A long time back in my life, I served as an Engineering Officer in the British Merchant Navy. That of course, was in a time when we had ships aplenty which were flagged British, flew the ‘Red Duster’, and in whose ships the Law was routinely observed. We had weekly Emergency drills, safety checks on all life-saving equipment and alarms, but the best safety of all was the fact that the Captain, along with all the senior Deck Officers, had literally been through the mill, earned and learned their way towards a safe departure coupled with a safe arrival. They studied the weather reports of expected storm, cyclone or hurricane, even in the days before true satellite surveillance gave such an advantage in weather forecasting: because what has happened before, will usually happen again.
I have been on the edge of Hurricane-force winds, with waves so high that you stand on the bridge of a tanker, as we manouevred to avoid the worst, and you look UP at the wave-crest as it moves towards the ship, then your view is totally obscured by the driving spray, as your 100,000-ton tanker is effortlessly carried up and over the crest, and then DOWN the other side, whilst preparing to meet yet another wave as it remorselessly gathers strength before your eyes. I have also sailed through the aftermath of a Far-East cyclone, when we were heading up from Kaoshiung harbour in Taiwan towards Japan, on the eastern side of the island. The cyclone had passed over Taiwan two days previously, and the swells were still mountainous, with over a quarter-mile between wave-crests. We were forced to turn back after the seas commenced breaking ‘green’ over the ship’s bow; and you just do not argue with the forces of nature such as this. We had to wait two more days, idling along, going nowhere; until the captain decided that we were safe to proceed.
So, you are the Captain of a general container-cargo ship named the El Faro, you are presumably under pressure from your owners to get your cargo from Jacksonville in Florida south-eastwards towards Puerto Rico. Your ship is stacked with containers four-high on the forrard-deck, which gives a slab-side which will act as a big sail in the event of high winds; but you ignore that fact; you have a ‘sailing plan’ to avoid a ‘Tropical Storm’ which had been battering The Bahamas: and that is your big mistake. This is Hurricane Season in the Carribbean, so that Storm turns into Hurricane Joaquin; and if you hear of a storm anywhere, you want to be somewhere else in a hurry. If you are in port, you double-up on the mooring lines; you definitely do not believe you are in control; if you do believe that; Mister, you are a fool and a danger to yourself and your crew; and despite the valediction from Obama, if your engine fails; you have just killed your crew, and committed suicide yourself!