Jan 262012

It isn't just the Concordia. Other cruise ships sink too, including after hitting icebergs. In this picture, the MS Explorer is sinking in November 2007 in Antarctica.

Too many people have already commented too much on the obvious aspects of this event, so I’ll limit myself to just three comments of my own and one borrowed from Sir Winston Churchill.

My first point is that there is now a rush of people calling for better safety drills for the passengers on board cruise ships, pointing out that the foundering of the Concordia occurred before there had been any onboard safety drill for the passengers who had boarded that day (indeed, the vessel’s schedule was such that most of the passengers would have done their entire sailing without attending a safety drill).

This is kneejerk nonsense for two reasons.

The first reason is that current safety drills are useless in terms of preparing passengers for the ship sinking.  All passengers do is go to their cabins to collect their life jackets, then go to their muster station, wait around for a while until a roll call has been taken, before being dismissed.  They’re usually not shown where the boats are, what the procedures will be for getting into life boats, what to do if their prime mustering station is unavailable, what to do if crew are unavailable, or anything else.

The second reason is that the problems with the Concordia were nothing to do with the passengers.  The problems were with the ship’s crew – in particular its officers – lying to the passengers (and the rest of the crew) about the nature and severity of the problem, and not giving the leadership and guidance they were expected to do.  The passengers, for the most part, did all that could be expected of them, it was the ship’s crew who were responsible for the (extremely few!) casualties that eventuated.

I’m not denying the need for better training.  But it is the crew – starting with the captain and his cadre of officers – who need the training, not the passengers.  When I worked at sea our most intensive training on abandon ship drills was done when there were no passengers on board.

My next point is to echo a comment I made a couple of weeks ago when in the article headed ‘Titanically Tempting Fate’ I quoted what a cruise ship promoter had to say :

Mr Morgan, who pointed out that the engineering and safety rules of modern ships mean that icebergs now pose no danger to the cruise…..

I wonder if Mr Morgan might wish to revisit his claim now?  The Concordia’s relatively rapid sinking – halted only by it settling on an undersea ledge close to the surface – completely belies his claims both after the safety rules that would prevent problems in the first place and the engineering and design issues that would make ships much more resistant to sinking than back in the days of the Titanic.

Indeed, in some respects, modern cruise ships are worse than the Titanic; they have less in-built stability.  This is because they soar way much further out of the water than ships used to do, while countering that is a much shallower draft due to the ship having more of a flat bottom like a barge, rather than a V shaped hull such as a classic ‘deep sea stable’ ship would have.

This lack of design stability is countered in two ways – first, by huge stabilizing fins, and secondly, by doing everything possible to avoid unfavorable weather.

To put numbers alongside this, the Concordia had a typical draft of just under 26 feet.  Compare this to the original Queen Mary (39 feet – exactly half as much again) or the new Queen Mary 2 (33 ft).  Indeed, the Titanic itself drew 34′.  The world’s largest container ship (Emma Maersk) takes 51′, the USS Nimitz 37′ and the USS Missouri 37.5′

Many people have been wondering if this event would cause a collapse in cruise bookings, followed by a similar collapse in cruise prices.  So far, there seems little reason to expect this will happen – indeed a UBS survey earlier this week showed a slight rise in cruise prices, even with Costa Cruises.  Of course, it is probably correct to guess that if the cruise lines are hurting at present, they’ll probably keep that news to themselves rather than make it public, because if it became generally known that people were turning away from cruising, that would encourage others to not book future cruises too.

Most people seem able to put this event in perspective.  Each year millions of people (about 20 million in 2011) sail on thousands of cruises operated by hundreds of cruise ships.

Few of them sink.  As best I can tell, the most recent two cruise ship sinkings were the MS Explorer that sunk on an Antarctic cruise in November 2007 (with no casualties from the 154 passengers and crew on board) and the MS Sea Diamond sinking in the Mediterranean in April 2007, with two passengers lost (1195 passengers and an unknown number of crew were on board).

The two sinkings in 2007 had no measurable effect on cruise bookings in 2008, and most people realize that the Concordia sinking is a one-off event rather than representative of a tangible ongoing level of risk.

Of course, if Costa were to lose a second ship in short order, that could all change very quickly.

(There have been occasional ferry losses around the world as well, but these don’t seem to register so strongly on intending cruise ship passengers minds.)

For the last word on the subject, I defer to that famous American (on his mother’s side) Sir Winston Churchill.  He is quoted in the book, “The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill” by James C. Humes as having this to say to a journalist from a New York newspaper.

He had taken a cruise on an Italian cruise ship – a slightly controversial action when the Queen Elizabeth, a British ship and struggling to survive, was also offering cruises that he could have taken instead.  So, in explanation, he replied :

There are three things I like about Italian ships.  First, their cuisine, which is unsurpassed.  Second, their service, which is quite superb.  And then – in time of emergency – there is none of this nonsense about women and children first.

  3 Responses to “Costa Concordia Comments”

  1. My husband sailed as an officer with this Captain several years ago. When I first heard about the disaster, he said that I knew him and to just think about it. He told me that he was the Staff Captain that everyone hated. When I saw his picture I knew who he was. I remembered that he was the pretty boy who was so full of himself. It is difficult to have officers and crew who are well trained and work together when their commander doesn’t command any respect.

  2. Costa’s Angalina Lauro sank in the harbor of St. Thomas, sometime after our cruise there in 1976.

  3. […] written, almost immediately after the Concordia disaster, about the lack of stability in modern cruise ships.  Here’s another article that provides further insight and statistics on the changed design […]

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