NEW DUO ANNOUNCED FOR COSTA CRUISES

Costa Cruises has just announced that it will be receiving two new ships, each of 180,000 tons, from the Meyer Werft satellite shipyard in Turku, Finland..

The two new vessels are part of the much touted, nine ship order placed by Carnival Corporation for new tonnage across several of its brands. At the time, it was bruited that at least one of these vessels would be a new build for the Italian giant. Four of these contracted new builds were awarded to Meyer Werft- the other two vessels will be for the German Aida subsidiary.

The two new Costa ships will come in with a blockbusting passenger capacity of some 5,200 lower berths, and a total aimed at an incredible 6,600 in all. If these figures are realised, it will give the company the biggest passenger carrying capacity of any vessels afloat.

Current plans anticipates completion dates of 2019 and 2020 respectively for the two as yet nameless ships.

It is only recently that the Italian line took delivery of a new, largest ever flagship- the 132,500 ton Costa Diadema- styled by the line as the ‘Queen of The Mediterranean’.

This order represents a huge act of faith by the parent company in the future of Costa Cruises, coming as it does a scant few years after the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio in January, 2012.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned.

It's full steam ahead for the colossus that is Costa....

It’s full steam ahead for the colossus that is Costa….

CASUALTIES: SCHETTINO AND FUNCHAL

This week brought an endgame of sorts to a duo of needless, long drawn out, totally depressing events in the maritime community. And, worse still, one of these resulted in the irreplacable loss of thirty two innocent people. Both are salient events and, hopefuly, neither will bear repetition.

Firstly, an Italian court finally got round to sentencing the hapless Francesco Schettinio to sixteen years in jail for the catastrophic capsizing of the Costa Concordia in 2012, with the loss of thirty two lives. The sinking of the huge, state of the art cruise ship rocked the entire industry to its very foundations.

I’m not getting into assumptions about the length or suitability- or not- of the sentenece. I am not in possession of all the facts, and simply not in a position to make an emotionless, analytical judgement on said facts.

But what I do know is this; having driven his ship dangerously close inshore like some adolescent yuppie, showing off his brand new Maserati to his friends, Schettino wrecked his ship. Far worse, he then abandoned the hapless thousands entrusted to his care and concern, and fled the scene. This action brought on him the immediate ire and contempt of his opposite numbers of the Italian coast guard. Left to organise a spur of the moment rescue mission in the middle of the night, in freezing cold conditions, their courage, ingenuity and devotion to duty stands as a stark, undeniable contrast to the actions of a man who, once confronted with the enormity of his handiwork, cloaked himself in head to toe denial.

Of course, this availed him little. And, with the lengthy appeals process yet to come, we could be up to the centenary of the disaster before the hapless Schettino himself is steered into a jail cell.

But the man is walking wreckage; his career and future prospects are as bright as that of the ship he destroyed. And, while my sympathies remain totally with the victims of this ghastly tragedy, it is impossible for me not to feel a shred of sympathy for the man himself, while retaining absolute abhorrence at his performance as a so-called captain. Enough said.

Casualty number two appears to be the lovely, beautifuly restored MV Funchal, whose entire summer porgramme of chartered cruises was cancelled this week. This leaves the ship- and, by proxy, owners Portuscale Cruises- effectively shackled to a Lisbon pier for the duration of the year.

While the restoration of this 1961 built classic liner was a thing of beauty to behold, the attempt to charter out Funchal and her fleet mate, Porto, has been a disaster. Third in fleet, Lisboa remains half upgraded in Lisbon, and reportedly up for sale. Only the ongoing, successful charter of the veteran Azores to Cruise And Maritime Voyages seems to be keeping the Portuguese operator on life support. But for how much longer?

Words such as ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ are academic at the moment. Perhaps Portuscale should have concentrated on marketing and sailing the ships themselves, instead of placing them at the beck and call of a conga line of largely whimsical and capricious charterers.

But, whatever, the company has not been good at engaging and getting across the appeal of these unique, soulful quartet of ships. Despite being two years old, only in the last few months has the line opened a Twitter account, for instance. E-mails to their Portuguese offices have just gone unanaswered in the past- and I’m speaking from personakl experience here.

I think it is these two factors that have largely led to the present situation. Is it too late? I hope not. But a radically different course plainly needs to be set.

Otherwise, we are likely to lose one of the most beautifully original and appealing passenger ships still available to travel on today. Make no mistake; the loss of Funchal would be an act of vandalism on a par with taking a scalpel to the portrait of the Mona Lisa.

Let us all hope and pray that it does not come to that.

