A true tale of two ships in peril

Island author Tristram Korten joins Library book discussion
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 5:45pm
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It’s not every day that a book discussion group includes the author, let alone a group meeting on Block Island. It helps if the author has a Block Island connection. It also helps if the book is about life on the sea, with parallels to life on an island.

The author is Tristram Korten, a Miami-based journalist whose family has owned a summer home on Block Island for decades. “I’ve been on this island every year of my life,” Korten told the Friends of the Island Free Library’s monthly book group at its July 24 meeting. His parents first came to the island in 1958 and bought a house on Beacon Hill in 1960.

The group met to discuss Korten’s first book-length non-fiction work, “Into the Storm,” published in 2018 and now available in paperback.

The narrative weaves together accounts of the loss of two cargo vessels on the same day in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015. It tells both stories from the perspectives of the ships’ merchant mariners and of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Hurricane Center personnel involved in the search and rescue and weather forecasting operations. Korten’s tale documents and contrasts the actions of the ships’ officers, the shipping industry’s involvement in and responses to the accidents, how the news media covered the events, and what it all tells us about weather and climate.

Why write this book?

“As a journalist, I’m looking for stories,” Korten told the attentive members of the discussion group. The sinking of the cargo ship S.S. El Faro en route from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico, was a big story that year; major newspapers wrote about it, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

“At first, I was amazed that an 800-foot cargo ship could disappear” in a hurricane, Korten said. In Miami, he went to one of the first press conferences about the search for the El Faro, where the Coast Guard gave detailed descriptions about their (so far) unsuccessful search for the vessel and its crew. While there, he was given a two-paragraph, matter-of-fact statement about the rescue of the crew of a second cargo ship that sank in the hurricane, the Motor Vessel Minouche, carrying general cargo from Miami to a port on Haiti’s northern coast.

He asked about the second vessel. Yes, he was told, the Minouche sank without loss of life. Yes, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer went into the water from a Jayhawk helicopter and put all 12 crew members in the basket, one by one, to be winched up to the helo. In the middle of a major hurricane. In the dark. In three trips. And then that copter crew joined the search for the El Faro before returning to base, exhausted.

Other media covered the El Faro search extensively. Korten waited for someone to cover the Minouche story. No one did. So, Korten said, he pitched his editor at GQ magazine about writing a story on both the Minouche and the El Faro. His editors were working on getting that story approved, “and still nobody wrote about” the Minouche’s sinking.

“I get it,” Korten told his audience.“If it had been a French billionaire on a multi-million dollar yacht and three people were rescued,” that story would have been all over the media. “The reason [Minouche] went unreported was, it was Haitian nationals, on a foreign-flag ship” carrying used cars, clothing and mattresses to Haiti. “It was not racism; it was a little bit of classism,” he said.

Many details were missing or unknown as Korten wrote. He wanted to interview the master of the Minouche, a veteran merchant mariner from the Philippines supporting his family in Guatemala. He couldn’t find him at the time. The sinking of the El Faro was still a mystery. So the story Korten wrote for GQ was, in his words, “a bare-bones tale, without Capt. Gelera of the Minouche and without the data recorder” from the El Faro.

Then two things happened: The wreck of the El Faro was found, and its data recorder — with audio of the captain and his officers on the bridge — was recovered and analyzed. And, “When I located Capt. Gelera and interviewed him, then I realized I had enough for a book.”

The result is a book that held the attention of all the book group members. “I learned so much,” one woman said. Others said they gained respect for the merchant mariners and the Coast Guard; how America’s used materials get to Haiti; the dangers of over-reliance on technology; and “the intersect between the people and the climate” in the story.

The process of writing “Into the Storm” itself was enlightening to Korten.

“I was fascinated by the gradual accretion of duties and responsibilities of the Coast Guard,” and by the shipping industry, he said. “I’m essentially reading the book as I’m researching it.”

“I was blown away by the people” and their stories, both the Coast Guard pilots and sailors and the merchant mariners. He marveled aloud about the Coast Guard’s training and resources: “All the technology at their disposal, focused on saving lives... It’s heartbreaking.”

In the book, Korten called merchant mariners “people without a country.” To the book group, he said, “The sea is their home. Once on land, the sailors were forgotten,” speaking of the crew of the Minouche after their rescue. And ships like her are “the lowest tier of shipping,” carrying first-world castoffs to Haiti for re-use.

For the Haitians – working from Miami, Korten has been to the island nation many times on assignment – “It’s a good way to be, resourceful,” using stuff from elsewhere. “Stuff is so much cheaper to produce abroad.”

Several of the readers compared the “resourcefulness” of Haitians to Block Island folk; we make do, too, they said. We’re also at the end of the supply chain.

What lessons for the reader? For the government? For the industry?

“I don’t really have lessons,” Korten said. Then he continued: “It was interesting, these parallel journeys” of the two cargo ships.

For the government, “The Coast Guard hit it on the head” in the Marine Board of Inquiry report into the loss of the El Faro. “It’s absurd to grandfather in open life rafts” and other outdated safety equipment and inspection standards for older ships, like Minouche and El Faro, he said, instead of mandating that those vessels be updated to standards applicable to newer ones. “It’s all in the Coast Guard’s report.”

He also cited “the conundrum the Jones Act puts the shipping industry in.” That 1920 law requires that ships carrying passengers and cargo between U.S. ports be built, owned, commanded and crewed by U.S. companies and mariners. In the book and in the discussion, Korten noted that South Korea and Scandinavian countries can build ocean-going cargo ships for “a fraction” of the cost that American shipyards can. “Here, building a ship is kind of an artisanal industry.” The economics of U.S.-flag shipping protect American jobs, he noted, adding that companies will keep older vessels in service longer, possibly overlooking deficiencies and putting the lives of the crews at greater risk.

As for the company that owned the El Faro, Korten said, they had no reaction to the book. They never talked to him. He used their executives’ testimony at the inquiry for their side of the story.

What will you write about next?

“I feel at home when I’m writing about the sea,” Korten said. But for his first book, “I wanted it to be about more than one thing.” Climate was one of those things. Into the Storm documents efforts to understand and predict hurricanes, and the long-term effects of changing weather patterns.

Korten said his writing focus now is on stories about what he called “climate first responders” and the resources available to them: “firefighters in the West, marine rescues, hurricane hunters.” In October 2018, he joined a U.S. Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter sortie into Hurricane Michael. That storm grew into a Category five hurricane that struck the Florida Panhandle, making landfall at Mexico Beach, near Panama City. He included that incident in an epilogue he wrote for the paperback edition of Into the Storm published in 2019.

“One of the challenges of hurricane science” now is understanding and predicting rapid intensification of storms, which is happening more dramatically and more frequently, Korten said. Based on the trends and information summarized in the last chapter of Into the Storm, he says, hurricanes will become stronger, and computer models used in weather forecasting and analysis will need to be refined.

Korten told the group that investment in infrastructure is needed to deal with the effects of climate change: building sea walls, raising roads, elevating buildings on stilts.

“The entire eastern seaboard will be more vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surge,” he said.

He is hopeful about society’s responses to climate change, however, citing his reporting on the politicization of the issue in Florida. He broke the story of former Governor Rick Scott’s administration forbidding its own scientists to mention sea level rise and climate change in the state’s scientific analyses and publications. (Scott is now Florida’s junior U.S. Senator.)

“I’m pretty impressed with the degree of professionalism in local governments,” he said. “The most populous counties — Dade, Broward, Monroe, Palm Beach — were already working on [issues including] sea level rise, saltwater intrusion.”  “They just bypassed the state completely.”