When the 790-foot container ship El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida, for Puerto Rico on September 29, 2015, Hurricane Joaquin—still a tropical storm—drifted some 500 miles to the east near the Bahamas. With an experienced crew of 33 on board, El Faro Captain Michael Davidson set sail, confident about initial forecasts calling Joaquin a relatively weak system that would dissipate to the west and northwest. Still, he had a plan to bypass the storm if he needed to.
Inclement weather is a continual risk in the marine shipping business. But a series of unanticipated events would add up to tragedy–an inaccurate weather forecast that underestimated Joaquin’s potential, and mechanical failure that left El Faro adrift in the path of what was now Hurricane Joaquin wasn’t part of the Captain Davidson’s plan. The vessel and crew left port under clear skies in Jacksonville on that fated trip, which would end catastrophically just two days later.
Missing our seafaring brothers and sisters
For grieving loved ones and friends in the Merchant Marine, the loss was beyond overwhelming. Many are still coming to terms with the magnitude of their loss. It had been almost 60 years since the last sinking of an American-flagged ship–long before most of us were born. We had no point of reference to draw on as we struggled to comprehend what had happened, even though as Mariners, we’re well aware that tragedy can happen at sea. As it turns out, awareness doesn’t prepare you for this level of reality.
Almost two years have passed since our seafarer brothers and sisters perished, after fighting heroically to keep the ship afloat under unimaginable conditions. The news of their deaths reverberated worldwide, and across the U.S. they are being honored in some way by so many people who never knew them but were nonetheless overcome by the tragedy. Among the many memorial tributes:
- Cities from Jacksonville to Tulsa renamed municipal parks for the El Faro crew
- The Maine Legislature approved a resolution honoring fallen crew members
- The U.S. Senate passed a similar resolution
- A Facebook page @ElFaroSupport was established to pay tribute
- Hundreds of memorial services were held in venues ranging from churches to oyster bars
- A memorial plaque was placed on the submerged wreckage off the coast of the Bahamas
- A scholarship fund was established in one crew member’s memory for students in Maine
- Flags were flown at half-staff from Florida to Maine
- Flags were flown at half-mast in maritime communities, also from Florida to Maine
Preserving their memories
As Merchant Mariners, we will never forget our fallen sea mates, nor our duty to honor their memories. In the dark days following the shipwreck, many of us resolved to move forward and honor these friends and heroes in the only way that made any sense out of this disaster. We preserve their memories in death by taking care of the living—we reach out to their grieving family members, we attend to the needs of aging veterans, and, of course, we support each other.
The vast natural power of the ocean and the ever-present danger to men and women who venture across it make the line between life and death conspicuous. In his classic sea poem, “Crossing the Bar,” 19th Century Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson uses the nautical term for setting out to sea, “crossing the bar,” to represent a mariner embarking for “the boundless deep” as he prepares for death.
In memory of our shipmates and friends who crossed the bar too soon.
“Crossing the bar”
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have cross’d the bar.