Cruising World - - Underway - —Wendy Mit­man Clarke

by Rachel Slade (2018; Harpercollins; $27.99)

When I first heard that a U.s.-flagged ship called El Faro had gone miss­ing some­where off the Ba­hamas’ Crooked Is­land amid Hur­ri­cane Joaquin on Oc­to­ber 1, 2015, I felt an in­stant fore­bod­ing. Like many sailors, I’m a weather geek, and I’d been fol­low­ing the storm’s de­vel­op­ment through Chris Parker’s Ma­rine Weather Cen­ter fore­casts for days. And for days, he’d been send­ing up all the red flags about this one — er­ratic, un­pre­dictable, po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive once it hit the Ba­hamas’ warm, shal­low wa­ters.

What the hell was a ship do­ing there? El Faro took 33 mariners with it, shat­ter­ing hun­dreds of lives and hearts. With all of the weather, rout­ing and nav­i­ga­tion tech­nol­ogy avail­able even to the aver­age cruis­ing sailor in 2015, how could El Faro’s highly trained mas­ter and of­fi­cers have mis­cal­cu­lated so hor­ri­bly, pin­ning the ship be­tween a Cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane to wind­ward and the Ba­hamas’ outer is­lands to lee­ward, with nowhere to run?

Rachel Slade, a Bos­ton­based re­porter, was also ask­ing such ques­tions, and she’s turned her ex­ten­sive re­search on the U.S. Mer­chant Ma­rine’s worst catas­tro­phe in 30 years into a book, Into the Rag­ing Sea: Thirty-three Mariners, One Me­gas­torm, and the Sink­ing of El Faro. It’s easy to read be­cause the nar­ra­tive rips you along; it’s dif­fi­cult to read be­cause it’s al­ways hard to en­dure the dis­sec­tion of to­tally pre­ventable tragedies.

The back­bone of Slade’s nar­ra­tive is the 26 hours of bridge con­ver­sa­tion recorded on the ship’s VDR, its black of this vi­tal piece of gear in 15,000 feet of wa­ter is, in and of it­self, an in­cred­i­ble story, which Slade il­lu­mi­nates well.

She also does a thor­ough job de­scrib­ing the man­gled state of U.S. mer­chant ship­ping, and how it man­i­fested in El

Faro and the var­i­ous en­ti­ties of TOTE Inc., which op­er­ated and owned the ship. This is not news — Robert Frump’s ex­cel­lent book Un­til the Sea Shall Free

Them, doc­u­ment­ing the 1983 wreck of Ma­rine Elec­tric off the mid-at­lantic that killed 31 men, laid out a dis­tress­ingly sim­i­lar pic­ture of money over mariners. But Slade makes a com­pelling case that fun­da­men­tally lit­tle has changed in the mar­itime in­dus­try’s cul­ture, and that in­er­tia helped pave the way, in ways sub­tle and bla­tant, for El Faro’s catas­tro­phe. You can­not read this book and not feel de­spair and anger at how pre­dictable and pre­ventable it all is (and the ob­fus­cat­ing from TOTE of­fi­cials will make you want to throw the book across the room).

De­spite our his­tory as a mar­itime na­tion, we are dis­mally obliv­i­ous to the dif­fi­cul­ties and risks fac­ing the men and women who de­liver our pre­cious stuff across the sea. Ul­ti­mately, Slade pro­vides some jus­tice to the 33 dead of

El Faro by re­mind­ing us of the sys­temic and hu­man con­se­quences of this inat­ten­tion, ap­a­thy and ne­glect.

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