When the El Faro’s emergency radio beacon sent out a single ping at 7:20 a.m. Thursday, it was already in a precarious position.

The ship was adrift after losing all engine power. It was taking on water and listing at 15 degrees while a Category 4 storm raged around it, blowing 100 mph winds and whipping up 40-foot waves.

“It would be as if you were on the road at 60 miles an hour and you lost your steering,” said Kelly Sweeney, a master mariner with 35 years’ experience.

But Sweeney said the captain and crew of the El Faro – which included the captain, Michael Davidson of Windham, and crew members Danielle Randolph of Rockland, Dylan Meklin, also of Rockland, and Michael Holland of Wilton – were highly qualified, and highly trained, to deal with such dire circumstances.

“If there was anyone who could overcome this, it would be the crew who were on this ship. I have not given up hope,” said Sweeney, who writes for the Maine-based Professional Mariner magazine and lives on an island off Seattle.

On Sunday, Sweeney and other merchant mariners were watching events unfold in the Bahamas, where the El Faro disappeared in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin on its way to San Juan, Puerto Rico.


John Gormley, retired editor of the Professional Mariner, said the captain of the ship makes the call on whether to leave port.

“The captain is responsible for the crew, any passengers, the ship and the cargo,” said Gormley.

It appears the El Faro was following standard industry practices when it left Jacksonville, Florida, on Tuesday on a regular weekly run back and forth to San Juan.

Capt. Jeff Monroe of Cape Elizabeth, a master mariner, said modern ships like the El Faro do not get caught in a hurricane. He said it is likely there was a combination of factors going on, such as the loss of propulsion and taking on water.

“Every modern ship knows exactly where the storm is and what is happening. It is not like you decide to take a dive into a hurricane,” said Monroe.

Sweeney said Davidson would have been keeping a close eye on the weather before leaving port.


Officials at TOTE Marine Puerto Rico, which owns the 790-foot cargo ship, said Davidson was keeping track of the weather and communicated with at least one other ship in the area where he was heading when he was determining the El Faro’s route.

Monroe said commercial ships regularly leave ports with a storm in the forecast, in part because it can be more dangerous in a confined port. Monroe said Davidson would have tried to get south, behind the storm.

“A lot of the time vessels know they are going to hit rough weather. Generally it is not an issue unless you have other issues, such as a propulsion failure or hull failure,” said Monroe.

Monroe said there are various things that may have gone wrong with the propulsion system, such as water in the circuit board.

Sweeney said the company has run ships between Jacksonville and San Juan for decades. He said the crew, from master on down, were well aware of the threat of hurricanes “because this is one of the hurricane alleys of the world.”

Hurricanes are predictable only up to a point, but then they become unpredictable, Sweeney said.


He said it is possible that the El Faro got on the wrong side of the storm, called the “dangerous semicircle,” which sucks everything into the eye of the storm, instead of the right side of the storm, called the “navigable semicircle,” which spits everything away from the eye.

He said the crew would have been highly trained to deal with the worst-case scenario and would have undergone regular drills. He said the crew would have done anything to avoid abandoning the ship because the safest place to be would be on it.

“People ashore may not realize how hard it would be to get off that vessel in a hurricane leaning over 15 degrees taking on water with 100 mph winds onto something much smaller. That is a very difficult situation,” said Sweeney.

Both Sweeney and Monroe said they remained hopeful even after three days of searches for the ship. Monroe said if the crew members had to abandon ship, they are probably in life rafts right now because lifeboats would have been too difficult to launch from a listing ship.

The rafts would be equipped with VHF radios, which have a limited range.

“I was in a storm once and had all my antennas ripped off and all communications were down. We couldn’t talk to anybody for days and finally we got close enough to shore to communicate by radio,” said Monroe.

Sweeney said every mariner holds out hope.

“I have known people who have been adrift in lifeboats for weeks and months. We will never give up hope until we know for sure,” said Sweeney.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.