As ever, stay tuned.

A pair of less than perfect sunsets are in the offing, it seems

A pair of less than perfect sunsets are in the offing, it seems

CIAO COSTA CONCORDIA; JULY 22nd UPDATE

The sun is finally setting on the once proud Costa Concordia

The sun is finally setting on the once proud Costa Concordia

Almost two and a half years after she hit rocks and capszied off the small Italian island of Giglio, the scarred, ghastly remains of the once proud Costa Concordia are finally ready to begin the final voyage to the scrapyard.

By one of those awful coincidences that seem to litter the pages of maritime history, the 114,000 ton Costa Concordia is going to be demolished in Genoa, Italy, where the ship was originally built back in 2006.

Numerous bids had been tendered to dispose of the partially refloated wreck, including one from Middlesbrough in the UK;  but the choice by Costa of the port of Genoa was made on grounds of proximity rather than cost. The tow from Giglio to Genoa is estimated to take five days. This is probably about as much exposure to open water as the fragile wreck can realistically sustain. As things stand, the tow is slated to begin on July 20th.

The immense salvage operation was the largest ever conducted on a partially sunken ship. Partially refloated by a method known as ‘parbuckling’, the wallowing hulk currently rests on a man made platform. Over the next few weeks, a series of man made sponsons will be attached to the hull, as a prelude to the tow.

The accident, which led to the deaths of thirty two passengers on board, occurred on January 13th, 2012, just hours after the Costa Concordia had left the port of Civitavecchia at the start of a seven night Mediterranean cruise. The story created world wide headlines at the time; a saga  fuelled by the actions of her captain, Francesco Schettino, who abandoned his command while thousands of his passengers were still stranded on board the listing ship.

A court of inquiry subsequently found five officers and crew members of the Costa Concordia guilty of negligence. The trial of Schettino himself is currently ongoing, though at a fairly desultory rate of knots.

Now, with the announcement of the imminent scrapping of the desolate hulk, Costa will no doubt be hoping to assume some forward momentum again. With the recent establishment of the ‘Neocollection’ of cruises being offered on smaller, more intimate ships, and the coming November launch of a new flagship, the even bigger Costa Diadema, the company is slowly gathering way once more.

No doubt the good people of Giglio will be glad to see the back of the grisly, hulking ruin that has blighted their horizon for two and a half years. Having lived through the disaster itself, the rescue, and then the media tsunami that followed, perhaps life there can once again assume a semblance of its former normality.

JUNE 11th UPDATE:

Word is being circulated via the GCaptain website (http://www.gcaptain.comthat the final timetable outlined above for removal of the Costa Concordia wreck may well be delayed.

A final green light for this was expected oh June 16th this year. However, Italy’s Department of Civil Protection, meeting in Rome to discuss the wreck disposal in greater detail, has asked for a nine day extension to look at the plans for salvage and ultimate disposal in greater detail. A decision is now expected on June 25th.

What effect- if any- these deliberations will have on the plans outlined above is as yet uncertain. As ever, stay tuned.

JULY 4TH UPDATE: 

Yesterday, the last of thirty sponsons was attached to the still half submerged hull of the Costa Concordia. The Italian government has now given final, formal consent for the demolition of the wreck to be carried out in Genoa.

Final preparations were expected to be completed by the middle of July, but with the last of the sponsons now in place, it is possible that she might reach her final port before the original target date, set for the end of this month.

As always, stay tuned.

JULY 22ND UPDATE:

As of today, the slowly surfacing wreckage has emerged some eleven metres in all, leaving another three metres to go before the long delayed tow to the scrapping berth at Genoa can finally begin.

This will be carried out by what amounts to a funeral cortege of some fourteen vessels; tug boats, oil spill recovery vessels, some multi purpose craft and, apparently, even a sailboat.

Delayed by high winds thus far, this final tow is currently due to start on Wednesday.

THE GHOST OF CONCORDIA; SCHETTINO GOES BACK ABOARD

CNV00058Quietly, and amid all the mayhem surrounding events in black spots such as Syria and the Ukraine, the trail of the hapless Francesco Schettino, former captain of the capsized Costa Concordia, has been proceeding in a courtroom in Grosetto, Italy.

Media boards and forums have been asking for months why there has been ‘no news’ for several months regarding this, and asking why this was the case. Firstly, there was a lawyers’ strike in Italy not so long ago that slowed proceedings to a paltry few knots.

Then, there was a little something known as ‘due process’, the long and often interminable business of gathering, sifting and filtering the evidence, to eventually arrive at what are, hopefully, the right conclusions.

