The illustration is of the El Moro a typical T2, identical to the Musgrave Mills before conversion into the Marine Electric. 

 Back in November 2015 I was prompted by some discusssion on American marine social media to have a look at the loss of the US registed deep sea vessel the Marine Electric and wrote 1200 words for my newsletter about it, mainly describing the limited and ineffective patching of the deck and hatch covers which probably in the end contributed to the disaster. But I had not done it justice, and so here is a fuller summary of the Coast Guard report, although even this longer version has limitations, and it is suggested that if you want to get a feel for the full extent of the professional failings on the part of everyone involved, you should have a look at the actual report.

The loss became the subject of a court case, a book written in 2003 and a film on the History Channel. The investigation report ran to 154 odd pages and took the owners, the US Coast Guard and the classification society, ABS, to task for their failure to recognise that the ship was seriously deficient in its ability to undertake ocean vogages. Some would consider that this described it as “unseaworthy”.

The Marine Electric had originally been a T2 tanker which had entered commercial service as the Musgrove Mills in 1947, having been built in America in 1944. It was 588 feet long and 75 feet wide. It was classified with ABS (The American Bureau of Shipping). In May 1961 it was purchased by Marine Transport Lines Corp. Historically the T2 was a ship type built to transport petroleum products across the Atlantic during the second World War. They were typically constructed in the amazingly short time of 70 days. In 1962 the ship was converted for its new role as a bulk carrier at the Bethlehem Steel Company. This meant cutting out the centre body of the ship and inserting a five hatch mid section which had been built at Bremer Vulcan Germany and towed across the Atlantic, hence retaining the bow and the stern, and moving the centre housing, including the bridge, aft. The ship was registered in Wilmington, Delaware. 

Forward of the five hatches which formed the bulk carriage capability was a small cargo hatch which had resulted from the need to connect the new centre body to the bow section. It was secured by “non-ferrous bolts and wing nuts”. The space beneath was available for storing mooring ropes and was connected with further storage spaces which extended all the way to the bow around the chain lockers. Later divers examining the wreck found that the hatch cover had been torn off.

The hatches of the new mid section were protected by MacGregor single pull hatch covers, formed from six steel panels which spanned the width of the opening. When open they stowed vertically at the end of the coaming and were closed by a wire to be attached to the first panel from the winch and then for it to be heaved away. The covers would then tip into the horizontal and their wheels would turn in a channel along either side of the coaming. The crew would then lower the wheels, dog down the sides and walk across the hatches hammering the wedges across which would pull the joints together. The investigators determined that the hatches conformed with the ABS rules and that they would be hose tested when installed and at times of SPS.

In the upper corners of the holds were triangular ballast tanks (usually kept empty due to their deteriorated condition), and beneath each hold was a port and starboard ballast tank. At the bow was a single deep tank and the forepeak. The ship was provided with a pump room forward for the two forward tanks and an after pump room for the main ballast system. The holds were also provided with  bilge suctions and the whole was operated by the former T2 cargo pumps, all under control of the engineers.

The ship seems to have been employed mainly in the carriage of grain, latterly between America and Israel, and it was in 1982 that it gained a contract to carry coal between ports on the East Coast of USA and the Brayton Point Power Plant, thereby making it a home trade vessel. It was to be asserted by the Coast Guard investigators that this coastwise trade was likely to discourage the crew from reporting the condition of the ship, but probably we would consider it doubtful that crew members would ever be likely to report the condition of the ship on which they were sailing to the authorities (Subsequent to the disaster the Coast Guard initiated a toll free phone line which would allow seafarers to report deficiencies anonymously).

Beyond the Trim and Stability Book there was no specific guidance provided for the loading of coal although a “Coal Loading Sequence” had been worked up in 1981 when the ship had entered the coal trade. On the fateful voyage this loading sequence was not referred to or followed, but apparently the process used was virtually the same, and probably due to the familiarity with the operation no stability calculations were carried out. Calculations had been carried out previously giving a GM of about three feet.   The coal was dumped from railway wagons onto a conveyor system which ended in a single machine which was deployed into each hold in the sequence in turn and was able to distribute the coal evenly around the hold. The ship was to load 22900 tons of coal. During the day the ship took on fuel and in the end had 545 tons in its tanks.


February 10 1983.

1430. The ship is moored starboard side to the Pier 6 Norfolk and Western Railroad Terminal in Noirfolk Virginia. It holds approximately 1400 tons of coal overcarried from the previous voyage. Deballasting and, one assumes, loading commences.

2120. Deballasting completed, despite some problems since it appeared that there is a leak between No 3 and No 4 starboard double bottom tanks.

2300. Loading of the ship with coal is completed and the crew start to dog down the hatches. Only about 50% of the available dogs are usable, and normally it was common “in the coal trade” only to use a proportion of them. However for this voyage the crew are instructed to use as many as possible.

