Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade

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The current book season has supplied readers with no fewer than three new books on the 2015 disaster in which the cargo container ship El Faro encountered Hurricane Joaquin and was lost with all hands: there was George Michelson Foy's Run the Storm, Tristram Korten's Into the Storm, and now Into the Raging Storm: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of the El Faro by Boston-based journalist Rachel Slade.

Each of these accounts is first-rate in its own way, rehearsing the same details about how the El Faro, under the command of Captain Michael Davidson, encountered Hurricane Joachin in the open ocean southeast of San Salvador. The story is naturally tempting to chroniclers, since it has dramatic flair, a tragic ending, and a very generous amount of moment-by-moment documentation. The El Faro was in touch with up-to-date National Weather Service bulletins about Joachin's track and growing strength, and long before midnight on the first of October, the vessel had more than enough weather data to know that the best course would be to divert course and take refuge from the storm in the Bahamas, which Slade evocatively describes as “the highest ridges of two huge limestone masses built up over millennia by the creation and compression of coral reefs.”

The El Faro didn't divert for cover. Instead, she sailed broadside into the storm's path at approximately the same time that the storm was reaching its peak strength. The last known position of the El Faro was logged at 7:30 in the morning on October 1st, and all that was left was for rescue crews to hunt for bodies.

The Coast Guard's report summarized things with stark simplicity and laid most of the blame on Captain Davidson, ignored the warnings of his colleagues, ignored the warnings of the weather bulletins, remained in his cabin the whole length of the night while the storm was closing in on his ship – and who'd made the mad decision not to avoid the storm in the first place, as he easily could have. The reports from the Coast Guard and other agencies do their best to soften the blow for the captain's widow and children, but incident's ample records leave no room for charity: Captain Davidson doomed his ship and crew through his own mixture of arrogance, indifference, and incompetence.

Slade tells this sad story with enormous energy and quotable inventiveness. Her long experience as a journalist shows on every page of her account, with her prose bringing every aspect of the El Faro saga to colorful life. Her descriptions of the natural world of the scenario are uniformly fantastic, particularly the descriptions of the storm itself, reminding her readers that “a hurricane is not a point on a map”:

It is not an object that exists in space and time. Rather, it's a huge catharsis – a brief, explosive event when nature's forces combine to spin off the ocean's heat into wind. Over its brief life span, a hurricane expends the power of ten thousand nuclear bombs. It's a spectacular display of thermodynamics in a complex, evolving, moving system.

The now-standard homily riding on the back of all accounts of the El Faro disaster looks forward rather than backward and raises concern about the safety of commercial vessels driven by corporate schedules (and corporate bottom lines) in an age of monster storms. Slade does mercifully little along these lines, and in this particular case that's a relief. As the sea warms, hurricanes will doubtless increase and strength and range and frequency, and this is indeed a concern for oceanic shipping and for the island inhabitants all along those shipping lanes. But all such issues are secondary in the case of the El Faro. The warning at the heart of that case is far simpler and far older than 21st century climate change: beware of a bad captain.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.