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.