Horatio Clare

In the eye of the storm

In her gripping account of the unseaworthy El Faro, lost with all hands in 2015, Rachel Slade exposes Tote Maritime as a top-to-bottom disgrace

‘We are globalisation,’ a senior executive at the shipping company Maersk told me. ‘We enable it, and we have questions about it too, but we ask them in isolation.’ He then granted me leave to travel on Maersk vessels wheresoever I wished in order to write a book about shipping and seafarers, promising that Maersk’s lawyers would not vet the manuscript before publication.

Maersk have little to fear from writers. The giant corporation is effectively public-relations proof (if they stopped their ships’ engines today there would be a worldwide supply crisis the day after tomorrow). Moreover, Maersk is among the industry’s leaders, confident that whatever I found would be better, or no worse, than average standards at sea.

The American company at the heart of Rachel Slade’s excellent and gripping Into the Raging Sea, Tote Maritime, seems to have been a top-to-bottom disgrace in 2015, when its 790-ft container ship El Faro went down with all 33 hands off the Bahamas, having driven into the eye of a hurricane named Joaquin.

Slade does an incisive and compelling job explaining what happened to the El Faro, cutting between the doomed voyage, the backgrounds of the crew, the story of American shipping, the incompetent and venal owners and the would-be rescuers and investigators.

Using transcripts from the bridge (ships record their navigators’ conversations, storing them in ‘black boxes’), Slade’s narrative begins in that slightly sickening and compulsive mode which makes the words of those on the brink of disaster such transfixing reading.

Captain Michael Davidson’s ship is dying under him, flooded, listing and without power. Conditions outside are so severe that a person could barely breathe and certainly could not stand, so chaotically violent and intermingled are the wind and sea. Davidson tries to call his company’s manager in charge of safety, designated the QI — Qualified Individual:

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