2345. The Marine Electric departs Norfolk, Virginia with a cargo of steam coal bound for Brayton Point. Weather wind NE 35-55 knots. Initially full speed 11-12 knots. Subsequent to departure the crew stow the ropes in the forward hatch and secure it and the various accesses to the forward stores.

February 11 1983.

0200. The vessel arrives at the pilot station and the pilot disembarks. At this time the doors leading to the Main Deck are secured and the report states that “At no time subsequent to this event were any inspections made of the foredeck or hatch covers….”

0700. The ship is pitching heavily.

0900. The Captain comes to the bridge and reduces speed to 40 rpm, 4-5 knots.

1200. The weather is logged. Wind Force 10. Seas 25 to 30 ft with ocassional 40 ft waves. Seas are breaking heavily on the forecastle deck area.

Afternoon. The weather continues to worsen with seas breaking over the bow and ocassionally over the hatches.

1320. The fishing vessel Theodora requests assistance from the Coast Guard. It is taking on water. A helicopter is dispatched.

1500. The company operations department receives a message from the Marine Electric saying it is hove to.

1600. The Marine Electric sights the Theodora and agrees to stand by it until assistance arrives.

1628. The Marine Electric comes about to maintain contact with the fishing vessel, and rides noticebly easier with the wind ansd sea on the quarter.

1724. The 80 ft Point Highland Coast Guard vessel is dispatched from Chincoteague.

1822. With the fishing vessel apparently holding its own, the Captain of the Marine Electric reports to the Coast Guard that “ I’m taking an awful beating out here. I’m going to be in trouble myself pretty soon”.

1825. The Marine Electric is released and resumes its NE’ly course for Brayton Point.

2400. The weather logged at Force 5 or 6.

February 12 1983

0000. It is noticed that the vessel is trimmed by the head by various crew members including one of the engineers.

0115. It is thought that “the bow is behaving sluggishly” by the 12-4 watch officer.

0230. The Captain calls the Chief Mate to the bridge suggesting that they are in trouble. It is evident that the seas are remaining on deck and that the ship is down by the head.

0251. The master calls the Coast Guard and tells them that the vessel seems to be taking on water, and going down by the head.

0300. The crew are roused and mustered at the starboard lifeboat. The trim by the head is seen to increase. The belief amongst the crew is that nothing serious is going to happen, and so their preparation is less than in earnest.

0312. The Marine Electric contacts the Coast Guard saying that they are continously taking on water and the bow is “going down”. The Chief Engineer, shining a portable light forward from the bridge wing, says he thinks No 1 hatch is stove in.

0350. The ship starts to take on a starboard list.

0410. The list has increased to 10 degrees. A number of merchant ships have been in touch but none will arrive before 0800.

0414. The master reports to the Coast Guard that he is abandoning ship.

0415 approx. The ship rolls to starboard throwing the crew into the water before the boat can be lowered.

The 12-4 AB comes across a liferaft and manages to inflate it and eventually get in, and attempts to get further crew members into it, but is unsuccessful. And eventually they drift away. The Third Mate manages to retain hold of a life buoy and the Chief Mate an oar until he is able to get into a lifeboat which is floating but swamped.

0520. A Coast Guard helicopter arrives on the scene and manages to recover three people from the sea. They are the Chief Mate, the Third Mate and one of the 12-4 ABs. Later a further 24 bodies are recovered. Seven remain missing.

1130. The stern section of the ship, which up to now has remained visible, sinks.

The report goes in some detail into the Coast Guard rescue activities which are really peripheral to this narrative, and also concentrates on the state of the ship as evidenced by the various reports and inpections which took place over the previous three or four years and the numerous repairs carried out to the hatch covers, the deck and the ballast system and tanks. The repair lists and even the work carried out read as a catalogue of extreme distress and we should remember that the forward and aft ends of the ship were by now nearly 40 years old, and even the “new” centre section was 20 years old at a time when liner companies were considering disposing of ships when they passed their tenth birthdays. Indeed it was understood that unless the ship had got the coal contract it might have been due to go to the scrapyard.

The report states that when the Marine Electric had been employed in the carriage of grain it was the usual practice to seal gaps between the hatch panels using tar paper and sealant, to keep the grain dry, and even that had been less than totally successful. And it focuses on the repairs and inspections which had been carried out on the ship between 1981 and 1983, particularly the use of “doublers”.  Doublers are steel plates which are used to cover holes in the structure. This is as an alternative to cropping the wasted metal out and welding in new sections, and they were used extensively in the attempts of the owners to maintain the watertight integrity of the Marine Electric. Indeed the report describes virtually every doubler welded onto the hatches or the deck of the ship, and finally enumerates the numbers used, ranging in size from a few centimetres to three or four metres in length and one wide. In the end there were 400 doublers on the main deck and the hatch covers. That is not a misprint – four hundred! And as well as the welded doublers there were also a number of holes in the deck and the hatches which were made watertight with epoxy resin similar to that used the repair car bodywork.

