Over-reliance on High Tech May Have Caused a Sea Tragedy

The loss of the El Faro and 33 crew last October shines a spotlight on hubris

Posted Jan 03, 2016

Fumiste Studios
Source: Fumiste Studios

No one who has worked on the ocean underestimates the kind of trouble you can get into very quickly at sea, as one malfunction weakens safety’s fabric and causes the next fault and so on. But the ubiquitous use of GPS and computerized systems to run ships, with only minimal input from their crews, carries with it another wrinkle of risk specific to all such complex, information-loud systems: that small malfunctions will have exponentially amplified effects.

The case of the El Faro may well illustrate this axiom.

The officers of El Faro, a 790-foot-long, 31,515 gross ton container ship that disappeared Oct. 1, 2015, off the Bahamas with her 33 crewmembers in Hurricane Joaquin, were experienced professionals, many trained at the Massachusetts and Maine maritime academies, two of the country’s best sea schools: they knew how trouble happens.

The last known position of El Faro was off Crooked Island on Oct. 1, directly in the hurricane’s path; the last message from her captain indicated she had lost power following a “navigational incident.” She was listing fifteen degrees and taking on water, the message said.

(El Faro’s wreck was found by a Navy deep sea rescue ship, the USNS Apache, in November, not far from her last known position, in 15,000 feet of water. No bodies, other than that of one crewmember discovered floating in a survival suit shortly after the sinking, were found. Subsequent expeditions located and recovered the ship’s “black box”-style data recorder; the National Transportation Safety Board is currently trying to recover information from the recorder.)

El Faro, like most modern ships, was run with the help of computers that tracked the vessel’s position using Global Positioning System technology on an electronic chart overlaid with radar and traffic information. Her officers could follow weather patterns from satellite downloads and forecast services, although the weather forecasting service they utilized did not update in real time, or provide computer-optimized courses to avoid storms.

The fact that her skipper, leaving Jacksonville, Florida, chose to steam on for Puerto Rico despite the approaching hurricane indicates he was confident the ship, which was capable of speeds around 20 knots, could stay safely out of the storm’s grasp. It was a rational gamble, given how safe and efficient today’s powerful, computerized ships are, even by the standards of modern seafaring.

It was a gamble he lost.

Counting on your ship to speed out of a hurricane’s path is a justifiable option in the culture of today’s merchant marine. But the loss of El Faro suggests that the culture itself might be flawed by the same kind of technological hubris, albeit different in details, that caused the sinking of RMS Titanic and a crowd of other ships since then. Titanic’s captain thought his ship unsinkable because she was unprecedentedly big and powerful and had watertight compartments that would, he thought, keep her afloat in the event of a collision. He ran her at excessive speeds through iceberg-clogged waters in part because his owners wished to prove how fast and invulnerable the liner was.

Today’s wondrous high-tech systems guide and power commercial ships almost independently of the ocean’s vagaries. Those systems are coordinated by time signals measured to nanosecond accuracy by two to four atomic clocks in each GPS satellite; the ship’s position is pinpointed, every second of every day, down to a few meters or less.

But the systems coordination made possible by GPS-type precision means that, when one system goes south, the whole ship can go with it. This happened to the USS Yorktown, an Aegis warship testing the Navy’s “smart ship” system in the late ‘nineties. When a technician entered the wrong digit on his terminal, the ship’s computers crashed, and all power systems crashed with them. The guided-missile cruiser was left helpless; dead in the water, according to Government Computer News.

When the United Kingdom’s General Lighthouse Authority shut down GPS off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire to see what would happen to one of their ships in case of jamming, a similar systems crash occurred. The authority’s report concluded, “There are several questions raised by this trial, such as the ability of a vessel’s crew to quickly revert to traditional means of navigation and also the extent to which they are able to navigate with these means. ... Given the greater reliance on satellite navigation, in particular GPS, these skills are not being used daily and are no longer second nature.”

Relying too much on technology that tells us where we are at all times and also runs our ships for us, at the expense of traditional maritime skills, is a trend likely to continue. By way of example, although the Massachusetts and Maine maritime academies still teach traditional celestial navigation—how to find position using sextant and stars—a Maine Maritime captain recently told Ocean Navigator magazine, “Going forward, celestial navigation will have less and less emphasis in our crowded maritime-academy curriculum.” (The US Naval Academy at Annapolis dropped celestial navigation entirely from its curriculum in 1998, but reinstated the discipline in abbreviated form in 2015 because of concerns about GPS jamming in wartime.)

The marine insurance giant Allianz, while emphasizing the relative safety of modern seafaring, recently listed “overreliance on electronic navigation” as the first of three main factors responsible for large ship losses.

What such trends suggest is that the “ordinary practice of seamen”— the responsibility, as cited in the international maritime Rules of the Road, to keep good lookout and exercise the kind of traditional prudence that has evolved over millennia of seafaring—is changing in favor of trust in technological mechanisms and processes that, while they promote safety overall, can lead to exceptionally perilous situations when they do malfunction.

(One traditional element in navigational decisions that is unlikely to change is head-office pressure to keep to a tight schedule. Every day a large ship sits idle in port, waiting for better weather, costs the owner tens of thousands of dollars. While the captain always has final authority, he or she cannot help but feel the pressure to make deadlines. Whether such a factor played a part in Captain Davidson’s decision to sail with a hurricane looming is one focus of an ongoing Coast Guard investigation into the tragedy.)

We may not ever know exactly what happened to El Faro, even if the voice/data recorder on board proves to contain relevant information. In the absence of certainty, we must remember that El Faro, though old, was well maintained; her crew and officers were among the best-trained mariners in the world. If they relied too heavily on their tech, they were only following a trend that has characterized shipping for the last twenty-five years. But it bears repeating that, no matter how good the navigational and mechanical technology, seamen and the companies that hire them must leave time and space and margin for error to get ships and crew out of trouble if--or rather when--the technology fails.

And lying in the background of the El Faro mystery is the unimaginable might and potential peril of the ocean, that technology can mitigate but never vanquish; and which even traditional prudence will not always suffice to escape.