Into the Storm|
Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival
Ballantine Books, 2018, HC, 288 pp, $28.00
In his first book, Tristram Korten tackles the tragic and heroic travails of two ships captains, one of the El Faro, a 790 ft. American cargo ship, and the other the Minouche, a 230 ft. freighter. In late September 2015, Captain Michael Davidson of the El Faro, and Captain Renelo Gelera of the Minouche, were caught up in one of the most unpredictable hurricanes of record, Joaquin.
Though this is Korten's first book, he is a well versed writer, and it is evident in his prose. Into the Storm is a riveting read. The fact that Korten is a journalist is also evident in his depth of research. This book is a well-balanced combination of shipping and coast guard history; and an exciting tale of survival, rescues and what happens when everything that can go wrong does on the Atlantic Ocean.
The tragedy of the El Faro was a combination of miscalculations, the age of the ship and its lack of updated technology. Because of a 1920's law, the Jones Act "any cargo transported from one U.S. port to another must travel on ships that are American built, American crewed, and American owned." This, Korten explains means the cost of an American built ship can cost $120 to $140 million, as opposed to the $32 million it would cost to build in South Korea. All of this means that the Jones Act ships stay at sea much longer, 33 years as opposed to the 13 years of a global fleet. Unfortunately this is an example of the bottom line being balanced against human lives. In addition to this the El Faro was grandfathered in, meaning that some safety regulations were not required. This meant old open topped lifeboats were allowed, and its EPIRB or emergency position-indicating radio beacon was not encoded with GPS.
Korten describes the crew of the El Faro's actions, including Captain Davidson's conversations with them via recordings from the ship. It is clear Davidson's information is outdated and his tracking of Joaquin is wrong. This convergence of errors leads to the sinking of El Faro and the loss of all on board. Korten writes with sensitivity to the surviving families and interviews them extensively.
The fate of the Minouche is far rosier, if you can say having your ship sink off the Bahamas in the middle of a hurricane rosy. A combination of superstition and years as a Captain lead Galera to interpret Joaquin as a danger just in time to muster his crew to the bridge. Korten writes "the Ship was running fine... they [the crew] must have thought that after all those years at sea, the man had finally lost his mind." However chief mate Henry Latigo never doubted Galera saying "The captain have the power, he have the second eye."
What follows after the sinking of the Minouche is a harrowing coast guard helicopter rescue. Before the ship went down Captain Galera enacted all of his emergency distress signals. With this information and the help of two Good Samaritan ships the coast guard is able to find the life raft the crew members are on. This may be my favorite part of Into the Storm. Korten brings the reader right onto the helicopter, into the ocean, into the life raft. He also describes the thought processes and split second decisions that the guards-men have to make, having to leave the raft after a cable is frayed, or when running low on fuel. Korten also describes what is going on in the raft, the fear the sailors are feeling "a thought to terrible began to creep into the sailors' minds: If thousands of pounds of steel couldn't protect them, what chance did they have with only a few millimeters of rubber and canvas separating them from the depths?"
In all honesty I probably enjoyed this part of the book as much for its prose as for its happy ending. Knowing throughout Into the Storm the fate of the El Faro, it is refreshing to have some good news. In Into the Storm we are met with sorrow and graditude, anger and elation, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in sailing, the coast guard and history.