At various times in the two year period as a result of the extensive repairs to the hatches, the crew had had problems dogging them down and even getting them correctly oriented. And anyone who has worked with these hatch covers can testify that they have a tendency to come off the rails, sometimes require jacks and cranes to get them back into position. The distortion of the covers after a major repair had resulted in the crew working all night to get them to seat and achieve a level of watertightness.

The report then goes into the inspections which were carried out and the intervention of the ship’s officers.  Both Coast Guard and class (ABS) inspections were carried out during the last two years of the ship’s life, including a “mid term” safety inspection which the Coast Guard were supposed to carry out and a Loadline Inspection to be carried out by ABS. During the Loadline Inspection which took place in February 1982 the Chief Mate pointed out to the surveyor “the doubler plates, epoxy patches and taped over holes in the hatch covers” but the surveyor’s report stated that the hatches were in a satisfactory condition. On this ocassion the holds were also considered to be in a satisfactory condition when the surveyor had not even looked at them. The investigators suggested that the Coast Guard inspection at the time should have resulted in the withdrawal of the Loadline Certificate. The ABS records also showed that a hose test had taken place on the hatches in 1980 when this would have been an impossibility. This was afterwards identified as a misprint.

At some time around the start of the coal contract the bilges in the holds had been blanked off during a shipyard stay, therefore rendering the bilge system ineffective. This was against Coast Guard regulations. Even though the change had been detailed on the shipyard repair list, neither the ABS or Coast Guard inspectors had noticed it. Even after the complete hatch covering system had been removed for repair and re-installed in 1981 no hose test was carried out, however the ABS surveyor had, he said, given them a close visual inspection. But  he had not noticed any doublers even though during the repair period about 180 doublers had been added to the hatch covers. It seemed that in fact no hose test had ever been carried out on the hatch covers, which actually might not have been able to take the pressure during the last couple of years of their life. After the accident the lifeboat which had been recovered was inspected and it was determined that it was in such a poor condition that it should have prevented the ship from sailing when it had been inspected as part of the Coast Guard LSA inspection.

So, it was concluded that the ship had gradually taken on water forward, particularly in the small dry cargo hold and the surrounding stores and tankage, including the forward deep tank since the divers (employed to survey the weck) had found one of the tank lids to be missing. It had therefore lost freeboard forward to the point that it ceased to be stable. They also felt that had the ship been fitted with gravity davits rather than quadrant davits, which required the crew to physically wind the lifeboat outboard, more lives might have been saved.

The report goes into considerable detail about the effectiveness of the various inspections and it is obvious that the investigators thought that the Coast Guard inspectors could have done a better job and that that ABS were less than independent, since they were being paid by the shipowners – as class still are – and therefore if the owners did not like what they did it would be an option for them to change to another class society – as they still can. This they said would result in a conflict of interests. However, interestingly for those studying the event today, the Coast Guard Admiral who signed off on the report disagreeed with this conclusion and stated that ABS were a fine expert independent body who would not be influenced  by the source of their renumeration, even if individual surveyors had failed in their duty. ABS were of course carrying out inspection activities on behalf of the Coast Guard, as they still do, and it appeared from the Admiral’s conclusions that he was keen to play down the problems with this distribution of responsibilities. Similar difficulties were evident in the inspections of the Deepwater Horizon (See “A Catalogue of Disasters”). It is worth saying that today (2017) class societies promote themselves as champions of safety, while at the same time refusing to accept any level of liability for any failings of any sort on the part of their surveyors or any other of their employees, and attempts by various organisations and authorities to take them to court in the aftemath of marine disasters have generally been unsuccessful.

Finally the report suggested that essentially the ship was unseaworthy and that the permanent master, who had been on leave at the time, should be prosecuted for taking the ship to sea in that state.  They also suggested that the company superintendent who had been in charge of ship repairs should also be prosecuted.

So in the end what can we say that the Marine Electric was falling to bits and everybody who had anything to do with the ship was aware of its state. If the crew had been sensible they would have signed off and found something safer. But they apparently thought that if it all went wrong they would be rescued because they did not go far from the shore. In this their confidence was also misplaced and all  but three of the 34 man crew died of drowning or hyperthermia.

 info. I recently picked up a copy of Robert Frump's book called "Until the Sea Shall Free Them" in a charity bookshop. This is a UK edition and for interest I attach a photo of the cover. Did no-one check out what the designer had produced? I know it's not a big thing, but sending a bulk carrier to sea with the holds open - and apparently empty - would be foolish, and is of course misleading, since one of the main problems with the ship seems to have been the hatch covers. And then the strap lines. "The Sea is Deadly", "The courtroom is Deadlier". Well no, you don't actually die in the courtroom. I admit to not really enjoying the book since it is written is a very journalistic style, probably understandable since the author is a journalist, and even though it ends on a hopeful note, that things will be better for American mariners in the future, after the El Faro we might take a different view. 



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