The tragedy of the Costa Concordia is dominating the headlines. We know the facts, but what does this incident mean? The Travel Detective breaks down what’s to come for the cruise industry and its passengers.
On Friday evening January 13, the 4,200-passenger Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the coast of Giglio. As of press time, there are now six known fatalities and an additional 29 missing passengers, including two Americans.
Normally after an accident of this magnitude, owners and operators of cruise ships will issue an announcement stating that they are actively participating in the investigation with authorities. Then remain silent, for months, and sometimes years. But, in a significant and unexpectedly fast development, in a press conference on Monday, Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman and CEO of Costa Cruises, acknowledged that human error from the captain was responsible for the ship running aground and capsizing after the captain made an “unapproved, unauthorized maneuver.”
Although not yet confirmed, reports are surfacing that Captain Francesco Schettino, of Naples, Italy, is thought to have caused the crash by taking the ship too close to Giglio, an island off the coast of Tuscany and the Argentario peninsula, about 40 miles from Civitavecchia.
Historically, there have been exceedingly few accidents of this nature in modern cruise ship operations. In 1984, the Sundancer was on an Alaska cruise when it hit a submerged object and started to sink. The cause: error by the harbor pilot, who was then in command of the ship. The captain, faced with a badly damaged ship, steered it towards a lumber yard dock and essentially grounded the ship. The ship, although declared a total loss, was later refloated and sailed briefly as the Pegasus. Then, in 2007, the MS Explorer hit a submerged object in the Antarctic, and sank. All passengers and crew were rescued.
Now it’s the Costa Concordia. Authorities have recovered the ship’s black box, which will likely tell them, in very short order, what happened, and when it happened. Today’s cruise ships are equipped with state-of-the-art GPS and inertial navigation systems that constantly cross check and course correct — this is essential, because on any trip, even a one-degree course deviation could result in missing your destination by hundreds of miles.
However, on this cruise, someone made an unexpected course correction, and the ship, traveling about at 16 knots (equivalent to 18 mph), hit the submerged object, which then put a 165-foot gash in its hull. Most modern ships are built with numerous watertight compartments. And based on the individual design of each ship, most ships can sustain losing three or four of those compartments and still stay afloat. But at the speed Costa Condordia was traveling, many more compartments were breached, and its fate sealed. The only choice the captain had was to steer the ship (with the little propulsion he had left) towards shore and shallow water. And he grounded the ship.
Many passengers complained that there had not yet been a lifeboat — or muster– drill. Was this, too, an act of negligence on the part of the ship’s officers? Not necessarily. Under an international covenant called Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), cruise lines are required to hold those muster drills within 24 hours of leaving the first port of embarkation. This incident occurred 40 miles — and less than 3 hours — after leaving the harbor. (But after this accident, the SOLAS rules may be amended to require the muster drill BEFORE leaving port with no exceptions).
Were there enough lifeboats? The answer is a qualified yes, since modern cruise ships use a combination of lifeboats and special canister rafts, that are propelled off a ship and then open up into large rescue rafts. And the shallow water certainly helped to minimize fatalities.
As the investigation continues with the high likelihood of criminal charges being brought against the Captain–not to mention the chance of civil liability charges to come against the cruise line–many travelers might be worried about the overall safety of cruise ships.
A quick look at the numbers should allay most concerns. Three incidents in about 30 years is a remarkably good safety record, considering the number of ships at sea and the total number of passengers on these ships at any one time.
Can more be done to make cruising safer? Indeed. Better crew training, better language training for crew members to be able to communicate effectively with passengers. Muster drills while the ship is still tied to the dock. And in the case of the worst kind of disaster on a ship — fire at sea — better fire fighting training for crew as well.
But for the moment, regardless of any short term negative reactions of passengers – and potential passengers — cruising remains one of the safer forms of transportation.
Do you feel safe cruising? Will the Costa Concordia tragedy change the way you travel?
For more information on cruise safety, check out:
- The Government Moves One Step Closer to Cruise Ship Safety
- Cruising 101: How to Choose Book and Enjoy Your Perfect Cruise
- Everything You Need to Know About Cruise Travel
- Cruise & Travel category
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com