George Foy's new book details the tragic loss of El Faro to Hurricane Joaquin
It's officially nine days until the start of 2018 hurricane season. And by the time it ends in late November, most professional forecasters predict there will have been 12 named storms and five hurricanes — two of which will be major.
In this part of Connecticut — home to the Hurricane of '38; a scary brush with Super Storm Sandy; and just a few hours' drive from Gloucester, Mass., a town forever associated with the so-called "Perfect Storm" — folks get a little anxious at the idea of such meteorological activity.
Mild anxiety is at most what the crew of the aging, 790-foot American cargo ship El Faro felt on Sept. 29, 2015, when it left Jacksonville, Fla., on another routine run to Puerto Rico. After all, while there was a tropical system, newly named Joaquin, gathering in the North Atlantic, it wasn't expected to become a big storm. And, given its location and projected path, it should have been no problem for the ship to skirt any trouble.
But nothing "established" or "routine" happened from the moment El Faro hit open seas.
By dawn on the morning of Oct. 1, Joaquin had become a Category 4 hurricane that meandered in a direction no meteorologist had foreseen. And, after El Faro captain Michael Davidson unaccountably maintained a course directly into the eye of the storm — sustained 130 mph winds and waves up to 50 feet — the ship sank in the Bermuda Triangle before a Mayday was even issued, killing all 33 hands onboard.
It was the greatest American maritime disaster in 40 years, and the story is captivatingly — horrifyingly — told in "Run the Storm," a new book by George Michelson Foy, a veteran novelist and author of nonfiction works who teaches creative writing at New York University. Foy is also a former commercial fisherman and a watch-keeper on British schooners, and he holds a coastal captain's license from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Foy will discuss and sign copies of "Run the Storm" Wednesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic. "Run the Storm" is a remarkable achievement for many reasons, not the least of which is that Foy originally didn't want to write it. His previous book, "Finding North," a history of navigation told through the death at sea of a great-great grandfather, addressed a lot of similar material, and an earlier novel, "To Sleep with Ghosts," dealt with a maritime accident off the coast of East Africa.
"I didn't want to be typecast as the 'shipwreck writer,'" says the affable Foy by phone last week. "But there were a lot of (New England-based mariners) onboard El Faro, so I started following the story as the storm intensified. Later, when I read the transcripts, I was transfixed. It had every element of a Greek tragedy, and suddenly I wanted to figure it out as far back as I could take it."
He began to look into the voyage, but with "middling success. The corporate people wouldn't talk to me, but what I could learn from evidence in the lawsuits and online allowed me to go fairly deep into the tiny details of corporate dynamics. The navigation equipment was up to date — they had good radar and GPS, but other aspects of the ship itself indicate it wasn't in great shape."
Once engaged, Foy's mariner's knowledge and instincts helped, of course, allow him to chronicle the machinations of a large and complex ship, the onboard culture and hierarchies, and the anticipation and mindset of increasing meteorological alarm. At the same time, as a fluid prose stylist — he has a fiction grant from the National Endowment of the Arts — Foy conveys mechanical and navigational material in terms that are not only understandable but actually help the flow of the narrative.
His history of the ship and of Tote, the line that owned the El Faro, is also compelling. At times, it reads like a Joseph Find novel of corporate chicanery; at other times, it comes across like a depressing story of all-too-familiar "profits first" philosophy.
Too, the author's ability to capture the personalities of the crew members — including 26-year-old third engineer Mitchell Kuflik, a Groton native who graduated from Fitch High School and the Maine Maritime Academy — is remarkably empathetic and multi-dimensional.
"I had a long talk with Mitchell's fiancee, Brittany Shinn (also a Fitch graduate), at a coffee shop in Brooklyn," Foy says, adding the family didn't want to speak and authorized her to do so. "It sounds like theirs was a sweet story. Mitch sounds like a fun and interesting guy, very well-liked. I can see him in my mind. His watch was coming on at about the time the ship was getting into real trouble. Based on his enthusiasm and level of commitment and his achievements at the maritime academy, you know he was on duty and stayed on duty, doing anything he could ..."
Foy pauses. "You know, I wasn't looking for bad apples when I wrote this. That's not what I was interested in. And I couldn't find anyone. They were all professionals. They were good at what they did, and they were proud."
The book is ultimately about a confluence of unlikely and/or avoidable circumstances and, as such, the purpose isn't to assign specific blame. At the same time, it's hard for the reader not to wonder why Captain Davidson continually ignored the increasingly agitated pleas from crew members about the ship's course and the rapidly strengthening storm.
"Davidson had a role to play in the tragedy," Foy says simply. "But so did the regulatory system, the corporation, bad forecasts, the storm itself ... It's hard to say which factor was most egregious, but that ship shouldn't have sunk. The quantum of disaster — so many tiny little details that build into catastrophe — can be overwhelming."
Two things particularly stand out in "Run the Storm." One is that, three miles deep on the ocean floor, a search located and rescued El Faro's voyage data recorder — or "black box." The last 26 hours of conversation among various crew members, engineers, the captain, and able seamen was all recovered. Foy says that this is absolutely unprecedented information in the annals of sea disasters and that reading the 500 pages of transcripts was mesmerizing.
But the way Foy inserts excerpts from recorded dialogue at precise moments in the story is brilliantly dramatic and incredibly sobering. In fact, his whole story arc and construction is superbly done.
"I worried about the flow of the story," Foy admits. "I teach creative writing, and one thing I talk about with my students is that, yes, YOU have have to be the reader you satisfy first. But it's also (crap) that you're just writing for yourself. You're always writing for other readers. In a book like this, it's fair to assume that a great percentage don't undestand the details of how a cargo ship works. I was conscious of the complexities of that and tried to stay away from jargon or getting overly technical. I hope it worked."
Most astonishing, though, are Foy's descriptions and metaphors used to describe the accelerating power of Joaquin. There will presumably be dozens of thrillers and horror novels published this year that will not have the sheer and frightening strength of Foy's words. They're Conrad by way of James Lee Burke, Melville through the prism of Marquez.
Foy says that the unanticipated strength and path of Joaquin is troubling and that the water temperature at the time of the storm's incubation — two degrees warmer than normal — is something that seems to be the new normal.
"Warm water is the fuel of a hurricane, and they're going to continue to be more intense and probably more frequent. We now have available an incredible amount of data in terms of storm analysis. But you could mulitiply that by a trillion times, and we still can't predict meteorological information. I'm afraid, though, on the aggregate, we're going to get more and worse storms," he says.
In the end, Foy is glad he wrote "Run the Storm" and says that, as a writer, he enjoyed the process. At the same time, by the time he finished, he was more than ready to get back to fiction.
"I wasn't depressed by writing the book or what happened to El Faro," he says, choosing his words carefully. "But I was very saddened. Part of it is that there WAS a feeling of redemption. By that I mean, as (El Faro second mate) Danielle Randolph once told her mother, 'If something happened to me, I'm at sea, and that's where I want to be.' A lot of these guys, the sea is what they loved. The families I spoke with were the same way. They were gutsy and generous about something that is horrible and sad. In the end, they made me feel admirable about people."
If you go
Who: Author George Michelsen Foy
What: Discusses and signs copies of "Run the Storm," about Hurricane Joaquin and the sinking of El Faro
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic
How much: Free; copies of the book are available for purchase
For more information: (860) 536-3795