THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS FROM AN AMERICAN Merchant Mariner
Sunday, January 15, 2012
The wreck of the Costa Concordia: a confluence of downstream effects?
With the sinking of the cruise ship COSTA CONCORDIA in the news, along with all sorts of facts, innuendo and wrong or misleading opinions being presented as facts, I thought I'd weigh in on what I know, what I see and what I think as a mariner watching all this unfold.
1). After the Titanic disaster in the last century, why did the ship sink?
The ship is reputed to have a 140+-foot long gash in her hull. While modern ships are made to stay afloat with multiple compartments breached to the sea, 140+ feet is a massive area.
2). How did this happen? No word yet. The Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) or 'black box' has been recovered, which should provide some info in the immediate future. The most experienced talking heads point to over-reliance and/or improper use of electronic navigation as the most likely culprit. Unfortunately, this is an experienced-based de facto position which is most often borne out as a principle cause of accidents.
Modern ships use unitized electronic charting systems called ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display Information Systems), which, across all ships, give operators a somewhat standardized suite of information availability, centered on integrating GPS Lat/Long position with a navigation chart overlay. For obvious reasons, standard industry practice (and the law) requires the integration of 'all available' information in the execution of a navigation watch. This includes the Mark 1 Eyeball. As my former captain used to say, "Rule 1 of navigation is 'look out the fucking window.'" The grounding of the Queen Elizabeth II off of Nantucket shoals in the 1990's showed the world the limitations of relying solely on GPS. This example is used to emphasize the continued need for taking navigation 'fixes' (charting position at fixed intervals) regularly, using 'all available means,' which includes visual, celestial, radar, dead reckoning and, yes, electronic fixes.
On a somewhat more annoying level, Costa Cruises put a huge-ass foot in their mouth yesterday, when the head man, who is a hotel expert, and not a captain, showed off his ignorance of standard shipping practices and claimed that the ship wasn't off course, as the ship had no designated route to follow. This is not correct, as the ship is required to have a voyage plan, including a route to follow, before leaving port. It appears that the ship was a few miles off course, but this will have to be borne out when the VDR data is made available.
3). Why are the captain and chief mate in jail? This worried me, on hearing it, as an oil-industry mariner, everyone will assume I'm responsible and/or drunk (while using intravenous drugs having unprotected sex while taking the Lord's name in vain) if there is a spill, and therefore can be held in prison without charges indefinitely unlike any other citizen of a nation of law, but I digress) in the event of an accident. Nautical Log's captain Peter Boucher, a retired cruise ship captain and true industry expert, has explained in his blog that this is a standard Italian legal practice employed in the course of an investigation, and legal under their rule of law. So, not something I'd be happy with as an American, but nonetheless, apparently this is not eyebrow-raisingly noteworthy. It does imply, however, that the chief mate was in charge of the navigation watch at the time of the accident, as the chief mate is the busiest person on board the ship, but does still need to stand bridge watch as the OOW (Officer Of the Watch) as part of his job on many ships.
4). The Body Count Last I heard, 5 and rising. There were 4,000 passengers and 1,000 crew on board. The cadre of maritime officers and experienced mariners represents a miniscule portion of that crew, most of whom will be foreign nationals from the developing world working in hotel jobs aboard. The reports of people jumping overboard in panic may well be an indictment against standard passenger safety practices employed today in the cruise industry- a laughable attempt at an abandon-ship drill carried out shortly after setting sail after the start of a new voyage. This suggests that more is needed, which everyone but cost-control aficionados have been suggesting for some time. Crowd control represents the single greatest niche-specific job training required by cruise ship staff, as opposed to mariners like yours truly, who far prefer carrying cargo, not supercargo (eg, people). While it is not possible to manage the behavior of every person on board, it should be possible to impress upon them most urgently the need to stay the fuck out of the water if at all possible, and there is ample time to do this while the people are queued up to get on board, before the abandon-ship drill. 5). The receiving end It appears that the captain left the ship before the last of the passengers did, and, if he did so knowingly, his career is over, certainly (actually, it is already), and his legal troubles are just beginning. As master, he bears ultimate responsibility as the owners' representative on board, for the lives of the crew and passengers. There is some question as to where he would be best employed to see to the abandoning of the ship- on the deck of a not-sinking lifeboat or rescue craft, or hanging on to something on board and spending his time not to fall to his death as the ship listed over. Regardless, the appearances don't look good but this is something that more experienced minds will mull over in future. This tragedy reminds me, however, that despite being tasked with the command of a $500 million dollar ship and 5,000 lives, there is at many intervals just one person who holds those lives in the palm of their hand. "The greatest gift" of command is an award of supreme confidence in the abilities of a mariner, but all mariners are people, and subject to whims and errors, whether isolated or endemic. Errors are not isolated, however, and are required to come in interlinked chains in order to bear fruit. Recognizing errors where they exist is a matter of seeing only one mistake in that error chain and preventing tragedy. In review, it is often difficult to see how errors failed to be recognized as they accumulated. This is emphasized in bridge resource management, a required endeavor for all deck officers. However, this doesn't error-proof a bridge. Nothing can, truly. Preventing accidents and loss of life is a numbers game, where minimizing incidents is the optimal practical outcome. Eliminating them, while a noble concept, is not something achievable.
UPDATE- according to Costa cruises, the ship was executing a close pass to shore to provide a scenic vista for dining passengers. This was done at the captain's discretion, and, according to the master, resulted in the ship striking an uncharted rock. Unfortunately, this is one possible result, however unlikely, of departing from an established passage plan.
I am Paul B, and I spend most of my life at sea. Ships, Science, the life of a mariner, biology and (mostly) true stories of life among the best and the worst people in the world, the United States Merchant Marines. You'll find it here, maybe. You'll definitely find rants, raves and discussion on life aboard a merchant ship. Come back and see the Brazilian girls, too, who show up fairly regularly.