Josh Elwell stood in the crowd of more than 200 people and held a candle skyward for his friend and former classmate Dylan Meklin.

It had been more than four days since the last communication from the cargo ship El Faro, which had lost power and propulsion to Hurricane Joaquin’s fury off the Bahamas.

Elwell, like so many others who gathered in Rockland on Monday night, held out hope that Meklin and the 32 other crew members aboard the El Faro had abandoned the listing, waterlogged ship and were just waiting in a lifeboat or raft to be picked up.

But Elwell knew that despite all the safety training and technological safeguards, the sea can be merciless. He knew there was a good chance he would never see Meklin again – even if he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

The day after the vigil, Elwell, 26, hopped a plane to Louisiana, then boarded the Maersk Valiant, a deep-water drilling ship that was preparing a voyage to the Gulf of Mexico.

And so it is for mariners, an uncommonly close-knit fellowship of sailors, engineers and stewards bound together by the sea, even in tragedy. While the loss of the El Faro and its entire crew has been a sobering reminder about the inherent dangers of the trade, the opportunity to ship out remains a visceral draw for young men and women who aspire to a regimented life, a life of adventure, a life at sea.

The day after the vigil, Josh Elwell,was back to work aboard the Maersk Valiant in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy Josh Elwell

The day after the vigil, Josh Elwell was back to work aboard the Maersk Valiant in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo courtesy Josh Elwell

“The romance … is there and will always be there,” said Joseph Murphy, a professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a captain with four decades of experience in shipping. “When you walk out on deck at sunset, there is no feeling quite like that.”

Life as a mariner is marked by routine – in safety rounds, in engine maintenance, in watch shifts, even in meals. Each crew member is delegated specific tasks that collectively keep the engine running and the ship moving in the right direction. They often operate in close quarters and spend weeks at a time together, forming bonds that last long after they leave ship.

It’s a purposeful life, too. Roughly 90 percent of the world’s goods, from petroleum to cars to produce, are delivered by water.

The maritime shipping industry has long been part of Maine’s history, a natural complement to the fishing and boat-building sectors that have helped define the state. No one was surprised to learn that the El Faro, a U.S.-flagged ship, had Mainers on board. The state has been supplying the world with mariners for decades, many of them graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, where five of the El Faro crew members studied: Capt. Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton; Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York; and Meklin, just 23 years old and on his first voyage as a professional.

Laurence Wade, a commercial mariner for 40 years and the former master of the Maine Maritime Academy training ship, said he sailed in bad weather countless times and endured a few close calls. History, he said, has revealed two things about tragedies like the El Faro: They serve as reminders to stay vigilant but also as reminders that, sometimes, ships are simply at the mercy of the sea.

VALUABLE EXPERIENCE

Not everyone who enters the shipping industry feels the powerful draw of life at sea.

Meklin, who grew up in the coastal community of Rockland, was around the water his whole life but aspired to be an engineer who helped build ships, not sail them. Yet he also knew that the best place to gain valuable experience was on a ship.

Many mariners are drawn to the prospect of good-paying jobs directly out of college. Maine Maritime Academy and other maritime colleges boast job placement rates near 100 percent and high starting salaries. Entry-level mariners can make between $40,000 and $50,000, while officers such as mates, engineers and captains can pull in $75,000 or more. Even so, many say adventure and the ocean are more important than the job security and good pay those careers provide.

Elwell, who graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 2011, grew up in Rockland like Meklin and worked on lobster boats as soon as he was strong enough to pull traps.

“I had been on the ocean my entire life and love everything associated with the maritime atmosphere,” he said. “Nearing the end of my senior year (of high school), I started looking at colleges, and nothing struck any interest to me. I’d seen others graduate from UMaine, Husson (and other places) with a business degree, a lot of debt and a not-that-great-paying desk job.”

Elwell, whose position on the Maersk Valiant is equivalent to a 2nd assistant engineer, spends his days doing maintenance planning for the ship’s engines, pumps, thrusters, fuel systems, sewage and water systems. That’s in addition to keeping the engine, which is basically a power plant, running. His ship is much newer than the El Faro and is diesel-powered rather than a steamship, but most ships of that size share similar traits.

CHALLENGING CAREER

Gavin Cote, 23, of Arundel, who graduated from MMA this year with Meklin and knew him well, is now a 3rd assistant engineer aboard the MV Pelican State, a cargo tanker operated by Crowley Maritime out of Corpus Christi, Texas. He said the decision to pursue a career as a merchant mariner was easy.

“I’ve always wanted to have an exciting career in engineering that challenged me in new ways, and shipping out proved to be the niche for me,” he said. “Every day on the ship presents you with new obstacles to overcome that require you to use both your hands and your brain.”

A container ship waits to enter the locks in Gatun, Panama, on March 23. Many mariners say adventure and the ocean are more important than job security and good pay.

