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Luck and El Faro

April 9, 2018

One can read the loss of El Faro as the cumulation of multiple errors:

As is usually the case, the catastrophe was unfolding because of a combination of factors that had aligned, which included: Davidson’s caution with the home office; his decision to take a straight-line course; the subtle pressures to stick to the schedule; the systematic failure of the forecasts; the persuasiveness of the B.V.S. graphics; the lack of a functioning anemometer; the failure by some to challenge Davidson’s thinking more vigorously; the initial attribution of the ship’s list entirely to the winds; and finally a certain mental inertia that had overcome all of them. This is the stuff of tragedy that can never be completely explained.

When you read it that way, you get the usual lessons from path dependence: that a good deal of luck is involved. The kind of luck that goes into both large success and large failure. It certainly is the case that had a variety of things shifted just a bit, from the course of the storm to the schedule, the result would have been a close call rather than a catastrophe. And the captain likely would have taken that wrongly as confirmation that his decisions and actions had been sound.

That reading emphasizes the need to pay more attention to all problem routes all the time. While they isn’t a bad lesson, I’m skeptical it is the right one from this sinking. Most mariners on passage or making plans for one are obsessed with the latest weather information. That article shows a captain who seemed to become less concerned about weather updates even as conditions around him deteriorated. So much so that he sailed into the eyewall of a major hurricane, perhaps without fully realizing he was so doing. As NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt put it:

We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather. But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.

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