Costa Concordia Sinking

 Posted by on January 15, 2012  Add comments
Jan 152012

There’s always something visceral in the sight of a sunken ship.  Unlike all other means of transport, a sea-going vessel appeals to something profound in the human psyche though I don’t know why this should be.  Perhaps it’s the fact that ships die with such dignity.  Perhaps it’s the incongruous, unperturbed perfection of the vessel as it lies on its side in the pellucid waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

I know this coast.  Many years ago, I spent a while on this coast with a tent and a rucksack, taking time out to visit the Anzio and Nettuno beachheads where over 80,000 Allied and Axis troops died during the 1944 landings.  It’s a beautiful place despite its blood-soaked past,  but just up the coast is Civitavecchia, a charming coastal village, untouched by war and that’s where where the Costa Concordia departed from two days ago.

I went for a walk today with my neighbour, and the dogs.  Needless to mention, the subject of the sinking came up.

It wasn’t as well-built as the QE2, he remarked.

How would  you know that? I challenged.

Because I was on both of them.

Did I mention that my neighbour has a great gift for buying last-minute deals on expensive cruises?

So, I said, is it true that meal-times are chaotic, as reported on the BBC?


Well, was the ship a stereotypical Italian chaotic mess?

No.  Very professional.



It’s hard to know what happened.  Some people say that the captain should have pulled into deeper waters if he had a power failure and the ship’s owners are now blaming him for the wreck.

Others say that by coming so close inshore, he minimised the number of casualties, and that some deaths were caused by people panicking and jumping overboard.  It’s a bit early to say, but the captain, Francesco Schettino, says the rocks that tore the hull out of his ship were not marked on the maritime charts he was using.  I find it hard to believe that waters so heavily used by shipping would not be charted properly, especially given the availability of satellite positioning.

One way or another, it wasn’t just a grounding as the photos show.  The hull of the ship has a huge rock embedded in it, so the impact of this thing was less than casual, tearing great lumps out of the terrain.  This ship crashed.

Needless to mention, our Sunday-morning conversation didn’t stop there, as the dogs continued to eradicate all small rodent life on our island.

What about the lifeboats? he murmured, or I murmured.  I’m not entirely clear who did the murmuring.  Here’s the thing.  I’m not entirely up to date on the finer points of davit design, but I would have thought that lifeboats could be brought inboard on the side of the list so that passengers are able to embark, and then extended out to let people escape.  Doesn’t that seem like an obvious design criterion?

Well, perhaps not.

Is there a 100% safe design? asked my interlocutor, rhetorically.

No, I replied.  There is no such thing.

But they can design ships for the sort of things that might happen.



How do you know you’re going to hit a rock?

You don’t.  But you can design it because the records are there.

He’s right, of course.  In a strictly statistical sense, you can design a ship against historical hazards, and I imagine that’s precisely what the designers of Costa Concordia did, but you can’t design against everything.  If you want a ship that will never sink, be prepared to pay infinite amounts of money to build it.  And of course, make sure that your customers will pay infinite money to sail on it.

There is no such thing as a completely safe design and that’s a simple fact.  Life isn’t guaranteed to be safe.  Reality is inherently hazardous.

How would you design a ship? asked my companion.

Jesus, I don’t know.  I never designed a ship.

Not my question, he said. How would you work out what dangers to design it for?

I suppose you’d have to define how much damage should be surviveable.  But that’s not how people think.  When something goes wrong, the tabloids expect the thing to be indestructible.

That’s because they’re fucking idiots.  Did they learn nothing from the Titanic?

True, he agreed.

So what exactly is design?

You tell me, he countered, cunningly and I fell for it.

You design something to be as safe as people will pay for.

Aha! he said.  And do you tell the customers?  Or the fools who write tabloid headlines?

Eh, I replied.  He had me there.

But of course, that’s exactly where the commentariat will attack.  They’ll ask uninformed questions based on uneducated assumptions and meanwhile, the real reasons behind the Costa Concordia sinking will slip beneath the waves.

Even though the death-toll is less than that of the average bus-crash, some people will call this a disaster, and I suppose in some ways, it is.  Certainly, the insurance underwriters will be calling it a disaster but we need a sense of perspective here.  A fishing boat sank off the Cork coast today with the loss of five lives.  For the families involved, that was a disaster, and for the community certainly a tragedy.  The difference?  They had a smaller ship.

