Tragedy at sea isn’t about assigning blame

The life of a merchant mariner is beyond the horizon, out of view of the average person. Food from South America, electronics from Asia, and machinery from Europe all arrive at our shores due to the daily work of mariners. As a coastal state, Maine has a proud seafaring history that carries into the present workforce. 

The maritime community is close-knit, much like that of the general Maine population. In harbors, airports, and bus stations worldwide, Maine mariners are bumping into each other on their journeys to and from work. They lament the time spent away from home and swap stories of the beautiful state they’ve left behind.


The typical mariner will work some form of rotation often requiring at least half of the year spent at sea. In the coastal trade, I work a 21/21 rotation, which means I spend 21 days at work, followed by 21 days at home. This rotation continues indefinitely throughout the years, consuming holidays and birthdays by chance. Other common rotations range from 14/14 to 90/90 or more. 

This tight community took a major blow last year, as 33 mariners were lost during Hurricane Joaquin aboard El Faro on October 1, 2015. Among those lost were four fellow Mainers, and four fellow Maine Maritime alumni, two of which were classmates of my wife and I. Despite all of the drills I’ve partaken in over the years, the dangers of the ocean had never felt as real as they do after that tragedy. 


With the recent release of the audio transcript from the bridge of the El Faro, there are new questions, new details, and more pain for the families involved. It’s a necessary process, to learn from our mistakes and to help prevent such a disaster from happening again. Nonetheless, it opens wounds and draws critics, particularly of the captain and shoreside management.

I can not, and will not, judge Captain Michael Davidson of Windham for the decisions he made during that storm. The position of captain aboard any ship, particularly a large ocean going vessel such as El Faro, is one of immense pressure. As the ship’s representative and master, the captain must balance the needs of the clients, the company, and the crew, all while protecting the crew, ship, and cargo from harm. How a captain responds to anyone of these pressures directly affects the others, and can ultimately decide the fate of a voyage.

This latest release of information emphasizes these challenges and highlights the recommendations by the mates to alter course and distance the ship from the eye of the storm. Many, in hindsight, will say that he should have listened to his officers. The reality is we will never know if that would have saved the ship. 


There are so many factors that led to the loss of the El Faro; no single decision, or person, is to blame. Included in the reports is evidence of a series of mechanical and structural failures, ultimately leading to a loss of propulsion. It is entirely possible that even after altering course the vessel would have suffered damage equally as devastating. 

I am reminded of a casualty analysis theory which says that each event leading up to a catastrophe is like a slice of swiss cheese. Each piece has a slightly different hole pattern, but as you stack the slices, you will eventually find one hole that penetrates the entire stack. This continuous hole represents the sum of a series of imperfections, and ultimately a casualty. Each slice of that cheese is partially responsible.

[Tweet “We can not bring back those that we lost, but we can help to protect those that are still here.”]

At the core of life at sea, is the crew with which you work. These shipmates are a family away from home, a team, and a well-oiled machine. The system they work within, however, is a very specific chain of command; a time-honored tradition of organization and authority. As the pinnacle of authority on El Faro, Capt. Davidson was to lead his team towards a common goal. 


A captain in the modern age, he knew that you must listen to your team’s concerns, value their input, and rely on their judgment when you are off watch. Some will read the transcript and infer that he ignored his crew’s requests to alter course and that he is to blame for the events to follow. In reading it myself, however, I see a captain that accepted input from his crew and used all available resources to make his decisions. It was his right and his responsibility to make the final decision.

The priority of crew safety over client demands and company pressures is relatively new in the world of shipping, an industry several centuries old. With each passing year, regulations and standard practices for crew health and safety are implemented. One will find that the companies with the best safety records are often industry leaders, rewarded for their diligence. 

Rather than waste my energy on placing blame for events in the past, I choose to learn from the events that transpired and apply them to my career and my personal life. We can not bring back those that we lost, but we can help to protect those that are still here.

During this festive time of year, when a majority of the gifts we exchange are shipped in one form or another, think of those who are away from their families, keeping the wheels of global economy spinning one nautical mile at a time. 

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.