The Crew that Tried to Save the SS El Faro

Captain Michael Davidson
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Captain Michael Davidson

In the maritime world, Maine native Michael Davidson had it made. He’d joined TOTE Maritime, the company that owned El Faro, in 2012, signing on as a third mate and working up to captain. That made him the highest-ranking officer on the largest category of ship in the U.S. cargo fleet, with pay in the $200,000-plus range. But he’d also learned the hazards of not toeing a company line.

Before working for TOTE, Davidson was a captain for Crowley Maritime in Jacksonville — but he lost that job after refusing to sail a ship because he said the vessel’s steering was unsafe.

At TOTE, two months before Hurricane Joaquin, Davidson took a 160-mile detour to avoid Tropical Storm Erika. That extra time and fuel may have made him look bad in management’s eyes. In the black-box transcript, he agrees with his chief mate that he’s “in line for the choppin’ block.” TOTE had ordered two brand-new natural-gaspowered ships for Davidson’s route, and he’d applied to be captain. He’d been turned down for one and wasn’t optimistic about getting the other.

As for his management style, crew members described Davidson as magnanimous but arrogant, with little interest in the details of running a ship.

Seaman Kurt Bruer, who had worked under Davidson, calls him “one of the laziest captains I’d ever sailed with,” saying that Davidson spent most of his time in his cabin instead of walking the ship as other captains would do.

Still, others who have borne the responsibility of captaining a ship say Davidson’s failure to deal with Joaquin could have happened to any leader. “He seemed like a pretty normal captain,” says George Collazo, a Seattle-based ship captain. “He could have done the same thing 100 times and been fine.”