Cargo Ship, El Faro appears to have sunk during category 4 hurricane

A cargo ship, El Faro, has gone missing after leaving the port of Jacksonville, Fla., early last week. The ship was headed to Puerto Rico when it lost power and, ultimately, contact with its home base and the U.S. Coast Guard. The ship traveled into what it reportedly thought to be a tropical depression but the storm later developed into a Category 4 hurricane.

Although a 200+ mile debris field was discovered in the Caribbean Sea on October 4, rescue crews were unable to find signs of either the ship or survivors. On October 7, almost exactly one week after the ship disappeared, authorities announced that they were calling off the search.

When the ship went missing, it was in waters with depths of 15,000 feet. The hurricane produced recorded winds at 140 miles an hour, and waves, when last reported, were more than 35 feet high. The company said in a statement that the officers and crew were monitoring the storm when El Faro began to take on water and tilt to one side. The ship lost all communications and has not been in contact since. 

The ship was reported to have a crew of 33 on board, including 28 Americans and five Polish nationals. It is yet unknown whether there are survivors as search and rescue continues. The U.S. Coast Guard in its search for the ship has located a debris field, empty life boats and survival suits.

On Monday, October 5, when the U.S. Coast Guard recovered the one unidentified body and debris, it was in waters off of the Bahamas.  Rescue officials focused the search to the Crooked Islands of the Bahamas in an effort to rescue any survivors.

Motley Rice attorney and CNN Analyst Mary Schiavo described the ship as a Ro/Ro or “roll on, roll off” ship for transporting both vehicles and cargo, also known as a Ro-Con, and similar to a ferry boat in vulnerabilities. “The wide flat decks made the ship very vulnerable in water and hurricane conditions,” Schiavo told CNN in an interview on October 6. Schiavo explained that several factors could have played a role in the sinking of this ship: 

  • First of course was the decision to continue the voyage through the hurricane. It is not always possible, nor even safe to attempt to make port once the hurricane is bearing down on the ship.  
  • Second was the fact that the ship lost its propulsion and was listing powerless in huge waves. The way to attack a wave is to power into the wave up and over the crest. Without power the ship would have been extremely vulnerable to capsizing with waves hitting it broadside.
  • The third problem is with the ship itself. The ship was built in 1975 as a RoRo, which is short for “roll on, roll off.” These ships have entrances below the top deck level where vehicle can be driven on and off the ship. RoRos are similar to and function very much like ferries. This ship also carried cargo and is known as a Ro-Con. It carried 391 containers and 294 vehicles. The wide decks suitable for vehicles makes the ship vulnerable to water accumulating on and flooding the decks. The sloshing of water on the decks causes the “free surface effect” which destabilizes the ship and can cause it to list and thereafter to capsize very quickly and almost without warning.

The last messages from the crew reported the ship was listing and taking on water. Schiavo believes it most likely capsized very quickly when hit by a large wave. Many ferry sinkings are caused in this way—capsizing and sinking very quickly.