There were no Sky TV crews covering the rescue efforts.



  21 Responses to “Costa Concordia Sinking”

Comments (21)

    It seems that these new cruise ships are top heavy and that with the slightest incursion of water they will quickly become unstable. I wonder how they would perform in gale conditions in the Atlantic.If this ship had been in open sea deep water she would have sunk like a stone in a short time.There is very little hull under water. It is a wonder that they stay upright.You won’t see me going on them!


    It’s certainly true that a ship designed for the Mediterranean would be completely unsuitable for the Atlantic. Just like you, if anyone decides to sail such a vessel to America, I won’t be on it either.


    You would have to assume, if you were going anywhere by ship, that the vessel (regularly scheduled) you were sailing on would be fit for purpose. How would you know otherwise?


    A lot of scrap metal lying around. I wonder do they have the same problems over there with metal thieves ?


    In this case, it looks very much like human error. Even the owners of the ship are saying so.


    “In this case, it looks very much like human error. Even the owners of the ship are saying so.”

    Would you expect them to say otherwise?

    Although they’re probably right. Some 97% of all work place accidents are caused by humans.


    It’s hardly in their interests to admit so quickly that their employee was at fault. They could just as well blame mechanical failure, faulty navigation systems or something else that would get them off the hook.

    Blaming it on human error is tantamount to admitting liability which indicates that they know the game is up.


    Usually when a company cites human error they are trying distance themselves from the source of that error. Does the principle of vicarious liability exist in Nepolianic law?


    I don’t know anything about the Napoleonic code, but I imagine that under EU law the passengers have a binding contract with the company, and the company in turn owes them a duty of care, which includes providing the ship with a competent captain.


    Certainly under EU Health & Safety law the the company are responsible for their customers / passengers. I think the duty of care is exclusive to Common Law, not 100% certain (am I being pedantic?)


    health and safety law wouldn’t give the passengers any right to sue. Whatever about the exact term “duty of care” being exclusive to common law, it would surprise me very much if the passengers didn’t have some remedy under EU contract law.

    Maybe one of our legal readers would throw light on this question.


    A breach of H&S law is a criminal offence and is subject to presecution. The passengers could take a civil action and sue for damages. I’m sure that the accident, if proven to be of human cause, would be a breach of the contract between both parties.


    I wonder if the insurance coverage that the firm has differentiates between “pilot error” (which I assume would be covered) and faulty equipment – which might be put down to inadequate maintenance procedures, and thus void the insurance contract? No idea, but it might be a factor


    One possible, and relatively cheap, design option might be to include alarms when a vessel steers too far off it’s approved course. Similar to aircraft, the computer could take over if the pilot/captain does something ‘stupid’.

    Make it a requirement that the 2nd in command and other senior crew members have to agree before the system can be over-ridden.

    Anyway, a thought.


    Mick » Like in Star Trek?


    It’s not that mad :)

    Ships can be electronically navigated using GPS, so wouldn’t be that hard to designate ‘danger zones’ that are close to shore and have some sort of associated alarm system.

    ‘Make it so’!


    I don’t know what the implications of that would be.

    Aircraft depend on motion for their survival, and that’s what automatic systems in planes control, not position. What’s more, all automatic systems in aircraft can be overridden by the crew.

    I don’t think any ship’s master should be prevented by a computer from making a decision based on his skill and knowledge, but maybe he should be required to positively override the advice of the safety system if he chooses to go against it.


    You could sue the operator / travel agent for a breach of contract however could they have in any circumstances forseen the negligence? “Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their luggage by sea, 1974.” may apply or its protocols under which The carrier shall be liable for the damage suffered as a result of the death of or personal injury to a passenger and the loss of or damage to luggage if the incident which caused the damage so suffered occurred in the course of the carriage and was due to the fault or neglect of the carrier or of his servants or agents acting within the scope of their employment…..phew!
    As far as autohelm goes the variables are such that it’s too risky. Autohelm can be used in open water but is seldom used without a watch being kept. It would never be depended on close to land or in port etc. This guy clearly did not know the waters and sailed as if he knew them intimately.


    It’s worth studying the convention in greater depth. On my reading of it, EU laws will take precedence and I think none of this will matter a rat’s arse once it goes into court.


    Human error seems likely at this point, the captain is in big trouble.


    It doesn’t look much like error. It looks a lot more like extreme stupidity.

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