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El Faro Sinking a Reminder of a Decades-old Disaster

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As the Navy continues to search for the doomed cargo ship El Faro, the loss has an eerie resemblance to the Derbyshire disaster some three decades before. 

The Derbyshire was a British ship carrying a load of iron ore from Canada when it sank off the coast of Japan in a typhoon in 1980, killing all 44 people aboard. 

The Derbyshire was built in 1976. El Faro was built in 1975. The Derbyshire was about 1,000 feet long, El Faro was about 800 feet long. Both went down in big tropical storms.

Andy Bowen is a principal engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and he led the underwater survey of the Derbyshire once it was found in 1994. The survey revealed that the Derbyshire sank because of structural problems in the bow. The ship had taken on an enormous amount of water and broke apart, sinking in about two minutes, an astonishing finding.  The crew didn't even have time to send out a mayday signal. 

Because of the Derbyshire, ships are now designed in a way that helps them withstand waves. The survey also led to research that found that rogue waves are more common than previously thought. 

Bowen says, once the Navy finds the El Faro, a robotic underwater survey of the wreck would likely tell the ship's story. 

"If this type of work does take place, the investigators would be looking for damage from seas and areas of the hull that might have been flooded when the ship actually left the surface," he said. 

The work could even reveal whether structural problems were at play, as was the case with the Derbyshire.

Credit UK Department of Transport
The Derbyshire is still the biggest British ship ever to be lost at sea. It sank in 1980.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.