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When properly used, marine weather routing services help ships avoid dangerous storms

Jan 28, 2016 12:21 PM
A satellite image shows the extent of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas and Cuba on Oct. 1, the day El Faro disappeared. Weather routing services aim to help operators avoid hurricanes and other storms that may pose a safety risk.

Courtesy NOAA

A satellite image shows the extent of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas and Cuba on Oct. 1, the day El Faro disappeared. Weather routing services aim to help operators avoid hurricanes and other storms that may pose a safety risk.

The sinking of El Faro off the Bahamas in October 2015 has raised uncomfortable questions about the ship’s condition, potential pressures from the home office and the captain’s decision-making at sea. 

In particular, many have questioned why the 790-foot ship maintained its course even as Hurricane Joaquin churned toward it. For those within the weather routing industry, that decision remains especially troubling. 

“In terms of El Faro, I was shocked to hear any vessel was anywhere near the storm,” said Capt. Richard Miller, an assistant professor at Maine Maritime Academy who teaches weather routing. 

Miller and other instructors teach students the “1-2-3 Rule.” That standard, which is widely used and understood in the maritime world, is designed to keep vessels a safe distance from tropical cyclones. Using National Hurricane Center storm predictions, the 1-2-3 Rule creates a potential “danger area” covering the storm’s likely path over 72 hours. The danger area expands 100 nm every 24 hours, creating a cone-shaped zone where mariners could encounter hazardous conditions. 

“If we did that for El Faro for a hurricane, you would end up drawing a fairly large area of no-go zone,” Miller said in an interview. “The ship should not be in that zone if they want to safely avoid the storm. That is what we teach here and what they teach at the Maritime Training Center.”

Writing on the Old Salt Blog, sailor and naval architect Rick Spilman said the El Faro accident was, at the very least, a result of “horribly lax weather routing.”

El Faro left Jacksonville, Fla., at about 2000 on Sept. 29, 2015, and headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico, despite National Hurricane Center warnings that Tropical Storm Joaquin would likely strengthen. Three hours after the ship departed, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for an area that included parts of the Bahamas. Six hours later, the warning was extended to the Central Bahamas along the ship’s likely route.

On Oct. 1 at about 0700, Capt. Michael Davidson told TOTE officials that El Faro had lost propulsion, its hull had been breached and a scuttle had blown open. The ship was listing 15 degrees and taking on water. About 15 minutes after that call, the Coast Guard received automated alerts from the vessel but never made contact with the ship, which was drifting about 35 miles northeast of Crooked Island. Thirty-three mariners died when the ship went down, and none of their bodies were recovered.

After an extensive search, the Navy found the ship’s remains 15,000 feet below the surface on Oct. 31 in the area of its last known location, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. The ship’s voyage data recorder has not been located and the Navy has abandoned its search for the device.

TOTE Maritime, which owned El Faro through an affiliate, has said the vessel’s captain and crew had access to real-time satellite weather and other resources at sea. The ship’s trackline showed that it sailed a route farther west than its normal course to San Juan. TOTE officials would not say if El Faro used a weather routing service.

An NTSB spokesman in December said the agency was not ready to release that level of detail on the incident.

Effective weather routing begins in the days, weeks and even months before the ship departs, according to industry experts. Using the ship’s size, hull shape, capabilities, limitations, destination and other factors, weather routing firms should use advanced weather, wind and wave forecasts to develop a custom route. These routes are generated to ensure safety, minimize transit time, avoid damage to the vessel or cargo and maximize crew comfort, said Rick Shema, a certified consulting meteorologist and president of the routing service Weatherguy.com.

Shema, who operates from Hawaii and has commercial and recreational customers around the world, said route plans are fluid and often are updated in real time based on weather changes and the captain’s observations. However, there is little that can be done once a ship has already encountered the bad weather.

“Routing options to avoid hazardous weather may become limited once a vessel is threatened by a storm. The idea behind weather routing is to efficiently route a ship via the fastest route, minimizing fuel burn and avoiding hazardous weather,” he said. “The earlier a certified router comes into play, the more route options may be available for the ship to consider, especially in winter months.”

The cost of weather routing services can vary widely. But if done right, these services save the operator money by reducing fuel consumption and damage to the ship or lost cargo, said Miller, of Maine Maritime. Although many large vessels now have advanced satellite broadband services that offer real-time weather reports, routing services typically have access to more sophisticated data.

“Having a meteorologist or trained forecaster being able to review weather products, they are going to be able to look ahead … and hopefully route the ship in the best possible direction not only for safety but also fuel efficiency,” he said.

Worldwide, a handful of large companies dominate the market for large commercial ships, including Weather Routing Inc., Applied Weather Technology and FleetWeather. These firms either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed. FleetWeather, meanwhile, is transitioning away from weather routing services, according to a spokesman.

There are numerous smaller firms that provide these services for commercial vessels, private yachts and sailboats. Chris Parker, owner of Lakeland, Fla.-based Marine Weather & Communications LLC, creates custom routes that aim to keep clients away from the “worst plausible scenario” that could occur based on uncertainty with the weather forecast.

Consider the forecast that calls for winds between 17 and 30 knots and 4- to 8-foot seas with a chance of a squall. For most commercial vessels, this is no big deal. But for smaller yachts or sailboats, the 30-knot winds and 8-foot seas could be serious. Custom routes aim to keep vessels safe should the worst plausible weather scenario happen.

Parker was not involved with routing El Faro, but said his suggested route for the vessel would have been to travel between Florida and the Bahamas and then southeast between Cuba and the Bahamas, using the island nation to minimize impacts from Hurricane Joaquin.

“There was no plausible scenario that would have gotten Joaquin within 100 miles of the coast of Cuba,” Parker said. “They would have seen maybe tropical storm-force winds but from port stern quarter or directly astern, but not more than 30 to 50 knots. The sea state would be less than you’d expect given that wind, given relatively limited fetch.”

It’s possible, of course, that El Faro received similar routing instructions before departure or during the voyage that were not followed. Shema said captains sometimes depart even when forecasts are approaching the vessel’s wind and wave limits.

“They might proceed with caution, assuming the crew can handle short durations of adverse weather. Most commercial ships are on a tight schedule and under pressure to get the cargo to their destination,” Shema said. “That doesn’t change the forecast. It’s up to the captain whether or not to leave. However, there are other mitigating procedures that can be employed to reduce the risk of departing when rough conditions are in the forecast.”

Maine Maritime and other academies offer training in weather routing and meteorology. Miller believes weather routing works best when the master can discuss the route with the routing service and the home office based on real-time conditions at sea.

“They should have a dialogue with the routing service and have a mutual agreement,” he said. “You have a professional resource on shore, but also in turn have the skills and knowledge of the master at sea.”

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