A container ship waits to enter the locks in Gatun, Panama, on March 23. Many mariners say adventure and the ocean are more important than job security and good pay. AP file photo

A typical day for Cote in the engine room begins with a safety meeting over coffee. Then, the 1st assistant engineer assigns jobs. For him, it’s often general equipment rounds, looking for anything that may be cause for alarm. He also is responsible for more thorough machinery checks of the ship’s generators and its sewage treatment plant. Every big ship has one.

“It’s not the best smell in the morning, but someone has to do it,” Cote said.

The days can be long. Usually shifts are 12 hours. For engineers, much of their time is spent in cramped, hot spaces. For deckhands and officers, it’s spent roaming the deck, sitting watch, charting routes or watching the weather, and monitoring cargo.

When they are off the clock, crew members enjoy the sunsets. They feel the gentle sway of waves as they sleep. And when the ship is in port, crew members have the liberty to explore. There is a reason cruise ships are so popular.

Even mariners who began their careers in a different generation speak of the unique draw of being a mariner.

Looking back on his nearly 50-year career, Wade, who lives in Bradley, said he has no regrets about the path he chose. But he said he was lucky to have such a supportive family.

Wade’s wife, Deanna, who was a stay-at-home mom to four daughters, said she embraced her husband’s career.

“Somebody had to be there, but you know I loved every minute of it,” she said.

Not everyone is as lucky.

Thomas Brown of Falmouth, who graduated in the same MMA class as Wade in 1964, spent much of his life on ships, usually oil tankers up and down the West Coast from Alaska to California. He speaks of that time fondly but said it was tough.

“It ended my first marriage,” Brown said.

SAFER THAN EVER

Although the number of both ships and lives lost has decreased steadily over the last several decades, there are still cases every year.

A recent report by Allianz, an insurance company, indicated that 75 large ships (anything over 100 gross tons) were lost at sea in 2014. That was down 38 percent from the 110 lost in 2013 and the lowest number in a decade.

Since 1970 the Coast Guard has tracked its search-and-rescue operations and lives lost at sea. In 2013, the most recent year available, 653 lives were lost, among the lowest years on record. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was routine to see twice or even three times that many losses in a year.

Part of the decrease among cargo ships is because of smaller crews. Wade said when he first captained ships in the late 1960s and ’70s, his crew was often just shy of 40 members. When he retired, the number had been sliced in half.

But the Coast Guard also has gotten better in rescue missions. Since the late 1990s, the number of lives lost after the Coast Guard has been notified that a ship is in trouble has been only about 200 per year. In the two decades before that, deaths after Coast Guard notification ranged from 368 in 1991 to 1,359 in 1982.

Murphy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy professor, said there is no question that being a mariner is safer today than it has ever been, but he also said it is in part because past tragedies have led to safety improvements.

Perhaps the most noteworthy was the sinking of the SS Marine Electric, a bulk cargo ship that sank off the coast of Virginia in a storm in 1983, killing all but three of its 34 crew members. That disaster led to the implementation of significant inspection requirements, made it a requirement that all North American routes have immersion suits – often called “gumby” suits – on board for crew members, and created the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program. (The El Faro was equipped with 43 gumby suits, 10 more than the number of crew members.)

Murphy also knows that weather isn’t the only threat. His son, Shane, was chief mate aboard the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 that inspired the movie “Captain Phillips.”

SENSE OF FAMILY

Mariners said they don’t spend time talking about the tragedies of the past, but they do say that safety and risk mitigation are as important as any navigation or engineering skills.

“Safety is a huge part of being out to sea,” said Cote, the mariner from Arundel. “But I think I speak for many mariners when I say that I greatly fear the possibility of that situation because no matter how many drills are conducted, no one truly knows how they will react to such stress.”

Elwell said there are safety hazards every single day aboard a ship that never reach the public.

But, he added, “The everyday dangers we face together with weather, heavy machinery, fire hazards, mechanical hazards, explosions, and also being away from family and loved ones for months at a time bring us together.”

If adventure is the initial draw of a life at sea, what solidifies it as a career is the sense of family that accompanies it.

Matt Ross, a deck officer on board a Chevron ship and a resident of Glenburn, wrote an eloquent post on Facebook about the bond shortly after the El Faro was reported missing.

“Aboard thirty different ships in a career, I’ve come into contact with people from every corner of the world,” he said. “I’d take the shirt off my back, unbidden, for most of them, and I know they’d do the same for me. This shipmate relationship is unlike any other I know. The shared experience is important to the human condition.”

The same thing that binds them together at sea is the same thing that will hold families and friends of El Faro crew members together in the wake of their losses.

It’s the reason Elwell held that candle for Meklin the day before he went out on his own ship, his heart heavy but his mind focused on the well-practiced routine of safety drills and checks.

Elwell said the El Faro disaster only makes him prouder of his career.

“Do I think it’s worth it? Without question,” he said. “I love what I do and I have a job thousands wish they had. But ultimately I’m part of a brotherhood. I’m more proud of that than anything.”