Shipping is dangerous work and ships run aground, capsize, founder, or sink nearly every day. Some of these tragedies, though, capture the imagination and inspire writers to explore the reasons for their loss and to find some deeper meaning. The sinking of El Faro in Hurrican Joaquin on October 1, 2015, is just such a storm and has already inspired at least three books so far. Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea seeks to do more than tell the story of the loss of El Faro and its thirty-three crew members, she seeks to place it in the context of shifts in global trade, economic trends, and global warming. This makes for an absorbing and important narrative.
Slade looks at several factors that led to the disaster. Most obviously, global climate change has warmed the ocean, creating more violent storms and far more damaging hurricanes. Climate-change deniers in Congress have underfunded the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration because they are too afraid of climate science to fund good weather science. It’s very important for climate-change deniers that no one understands weather and climate are not the same, because then they could not bring snowballs into the House of Representatives to expose their ignorance.
She also looks at the leadership of El Faro, the captain, engineers, and officers. Certainly, it seems clear that Captain Davidson made several errors in judgment. He was unaware that his preferred weather update, a graphical representation of the weather, was several hours behind the National Weather Service whose update was textual and required being plotted by hand on their charts. He was responding to weather reports nine hours out of date and like many people, where there was a conflict in reports, he went with the report he liked best. He was also unreceptive to his subordinates advancing their concerns and concerned more about pleasing the on-shore executives than anyone else. He had recently been overlooked for a promotion and was resentful.
She considers the design of El Faro which is the most fascinating part in that the ship was retrofitted a few times to adapt to changing shipping trends without thinking carefully enough about how those changes affect the ship’s balance and seaworthiness. They were allowed again and again to take on more cargo, allowing the ship to rest lower and lower in the water without noticing that the vents on the side allow water in and are much lower. If you have a three-inch glass and it’s got a vent at two inches, the water does not wait to reach three inches before beginning to fill the glass.
Then she looks at management at TOTE, the company who owned El Faro. A more feckless bunch would be hard to find. It’s like they all watched “Wall Street” and though Gecko was the hero, not the villain. They fire the most experienced to replace them with cheaper and younger workers. They have someone unqualified to be an engineer on a ship overseeing all the ships. Their lead contact for ships at sea travels without leaving someone in charge. Sadly, because maritime law is heavily biased toward shipowners, they can cast all the blame on the captain.
There’s more, nonexistent inspections or next-to-worthless inspections. Like Wall Street, most maritime regulation and inspection is carried out by an organization created, funded, and in service to the shipowners. As in other industries, global trade patterns, outsourcing, and trends in labor have weakened the power of labor to advocate for safety. So many factors come together and you begin to wonder why there have not been more tragedies.
Rachel Slade does a great job of writing a compelling narrative that grabs your interest immediately. She is good at short character sketches, but her real strength is explaining the many unseen factors that led to disaster. In capturing the many historical and global trends that influenced decisions on the ship’s design, redesign, management, and maintenance, she is masterful.
I think she sometimes reaches unsupported conclusions when describing people’s character, particularly the women who are involved. For example, the crewing manager comes in for some serious criticism and the kind of gendered gossip that women in leadership often attract. However, her most significant act was ensuring Captain Davidson didn’t get promoted to the new ships. Considering his performance on El Faro, that sounds like a good decision to me. The other woman also came in for some of the same sort of commentary from men who worked with her, that she was scattered and forgetful and of course, rumored to have gotten her job because she filed a sexual harassment claim. But, of the officers on the bridge, she seemed to be more aware than anyone they were in danger and did more than anyone to point it out to the captain. If he had been willing to listen to her and if other officers had backed her up better, they would have changed course. Perhaps because Slade is also a woman, she didn’t want to seem partial, so she accepted the criticisms of these women even though they fit into the pattern of criticism women who seek jobs in men’s space always get. I think she should have taken more care to put those criticisms in the voice of the people who gave them, rather than in the author’s voice. That brings me to my second criticism. She tells us what people are thinking. Well, we know what they are doing and saying, but we can’t know their thoughts and motivations.
Lastly, I wish she had provided endnotes or footnotes. She lists her main sources, but she made some assertions that I would like to check, for example, that Florida is the most racist state. It sure could be and I assume she made that assertion based on the number of lynchings in Florida, but I don’t know because it is not sourced. There are other state’s that can make that claim based on other rationales. For example, my own state of Oregon prohibited Black people from owning land or a business or signing a contract in the state. Iowa and Indiana required black people to post a bond that would equal $15,000 in today’s dollars just to enter the state.
These are minor complaints when stacked against the scope of her research and the quality of her analysis. This is a fascinating story about a tragedy that could have been avoided and identitifies problems that probably guarantee it will happen again.
I received an ARC of Into the Raging Sea from the publisher through a Shelf Awareness drawing.