Q&A: A seaman’s life aboard a now-lost cargo ship once based in Tacoma

The news that Hurricane Joaquin had sunk the cargo ship El Faro, with a crew of 33 on board, in the waters off the Bahamas this month stirred memories in Port Orchard’s Steve Dickson.

Back when the vessel sailed under the name Northern Lights, it made Tacoma-to-Alaska runs frequently, and Dickson, a career seaman, worked aboard the ship when it voyaged to Kuwait in 2003.

Dickson has sailed aboard merchant marine ships for 24 years and is crossing the Atlantic for Spain aboard the Maersk Kinloss. He’s due to arrive Monday (Oct. 12).

The California native is married and now living in Port Orchard. He emailed The News Tribune from near the Azores on Friday to discuss the seafaring life and his recollections of the El Faro.

Q: The El Faro was an immense ship — nearly 800 feet long and more than 30,000 tons gross weight. How common is it for a ship that size to try to make it through a hurricane?

A: It is very uncommon for a large ship to head directly into a tropical storm or hurricane.

Modern weather forecasting technology allows vessel masters to make navigation safer by skirting storms using alternate routes. When plotting a course, they usually always have an escape route planned in case of developing storms at sea.

However, if a ship loses power, it is at the mercy of the elements.

Q: How much training do you get as a crew?

A: U.S.-flagged ship officers and unlicensed crew members receive extensive training both ashore and at sea, including basic and advanced safety training consisting of firefighting, water survival, lifeboat operation and first aid.

The Seafarers International Union operates a state of the art facility in Piney Point, Maryland, that features all phases of maritime training. Comprehensive fire and boat drills are also held weekly at sea.

Q: How does it feel to have the ship you served on for so long sink? Did you know any of the crew who were lost?

A: I did not know any of those that went down with El Faro, but some on this ship did and this was like losing family members because we share so many things in common in this profession.

Some who were lost made many trips with her. To know she’s now resting in the sand at the bottom of the Atlantic is an eerie feeling, but they all went down while trying to accomplish their mission — delivering the cargo.

Q: What’s the roughest weather you recall in your years sailing?

A: I have been going to sea for 24 years and have experienced many storms and adverse conditions. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was on a ship near Taiwan during a typhoon.

Even though we were maneuvering on the outermost fringes of it, the seas were running at 40 feet and the wind was blowing at over 70 miles per hour. That was one of the days I wanted to be a farmer instead of a mariner.

Q: Are there many noticeable differences, safety or otherwise, to a crew member between an older ship like the El Faro and a more modern vessel like the Maersk Kinloss, built in 2008?

A: The U.S.-flagged fleet is aging, and there are vessels that are at the limit of their safe operation.

They are being replaced slowly and a 40-year-old ship such as El Faro has gone through years of hard use. She was built in 1975 and was a west coaster in Tacoma on the Alaska trade run for a long time.

She was taken off that run and sent to Kuwait in 2003 in support of the U.S. military in Iraq. I made that voyage and she was a stout and sturdy ship.

Even though older ships can have extensive work done to upgrade them in shipyards, time has taken its toll. Newer ships have fewer structural problems but many are made overseas to different specifications and can still suffer loss of propulsion and engine difficulties.

Safety equipment such as lifeboats and life rafts are usually upgraded on more modern vessels.

Q: Before it was the El Faro, that ship was the Northern Lights, and it sailed as the Puerto Rico before that. Isn’t it bad luck to rename a boat?

A: Mariners in earlier times were a superstitious lot, and changing the name of a boat or ship was considered bad luck.

If a boat was renamed, there had to be a renaming ceremony wherein the old name was written on a piece of paper and placed in a box. The box was burned and the ashes were scattered at sea.

Most young modern mariners don’t know much about the old superstitions or sailing history and tradition for that matter.

Q: Do ships — and their crews — customarily make a fixed run, or is the line of work more port-to-port and sail or fly home when you can?

A: Most commercial ships have a fixed run, especially container ships. They have a schedule that must be adhered to as closely as possible. Perishable goods must reach their destinations quickly and store shelves must be restocked.

Tankers are more flexible and are subject to the fluctuation of the market and when the product is ready to be loaded or discharged.

There are other ships that are known as “tramps.” They have no fixed port or schedule and go where they are needed with whatever cargo can be procured. Some are contracted to the military and positioned throughout the world. Some resupply remote areas such as Antarctica.

The Seafarers International Union has hiring halls in port cities around the country and ships that usually sail from those ports. When a position needs to be filled, the job is posted and the mariner qualified for that position has the option of taking the job.

If there is more than one person eligible, the one who registered first and has seniority gets the job. If the position cannot be filled there, the job gets posted in other ports.

Companies are responsible for travel to and from the vessel.

Q: With possible troubles including storms, piracy and international tumult, merchant marine work seems awfully dangerous. Is it? How do you cope, and why?

A: Working at sea has many problems that mariners must face. Aside from accidents, illness, pirate attacks and political stupidity around the world, one of the least obvious is missing loved ones.

One shipmate put it best. “We spend so much time with those whom we would usually never associate with, but so little time with those we love.” We miss birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and life events that cannot be replaced.

Most mariners are married, and it takes a very special person to be the spouse of someone who works aboard ships. The divorce rate is very high. They must take care of everything at home and deal with the loneliness that this entails.

Q: How long are your usual voyages, and how do crew members remain alert despite the monotony that must set in?

A: Most seamen sign aboard for between 30 days and 120 days and are off between 45 and 60 days on average.

Some ships running along the U.S. coast have satellite TV access. Most have Internet access now. There are TV rooms with DVDs to watch, books to read and often gyms to work out in one’s time off.

There is always something to do to keep busy. We work many hours every day, seven days a week for months at a time. We must be constantly alert to our surroundings and ready to act in an emergency at a moment’s notice.

We also share a common bond of being in a different place every day, not being part of the rat race and being brothers and sisters of the sea. (Yes, though relatively few, there are women working out here as well).

We can go outside, stand at the rail and stare into the azure depths of the sea, or sit in the dining saloon and tell stories of past exploits in unsavory ports of call. We go to places most have just read about in books.

Sure, we don’t have much time to spend there anymore, but we go.

Here is one reason why:

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in

A race that can’t stay still

So they break the hearts of kith and kin

And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood

And they climb the mountain’s crest

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood

And they don’t know how to rest.

— from “The Men That Don’t Fit In” by Robert Service

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693




In 2003, Steve Dickson served aboard the Northern Lights when it carried U.S. military cargo to Kuwait. The News Tribune published an account based on his diary of the nearly month-long cruise. To read about Dickson’s trip, go to bit.ly/SteveDickson.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune