American Cargo Ship ‘El Faro’ Missing in Hurricane Joaquin Near the Bahamas

MV El Faro. Photo: MarineTraffic.com/
MV El Faro. Photo: MarineTraffic.com/Capt. William Hoey

Update (Monday, Oct. 5, 2015) – The U.S. Coast Guard has concluded that the American cargo El Faro likely sank in Hurricane Joaquin. A search for its 33 crewmembers continues Monday. One body has been found in the water. A heavily damaged lifeboat with no persons was also spotted. Monday Updates here: El Faro Likely Sank in Hurricane

Update (Sunday 1 p.m. EDT)Developing story… ‘Multiple Objects’ Found in Search for Missing Cargo Ship El Faro

Update (Saturday 8 p.m. EDT) – The U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed that a life ring belonging to El Faro was found in the search area near the Bahamas on Saturday.

The life ring was spotted during an overflight approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas. A Coast Guard helicopter crew recovered the life ring and confirmed it belonged to the missing ship El Faro.

Search and rescue crews have searched more than 30,000 square-miles since Thursday, the Coast Guard said late Saturday.

Sea conditions in the search area on Saturday were reported to be 20 to 40-feet with winds in excess to 100 knots, according to the Coast Guard. Visibility for search and rescue flying between 500 and 1,000 feet has been reported to be less than one nautical mile at times, the Coast Guard added.

Update (Saturday 11 a.m. EDT) – The search for the missing El Faro with 33 crewmembers resumed Saturday morning near the Bahamas.

Coast Guard search operations were suspended overnight and resumed at first light this morning.

Search and rescue assets deployed include three C130 aircraft, a USCG Helo helicopter, a Navy P-8 aircraft, the USCG Cutter Northland, USCG Cutter Resolute and a Navy ship. Three commercial tugs are also enroute to the search location, according to an update Saturday morning from TOTE Maritime.

Update (Friday 8 p.m EDT) – The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search overnight for the missing MV El Faro and its 33 crewmembers after a search near the Bahamas on Friday turned up empty. 

The Coast Guard updated Friday evening that the search had covered approximately 850 nautical miles of ocean and involved the Coast Guard Cutter Northland, HC-130 Hercules airplanes from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Florida and a MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter crew forward deployed in Great Inagua, Bahamas.

So far, search and rescue crews have been unable to locate and reestablish communications with the vessel and its crew. Last contact was made with the vessel Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. as the ship sailed into the path Hurricane Joaquin.

The search was temporarily suspended at sundown Friday and will continue at first light Saturday morning, the Coast Guard said.

As of 8 pm. EDT Friday, Hurricane Joaquin was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane from a Category 4 with max sustained winds of 125 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Its center was located about 25 miles north-northeast of San Salvador in the Bahamas and moving NE at 7 mph, the NHC said. Some slow weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours, it added.

The El Faro is shown in this undated handout photo provided by Tote Maritime in Jacksonville, Florida, October 2, 2015. Reuters/Tote Maritime
The El Faro is shown in this undated handout photo provided by Tote Maritime in Jacksonville, Florida, October 2, 2015. Reuters/Tote Maritime

 

Earlier Friday: The U.S. Coast Guard has launched a search for a U.S.-flagged containership with 33 crewmembers aboard reported to be caught in Hurricane Joaquin, near Crooked Island, Bahamas.

The Coast Guard reported Friday morning that at approximately 7:30 a.m. Thursday, watchstanders at the Coast Guard Atlantic Area command center in Portsmouth, Virginia, received an Inmarsat satellite notification stating the 735-foot cargo ship El Faro was beset by Hurricane Joaquin while en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida. The notification said that the ship had lost propulsion and had a 15-degree list.

The El Faro crew reported the ship had previously taken on water, but that all flooding had been contained, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard launched an HC-130 aircrew out of Clearwater, Florida to search for the missing ship and its crew.

Two Air Force C-130 Hurricane Hunter aircrews have also attempted to locate the ship inside the hurricane and reestablish communications, but so far all attempts have been unsuccessful. Coast Guard crews remain on scene and are continuing search efforts Friday by both air and sea.

El Faro is part of TOTE Maritime’s fleet serving in the Jones Act Puerto Rico trade. The crew is comprised of 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals, according to the Coast Guard.

Hurricane Joaquin grew to a powerful Category 4 storm on Thursday, battering the Bahamas with torrential rain, strong winds and storm surges. On late Thursday, Joaquin was centered about 75 miles (120 km) south of San Salvador, Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph), the National Hurricane Center said in its advisory late on Thursday.

