Jeff Monroe, like many longtime mariners, has closely followed the investigation into the sinking of the El Faro, a cargo ship that went down in the waters off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin last fall, killing all 33 people on board.

Monroe said this week’s revelation that the ship’s captain, Windham resident Michael Davidson, received outdated weather routing information from Applied Weather Technology the day before the ship sank was a “significant factor” in determining its fate.

“I think the decision-making would probably have been to follow a different path if that information had been up to date,” said Monroe, a licensed master mariner who captained commercial ships for years and more recently was transportation director for the city of Portland.

Instead, Davidson sailed the El Faro directly into Joaquin’s path, even though in emails to officials from TOTE Maritime, the ship’s owner, he had indicated he planned to navigate to the south of the storm’s track. When the ship eventually lost propulsion in the middle of the Category 4 hurricane, there was nothing he or any of the crew members could do.

In addition to Davidson, three other Mainers were killed when the ship sank on Oct. 1: Dylan Meklin and Danielle Randolph of Rockland, and Michael Holland of Wilton. All were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy, as was a fifth crew member, Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York.

“If (Davidson) had rerouted around the storm and still lost propulsion, he would have been drifting in safer seas, which would have given him more time to fix the problem or be rescued,” Monroe said. “If he was relying on outdated data, that certainly is a significant factor, but it wasn’t the only factor by any means.”

Other maritime experts, though, said weather, especially at sea, is notoriously fickle. Updated information may not have mattered.

“Honestly, it’s a lose-lose proposition for captains,” said Mike Siepert, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, has worked on deep water drilling ships and is familiar with Applied Weather Technology’s systems. “If you take the routing recommendations from one of these weather systems and then slam right into the storm, people are going to say, ‘Why did you trust that?’ And if you choose not to take the suggested route and hit a storm, the response will be, well, ‘Why didn’t you trust it?’ ”

“So much of sailing is instinctual,” he said. “That’s why captains get paid for what they do.”

OLD FORECAST CALLED ‘AN ANOMALY’

During testimony this week in Jacksonville, Florida, in the second round of hearings into the sinking of the El Faro, two representatives of Applied Weather Technology testified about the ship’s weather systems.

The California-based service is one of many private companies that supply computerized weather routing systems to big commercial cargo ships. The system used by the El Faro was called Bon Voyage, which uses information from the National Hurricane Center to provide ships with the safest and most efficient route.

Applied Weather Technology officials said Davidson received the same data set twice in a row the day before the ship sank. That means he was working off information about Joaquin’s track that was as much as 21 hours old as he sailed from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a company representative testified.

Jerry Hale, an assistant manager for Applied Weather Technology, said that he couldn’t explain why the El Faro received an outdated report during its tragic voyage. He called it, “an anomaly that we have not reproduced or identified.”

Monroe said if it was an aberration, it was extraordinarily bad luck for the El Faro. He said it also highlights the downside of technological improvements in the maritime industry.

“These (weather) systems have really improved safety quite a bit,” he said. “But it seems like with the latest generation of seafarers, everyone is technology-centric. They forget to look out the window.”

REPORTS NEVER FOOLPROOF

Phineas Sprague Jr., who owns Portland Yacht Services and is a longtime mariner, agreed that the delay in providing weather information to the El Faro captain was unfortunate, but said weather reports are never foolproof, even when they are in real time.

“You remember the Bounty,” he said, referring to the replica tall ship that sank during Hurricane Sandy off North Carolina in 2012, killing its captain and another crew member. “When it left, there were all these different interpretations on which direction Sandy was going to take. One model had it going off shore, the other (over land). Then you have to decide, which model do you trust?”

Sprague said most captains would not rely solely on information that was fed to them by a computer.

“Of course it would have been nice if (the data) was updated, but the ship has a barometer, too,” he said.

Monroe, though, said cargo ship captains nowadays put a lot of faith in their on-board weather systems. For one, he said, their parent company is paying for the service, and two, it gives the captain the most efficient route, which matters a great deal in the high-pressure world of commercial cargo shipping.

“He’s out at sea, he’s in the midst of this heavy weather. He doesn’t have time to go on Google,” Monroe said.

In general, pleasure vessels don’t worry as much about tracking particularly harsh weather. If bad weather is forecast, they stay in port.

Commercial vessels, by contrast, often sail in bad weather, and this was true of the El Faro.

Rich Brown, Applied Weather Technology’s vice president of operations, testified at the hearings Wednesday that although the information on the projected path of Joaquin was outdated, the baseline data, including wind speeds, wave heights and barometric pressure, were not.

WEATHER DATA NEVER 100% CURRENT

Per its subscription, the El Faro received weather data packages four times a day. The data is never 100 percent current because it takes several hours for the National Hurricane Center to process the information and for Applied Weather Technology to distribute the data through its systems. The company also offers a feature that allows ships to get a new data set based on any tropical weather update within an hour of the National Hurricane Center forecast coming out. Brown said El Faro did not elect to receive those updates.

A spokeswoman for Applied Weather Technology would not comment to the Press Herald about the company’s practices.

Despite what company officials said about the data glitch being an “anomaly,” Monroe said that type of thing is “probably more common than people realize.”

“It’s technology,” he said. “This is the world we live in. The amount of data that gets moved from ship to shore is phenomenal. It’s not inconceivable for mistakes to happen.”

The ship was equipped with a voyage data recorder that could shed light on whether Davidson, the ship’s captain, was navigating with outdated weather information. Similar to the so-called black boxes on airliners, the voyage data recorder is capable of recording high-frequency radio communications, images captured from on-board radar every 15 seconds, and vessel parametric data that include date, time, speed and heading.

El Faro’s black box was located last month near where the ship sank in 15,000 feet of water off the Bahamas. The National Transportation Safety Board plans to try to retrieve the device in the next few months.


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