Robert Frump says this about her work: “Rachel Slade cuts through the corporate double-speak to shine a light on how it was that thirty-three men and women sailed into Hurricane Joaquin. Superbly written, this deserves a place on the bookshelf of modern maritime classics.” 

Slade holds no license and has no long-term experience in the shipping industry. She is a journalist. I invited Slade to answer these questions because she is an excellent listener, dedicated researcher and offers a fresh perspective on our industry.

KONRAD: How has Vessel Data Recorder (Black Box) audio changed investigations?

SLADE: I felt that the VDR was critical to the investigation and that the Marine Board did a good job of dissecting the conversations to determine what happened and how decisions were made. The investigators certainly pulled out the key elements at those crucial moments, including watch changes and route planning discussions. The Marine Board also noted more human factors, like exhaustion (caught as yawns on the transcript) and job insecurity (discussed several times by the captain and the officers).

The most painful conversations to read were, of course, those between the officers as they grappled with the discrepancy between the BVS and NHC forecasts. For those of us who knew the answer—that the former was simply based on woefully outdated data—these onboard debates are heart-wrenching.

KONRAD: The VDR bridge recordings are one-sided. How valuable would audio be from both sides of calls made between the master and the shore or engine room?

SLADE: Clearly we could have used more microphones on the ship, though I’d imagine it would be difficult to capture quality audio in the engine room. At the very least, the phone conversations could have been recorded so that we could get both sides of those important discussions to find out exactly what the engineers were communicating to the bridge. And as a journalist, I wish we had audio from the mess halls. Those off-bridge discussions would have been invaluable to understanding the broader thinking aboard the ship. But that’s just as a journalist.

KONRAD: What technologies would help improve future VDR recordings?

SLADE: As loathsome as it must be to mariners to know they’re being recorded, VDRs are obviously critical to accident investigations like this one. And I have heard that Maersk uses audio and video aboard their ships to assist decision-making and training. So while no one enjoys being constantly monitored, I can see the value to having access to this information from a safety management perspective.

KONRAD: At times in the book you did not hide your frustration. What frustrated you most about the hearings?

SLADE: I felt that those representing the private interests—the shipping company and ABS—had considerable fire power. Their legal teams were well paid and vast; they had a prosecutorial fervor about them. In great contrast, the NTSB and USCG were represented by government-paid investigators. These people are not lawyers and consequently, they don’t think like lawyers. They were there to untangle the details of the case. These are two very different cultures and one—the private attorneys—clearly had the power to steer the conversation in whatever direction it wished it to go. They occasionally used this power to intimidate investigators and witnesses, and certainly spent plenty of time prepping witnesses in order to control the conversation.

KONRAD: In gCaptain’s review Michael Carr echoed your criticism of Admiral Greene, Tote’s Vice-President.  Many key maritime leadership positions in America (e.g. MARAD) are held by retired military officers. Is this a good thing or would civilian leadership be more effective?

SLADE: I do not have enough information to draw any kind of inference about the cross-pollination of military and merchant mariners. I know that the training is different, but both are steeped in a strong hierarchical environment which is necessary for survival in all maritime industries. I do have concerns about the number of retired USCG members at ABS because I think this presents a certain conflict of interest. The USCG needs to be able to oversee ABS’s work, but I worry that ABS uses its influence and connections to minimize the coast guard’s jurisdiction over the industry it has been assigned to protect. We saw this in the Marine Electric case, which revealed major shortcomings in oversight of the Alternative Compliance Program, and here we are again, witnessing history repeat itself.

KONRAD: Tote provided Captain Davidson with no real-time support and he had difficulty contacting the designated person ashore. Do you think small companies could benefit by joining together to open real time emergency operations centers?

SLADE: Like a lot of people who followed the El Faro tragedy, I was thrilled to learn about Carnival’s new control center. It just seems like the right thing to do in light of what we’ve learned. I mean, look, we know we can follow ships. We know we can closely follow weather forecasting information. This isn’t rocket science—it’s taking advantage of the tools we now have to guide better decision-making on land and sea. Small companies pooling resources to create an emergency control center sounds like a brilliant idea to me. If the costs weren’t prohibitive, why wouldn’t they?

KONRAD: In the past the USCG set standards and it was the industry’s duties to find ways to lower cost or raise revenue to meet those standards.  Are things different today?

SLADE: Historically, the coast guard has been very respectful of the industry it has been assigned to oversee. It is sensitive to the financial burdens certain regulations would impose on commercial shippers and does not want to slow the wheels of commerce. Therefore, my understanding is that the coast guard includes such economic considerations (in reports) when deliberating changes to its laws. In that way, the coast guard is like every other legislative body in our government—it allows stakeholders to have a voice in the design of the laws that will affect them.

You can argue the relative merits of this, but that’s the American way; this push and pull results in compromise; don’t forget—for years, car companies lobbied against mandatory seatbelts and airbags because they considered these safety features too expensive to install. In El Faro’s case, one such compromise was that the ship’s original open lifeboats were grandfathered in long after the global shipping industry had recognized their inherent limitations (1986).

KONRAD: Maritime Unions…. what is their role in marine safety? Do they fulfill that role? What roles should they fulfill?

SLADE: Everyone who reads my book will know I am a staunch supporter of maritime unions. The history is incontrovertible: Before unions established themselves, sailors were horribly exploited through the crimp system. Our forefathers shed blood, sweat, and tears to organize, and it’s a testament to this industry that the unions remain strong into the 21st century. I do not have enough insight into the inner machinations of unions to suggest ways that they could improve the industry, but I have been impressed with the level of guidance, training, and support they’ve provided the mariners I know.

KONRAD: An increasing number of masters, mates and pilots are being held criminally liable for incidents yet very few shipping company executives are put in jail. Do you think Tote executives will face criminal charges? Should they?

SLADE: What will change behavior? What penalties will improve the safety for mariners around the world? That’s the question everyone is asking, and rightfully so. Should TOTE executives have been indicted? I suppose I’d answer that with a question: If you were to charge them, what would be the charge?

None of them wished these mariners harm. None of them wanted to lose a ship, so you could not prove malicious intent. And they did follow the letter of the law as best they could.

That’s why this story is so fascinating—because no one entity is solely to blame. But what we did learn in this tragedy is that few people involved seemed fully capable of performing their jobs correctly—from the third-party inspector who failed to replace the battery in the VDR, to the captain of the ship who didn’t understand the shortcomings of his forecasting software, to the technician at BVS who accidentally sent the previous weather package six hours later, to the person on El Faro who left the scuttle open. I could go on—the list of bad decisions and mistakes is impressive.

These are all small errors that added up to a cataclysmic event.

I’m not excusing the shipping executives involved, I’m not an apologist, but holy moly, that’s a staggering amount of incompetence stacked up against a single ship at sea facing a hurricane.

KONRAD: In your opinion who are the people and organizations who really care the most about the mariners at sea?

SLADE: I think mariners care most about mariners. From what I’ve seen, they make up a tight, intimate, and somewhat insular group. That approach has served them well.

But when an accident like this shines a spotlight on the profession, who’s in a position to stand up and tell the story most effectively to a general audience?

I was fortunate that some mariners trusted me. They understood that I wanted to bring the plight of the merchant mariner to Americans who never even heard of the merchant marine.

In this day and age, you only get a moment in the news cycle and then you no longer matter. How can this tight-knit profession leverage the El Faro story to reach the broadest possible audience to ensure that this never, ever happens again?