Jacksonville, FL - Just hours ahead of the El Faro sinking, the Hurricane Joaquin storm track provided through their on-board weather system was outdated.
While there are a few sources a Captain can use to get weather information, the vessel was equipped with the Bon Voyage System through Applied Weather Technology. The system takes the National Hurricane Center forecast and applies other factors to get a better picture of “wind and wave” conditions at sea. El Faro would receive a data package four times a day with the latest information.
On September 30th, however, a data package the ship received had the same storm track for Joaquin as the package they’d received earlier in the day.
“The underlying model data was up to date. The winds, the waves, the pressure were all up to date. The storm track was out of date,” says AWT Vice President of Operations Richard Brown.
To understand that impact, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation dug deeper in to how the system works, from gathering the initial weather observations to generating the final data packages- and they found there are actually, generally, significant delays there as well.
FULL COVERAGE: El Faro Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation
When you consider the duplicated storm track, for example, which came in a data package at 0900 ZULU- or 5 AM EST- the track was the same as a data package the El Faro got six hours earlier, at 0300. The Bon Voyage System data package at 0300 uses the National Hurricane Center forecast from 2100 the prior day, which in itself is based on weather observations from about three hours prior.
So weather observations go in to a formal NHC forecast within three hours, which then take six hours to process and distribute through BVS.
BVS data, therefore, is based on nine hour old information. With the El Faro having a duplicated storm track in one of the data packages, that means by the time the ship got a new one, it was working on a track about 21 hours old.
“An anomaly that we have not reproduced or identified,” says AWT Assistant Manager of Tech Support and Customer Service Jerry Hale.
Brown says it appears AWT was late to process some cyclone information, and that led to the duplication. This was the day prior to the vessel sinking. Several witnesses have told the Board the Captain intended to skirt around Joaquin based on the forecast data he had.
There are other sources of information, for example the Captain is able to get the forecast maps immediately straight from NHC. Those maps do not include any of the BVS enhancements, however.
AWT also offers a feature through BVS to get a “tropical update”, which would distribute a new data set based on any tropical weather update within an hour of the NHC forecast coming out. Brown says El Faro did not elect to receive those updates.
“The agreement with AWT is to provide data, it does not contain any stipulations regarding the amount of data collected. In other words, once an account is active, they can collect as often as deemed necessary or desired, and the only concern may be communications costs that would be incurred by a vessel when collecting additional data,” Brown says.
He says the tropical updates could have been elected for any period of time, generally a decision made by the Captain. He says AWT records showed no restrictions put in place by TOTE about whether Captains were allowed to opt in to more data.
AWT says they didn’t have any signs of other problems with the El Faro’s use of BVS. They also didn’t receive any requests for additional training since the El Faro had updated to the latest version of BVS.
El Faro had used BVS at least since 2011, according to AWT. The company further says there are thousands of vessels that use their weather service, many are commercial.
WOKV will continue to monitor the CGMBI. Get instant updates on Twitter.