One year ago today, mariners across the country waited tensely, desperately, for news about the SS El Faro, which was reported missing in Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, 2015. It didn't take long to understand that she had not survived; the Coast Guard search was called off at sunset on October 7, and the hope that had been holding everyone afloat for a week quickly crumbled into despair. After multiple attempts to locate the ship, the USNS Apache found her at the bottom of the ocean in one piece and a submersible returned with images on November 1, 2015, confirming the wreck was indeed the El Faro. The Voyage Data Recorder has since been recovered from the vessel in her final resting place on the sea floor. I doubt I'll ever be able to listen to those tapes, and I didn't even know anyone on board. For most seafarers, living vicariously through a fatal disaster unlocks visceral, primal reactions of fear and doubt. That's how I feel even attempting to read the now well-populated Wikipedia page on the ship to check my facts. There were two other notable tragedies on the waterfront in the last year; the drowning of three men in a collision on the Hudson River, and the death of a young deck hand in an accident in Naknek Alaska.
What hurts so deeply when I read about these incidents is that they were so goddamn preventable. Decisions were made that caused these things to happen; they didn't just occur out of the blue. I try not to dwell on what it would have been like to be in the shoes of the men and women facing their end, but now and then I put myself there and it's a terrible feeling. I've had my own close calls once or twice, and there are times when I wonder "what if?" What if I hadn't ducked before that line jumped the bitts? What if I were to have slipped and fallen in between the tug and barge instead of catching myself? It's so important that we take the lessons learned from these losses forward into the future and apply them to our own environments. Doesn't feel right? Don't do it; take your time, find a safer way. Category 3 hurricane? Don't sail, hide out, jog, take a different route. Losing a little time is better than the alternative.
But as a maritime community we need to come together to remember and honor those lost, as there have always been mariners lost to the sea. My friend Claire's moving tribute to her college roommate and longtime friend Danielle Randolph, who perished on board the El Faro along with 32 other crew, will remind us all why we are a family, and why we do the job in spite of the dangers we face.
To speed the return of the Sea Sisters to the world wide web after a lengthy absence, we have also introduced a new topic for discussion: what is it like being away from friends and family when you go to sea? Is it difficult to maintain relationships? How do you stay connected to immediate family members? If it's lonely, how do you cope, and do you think this has affected your personality? Speaking for myself, I am very different in many ways from the person I was seven years ago before I started going to sea. When you're away a lot, you see how much interaction you need from certain people and how much attention certain people need from you. You lose friends and gain friends; you become fierce in your devotion to your family. The isolation forces you also to get to know yourself, and knowing yourself changes the way you know others.
Our friend Jill has written a piece on the topic of communication between land and sea that at times made me laugh out loud. There is also a line in her essay that gave me pause: But going to sea has never been about living in real time. Those who live on land live their lives day by day; those who live half their lives at sea communicate with their loved ones at intervals where all the important details are condensed into a single conversation. Then we wait for the next conversation. She couldn't be more right in her assessment.