Tim Nolan, President of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico issued the following statement regarding the situation with the El Faro:

“On September 29, the El Faro, one of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s two ships departed Jacksonville en-route to San Juan Puerto Rico. At the time of the El Faro’s departure, the vessel’s officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin. As of 720am EST on Thursday October 1, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico lost all communication with the El Faro. The US Coast Guard was immediately notified and since then we have been unable to reestablish communication. There are a number of possible reasons for the loss of communications among them the increasing severity of Hurricane Joaquin.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s primary concern is for the safety and well-being of the 33 individuals on board. We are working to ensure clear and frequent communications with their families and loved ones as we learn more.

We have reached out to the families of those impacted and have established open lines of communication to provide them with timely updates. Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and their families.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico is working closely with the US Coast Guard and all available resources to establish communication by whatever means possible.”

Location of Hurricane Joaquin on Thursday:

NASA's Aqua satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Joaquin over Bahamas on October 1 at 17:55 UTC (1:55 p.m. EDT). Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Joaquin over Bahamas on Thursday, October 1 at 17:55 UTC (1:55 p.m. EDT). Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

The El Faro has been a part of Sea Star Line’s three-ship fleet serving the Jones Act trade route between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Until a few weeks ago, Sea Star Line was an operating company within TOTE, Inc., but it was recently re-organized along with Totem Ocean Trailer Express, serving the Alaska market, under the TOTE Maritime brand.

The El Faro was originally built in 1975 and underwent a major overhaul in 2006. The ship was also formerly known as the Northern Lights

Photo: Allen Baker
El Faro laid up in Baltimore in 2010. Photo: Allen Baker

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 12 crewmembers who abandoned the Bolivian-flagged cargo ship Minouche north of Haiti after the ship developed a severe list.

An update on Hurricane Joaquin from the National Weather Service on Friday said:

SUMMARY OF 200 PM EDT…1800 UTC…INFORMATION
———————————————-
LOCATION…23.8N 74.8W
ABOUT 10 MI…15 KM N OF RUM CAY BAHAMAS
ABOUT 25 MI…40 KM SW OF SAN SALVADOR BAHAMAS
MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS…130 MPH…215 KM/H (about 115 kts)
PRESENT MOVEMENT…N OR 0 DEGREES AT 5 MPH…8 KM/H
MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE…942 MB…27.82 INCHES

The center of the storm is now moving north, but forecast to track more northeastward next 12-24 hours as it moves away from the Bahamas, according to meteorologist Fred Pickhardt from Ocean Weather Services. Currently, hurricane force winds extend outward about 45NM and 50kt winds out some 70-80NM, he says. 

Last known position transmitted by El Faro according to MarineTraffic.com.
Last known AIS position transmitted by El Faro according to MarineTraffic.com. Position was recorded on Thursday at 12:00 a.m. EDT.  

The below gif was created by Michael Lowry, a Hurricane specialist from the Weather Channel, showing the forecasted cone of Joaquin beginning Sunday. Remember the ship departed Jacksonville on Tuesday, was scheduled to arrive in San Juan Friday, and sent it last communication on Thursday (Oct. 1) at 7:20 a.m. while about 35 miles nautical miles northeast of Crooked Islands, Bahamas, almost exactly where the eye of storm ended up and stayed for about two days.

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El Faro facts below provided by TOTE Maritime:

El Faro Specs:

Capacity: 600 FEU
Length: 790 ft.
Max Speed: 22 knots
Year Built: 1974
Updated: 1992/2006
US-built at Sun Shipbuilding in January 1975
US-flagged, American crew.
790 feet long

Cargo Information:

Cargo onboard: 391 containers, 294 trailers and cars

Safety Information:

Last full American Bureau of Shipping annual hull and machinery inspections were completed February 13, 2015.
Last US Coast Guard annual inspection was completed on March 5 & 6, 2015. The TOTE Services group conducts a formal annual onboard safety audit. The last audit was completed on March 3, 2015.

TOTE Services port engineers conduct weekly shipboard meeting with the captain and chief engineer to review maintenance and required support. In addition, shoreside contractors provide regularly scheduled vessel support when in Jacksonville.

Lifesaving Equipment:

El Faro has one lifeboat on each side of the ship. Each is designed to be unsinkable even if full of water and full of crew. The lifeboats can be launched without ships power from their gravity davits. Each lifeboat can hold 43 persons and has survival rations onboard.

The lifeboats on the El Faro are open type, each certified to carry 43 people. One is propelled by manual power and the other by a small diesel engine.

The lifeboats are constructed of Fiber Reinforced Plastic (fiberglass).

There are voids in the hull filled with buoyant foam to provide positive stability (unsinkable) and self-righting (cannot flip over). Buoyancy material must be accepted by the US Coast Guard.

El Faro has five life rafts onboard. There are (2) 25-man life rafts on each side plus an additional 6-man liferaft on the bow. Total life raft capacity is 106 persons persons. Life rafts are normally manually launched over the side. They will also designed to float free and self-deploy.