The El Faro’s conversion affected her handling, according to a man who served as Master of the vessel both before and after the change took effect.
Captain Jack Hearn, who is now a Delaware Bay Pilot Vessel Traffic Information Service Watch Officer and Executive Director of the American Professional Mariners Association, told the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation that he worked on the Northern Lights in the Alaskan trade, and later on the same vessel when she was converted to El Faro and moved to the Jacksonville to Puerto Rico route.
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Part of that conversion included work on the ship to accommodate carrying cargo on the deck. Hearn says that raised a stability concern for him.
“Especially if it’s a heavily loaded ship, it’s more tender and slow reacting to right itself, and because they were carrying heavier tonnage, they were slower. So you had a ship- just by tonnage- it would react slower and manage slower,” he says.
Hearn says there were concerns pre-conversion as well, noting that the purely roll-on roll-off ships had stress issues. But the ro-ro setting also meant the ship was stiffer, and therefore quicker to right herself.
If the ship takes longer to react on a roll, Hearn says it could impact cargo.
“Once you get to about 15 degrees, things can start moving a little quicker and stress the lashings. The cargo is relying on the lashings almost completely to stay in position,” he says.
He says the longer the hang time, the more opportunity for cargo to shift around.
Another thing that changed over the course of Hearn’s time with these ships is the support he received from the shore. He says around 2011 or 2012, a corporate restructuring led to the elimination of the Marine Operations Manager position, among other things. That position would serve as a direct contact for discussions on operations, voyage expectations, maintenance, and much more.
Before the restructuring, Hearn says there were clear lines of authority. By the time he left, however, he says it was more difficult and he often wasn’t sure who made the final decision.
Hearn added that was a transitional time, although he was concerned about having fewer people as dedicated shore side support overall. When asked by a TOTE Attorney whether he had any issues reaching the “Designated Person Ashore”, which is the main shore contact for all vessels, Hearn says he has not.
He did add during later questioning that there seemed to be a drop in experience and the resulting knowledge on deck, which he described as a “critical component” for dealing with and reacting to bad weather or mechanical issues.
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