The captain of the El Faro cargo ship told the vessel’s owners that he planned to pass 65 miles south of the center of Hurricane Joaquin, but was just 20 miles from the powerful storm’s eye 18 hours later when the U.S. Coast Guard received the ship’s final distress call.

Those details were included Tuesday in the first batch of substantive information released by the National Transportation Safety Board as part of its investigation into the Oct. 1 sinking that left 33 crew members dead, including four from Maine. The update came as a Navy search ship steamed toward the last known location of the El Faro near the Bahamas in hopes of locating the sunken vessel in waters as deep as 15,000 feet.

The NTSB’s initial findings include:

In one of the ship’s final communications, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham reported a hull breach and that the main propulsion had failed.

The National Hurricane Center advisory predicting that Tropical Storm Joaquin was likely to develop into a hurricane was issued Sept. 29, before the 790-foot El Faro left port.

Planned modifications were being made to the ship while it was sailing and both boilers were scheduled for maintenance in November.

The U.S. Coast Guard received electronic distress alerts from three sources aboard the El Faro before the ship went silent.

Ship pilots and other observers reported no problems with handling or stability when the El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida.

The NTSB report, released Tuesday afternoon, also adds to the timeline of events leading up to the sinking.

BAD TIMING FOR ‘MARINE EMERGENCY’

With forecasts of Hurricane Joaquin growing increasingly dire, Davidson emailed a safety official with TOTE Maritime, the ship’s owner, at 1:12 p.m. on Sept. 30 that he planned a route that would take him about 65 miles south of the projected path of the storm. But at 7 a.m. the following day, Davidson told TOTE’s emergency call center that he had “a marine emergency.”

“He reported that there was a hull breach, a scuttle had blown open, and that there was water in hold number 3,” the NTSB said Tuesday. “He also said that the ship had lost its main propulsion unit and the engineers could not get it going.”

Davidson estimated seas at 10 to 12 feet at the time, well short of the estimated 40- to 50-foot seas that Joaquin was said to have generated at its height.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said it was unclear whether the hull breech and open scuttle – a covered hatchway on the exterior of the ship – were related, based on the satellite phone call recorded by TOTE’s emergency center. Knudson said investigators are hoping that the Navy search crew can find and retrieve the ship’s voyage data recorder – commonly known as the “black box” – in order to glean more details about what was happening on the ship based on recordings of internal communications.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a Senate floor speech Monday that Davidson’s demeanor was “very calm” in the two phone calls that he made. Nelson, who apparently had been briefed on the investigation, said that Davidson “had some degree of confidence that he was going to be able to get the ship back underway, under power.”

Those calls were made at about 7 a.m. on Oct. 1. Minutes later, the ship’s emergency alert system began activating, according to the NTSB.

The Coast Guard received electronic distress alerts from three separate sources aboard the El Faro, including from the ship’s emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. The final alert came in at 7:17 a.m. on Oct. 1, indicating the ship was just 20 miles from the edge of Hurricane Joaquin’s eye.

“The USCG did not have direct voice communications with El Faro, only electronic distress alerts,” the NTSB stated.

KEEPING DISTANCE FROM HURRICANE

Retired Capt. F. John Nicoll, who captained six different commercial ships that frequented Puerto Rico during a 40-year maritime career, said he was struck by the NTSB’s account of Davidson’s decision to sail that close to the hurricane. Nicoll, who lives in New Hampshire, was hesitant to second-guess or criticize Davidson because he did not know what information the El Faro captain had about the brewing hurricane, but said 65 miles was close.

“My rule of thumb is 300 miles,” Nicoll said in an interview. “I haven’t always had 300 miles in a hurricane, but that’s what you want.”

The report also provided a glimpse at some of the safety precautions taken aboard the El Faro before departing Jacksonville.

For instance, dock crews that helped load cargo onto the El Faro reported that they “double lashed” cargo on the ship for additional security, per TOTE procedures. Crew members also held weekly safety drills, including lifeboat drills. Additionally, two pilots who helped guide the El Faro into and out of port “reported that the vessel handled similarly to other vessels of its size and type,” and that the ship’s terminal manager reported the El Faro “met stability criteria when it left Jacksonville,” the NTSB update said.

The 40-year-old ship had passed inspections earlier this year but was also undergoing work while at sea – conducted by welders and machinists – in anticipation of plans by TOTE Maritime to relocate the El Faro to a route on the West Coast. Additionally, an inspection of one of the ship’s boilers earlier in September resulted in a recommendation that both boilers be serviced during an upcoming drydock session in November. Both boilers were in service at the beginning of what was to be the ship’s final trip between Florida and Puerto Rico.

The Coast Guard was unable to locate any survivors in extensive air and sea searches in the days after the ship sank. Four of the El Faro’s crew members – Davidson, Danielle Randolph of Rockland, Michael Holland of Wilton and Dylan Meklin of Rockland – were Maine residents who graduated from Maine Maritime Academy. A fifth crew member, Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York, also graduated from Maine Maritime.

The Apache, a Navy search vessel, is on its way to the last known location of the El Faro carrying a remotely operated submersible vehicle and special listening equipment in hopes of locating the ship by listening for pings from the vessel’s “black box.” However, the Apache likely will have only about four days to hear the pings once it reaches the site, given the anticipated battery life of the black box. After that, the Navy will use sonar to try to find the El Faro.

Poor weather in the southern Atlantic has forced the Apache to take a more circuitous route to the site.

ANSWERS SOUGHT TO ENHANCE SAFETY

The sinking of the El Faro is likely to play out in courtrooms for months or years. At least two relatives of crew members have already sued TOTE Maritime.

Policymakers also will be closely watching the NTSB investigation to determine whether changes are needed to prevent future tragedies. President Obama said after the six-day search for survivors ended that the investigation will have the government’s full support “because the grieving families of the El Faro deserve answers and because we have to do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our people, including those who work at sea.”

More than half of the El Faro’s crew members were from Florida. Nelson, the senior senator from Florida, said Monday that “we are going to make sure that we get the answers” to questions dogging the sinking, particularly what the crew knew about the hurricane before and during the voyage.

“What caused the captain to think he could sail, and sail in the direction of an oncoming hurricane, and that he would not get into its effects?” Nelson said in a floor speech. “Why did the engines cut off so that he lost power? All of these things we don’t know, but we expectantly look forward to getting some answers.”