But yesterday, those that were looking did see something quite unique in the whole ghastly, long drawn out process. For yesterday was the day that the wretched Schettino was taken back to the scene of his epic meltdown.

For the first time since that dreadful night in January of 2012, Francesco Schettino was brought back, face to face with the grisly, mutilated carcass of the ship he had once commanded with such casual aplomb. The site where thirty-two people, assigned to his care, died even as he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat, before disregarding emphatic, heated orders to return to his ship from the local coastguard.

And he wept.

For the first time since that dreadful night, the captain finally broke down in public. Until now, he has always managed to keep his head firmly in the sand, rebutting a tidal wave of disparaging evidence and accusation time and time again. A twenty first century Canute, refusing to accept the inevitable, time and time again. Until yesterday.

What broke him? Was it the sad, battered, shabby corpse of his once beautiful, glittering command? It must certainly have been like a punch to the solar plexus to see the actual reality of this once proud ship, reduced to such an irreperable mess.

Was it the knowledge of those thirty-two lost souls that he had abandoned to their fate? He, the man charged with the care of every soul on his command, under God, for the duration of the voyage?

I suspect it was both.

For here, writ large, was the undeniable, devastating star witness for the prosecution; a grisly, gigantic presence whose final reality could not be denied.

And in that quiet, awful moment, I suspect that the unbearable weight of residual guilt, coupled with the desperate need he felt to maintain that implausible facade of a defence, proved just too much. As it would for anyone.

I do not for one moment condone, defend or excuse one thing that Schettino did during the horrific ordeal of the Costa Concordia. Ultimately, he is the man responsible.

But in that one little moment when Francesco Schettino was finally brought face to face with the wreck of his career, his ship, and his life, I found it impossible not to feel just a shred of pity for him.

FALSE STARTS AND BROKEN HEARTS- TITANIC II, QE2, AND A WHOLE SUPPORTING CAST (UPDATED)

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

So 2013 chugs wearily towards it’s end, and the shipping fraternity has suffered a series of shocks, losses and complete non starters perhaps without parallel in living memory. It has, indeed, been both emotional and farcical by turns.

At the upper strata of heartbreaking farce is the seemingly endless, hopelessly unfunny circus that continues to surround the QE2. Hopes were raised for an October departure for a Chinese shipyard, and subsequent conversion into a 300 room hotel. There was even talk of a three month tour, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ voyage around the Far East, to showcase the ship’s legendary charm and alleged, newly ‘enhanced’ elegance.

Of course, none of this has transpired, Today, QE2 remains, slowly suffocating in her Dubai sarcophagus, surrounded by silence and with almost all of her lights switched off. Whatever faint credibility her current owners might once have had has now disappeared as completely as Atlantic fog. People are just so weary of lies, half truths and fatuous bluster that any future pronouncements will simply be greeted with a mixture of apathy and scorn.

Losses aplenty have manifested themselves, too, as the first generation of purpose built cruise ships begins to succumb to a lethal cocktail of age, apathy and sheer indifference on the part of most everyone, save for the owners of those ever hungry scrapyards. The grim procession to the block has already claimed Pacific Princess, Song Of Norway, Cunard Adventurer, and even the 1984 built Fairsky. And, with no word on the stance or condition of Ocean Countess since the fire that partly ravaged her at Chalkis on November 30th, we might yet be looking at another victim coming early in the new year. And, sadly, this list of the lost is by no means exhaustive.

Still marking time

Still marking time

We were also treated to the sobering sight of the partially salvaged Costa Concordia, as her sad, shabby carcass came back onto something of an even keel. Meanwhile, the equally sad, shabby carcass of her former Captain, Francesco Schettino, continues to be butchered in a parallel exercise by an Italian court of inquiry.

People continue to watch with a kind of vaguely uneasy hope all the goings on surrounding the SS. United States, where all concerned are hoping fervently for some Prince Charming to come to the rescue of this legendary ship. Unlike QE2, there is no questioning the sincerity or dogged determination of those fighting so hard to save the ship, and it is to be hoped that their efforts prevail in 2014.

All of which is a million miles away from the ghastly charade called Titanic II. Delayed more often than a First Capital Connect train, it was supposed- yet again- to have a definitive launch date set this December. But since the fickle ambitions of the brilliantine swathed, bon vivant Clive Palmer became gradually more attuned towards Australian politics over the previous summer, the prospect of his much touted ‘ship of schemes’ ever seeing the light of day has vanished as completely as his famously once bruited zeppelin project. Feel free to insert your own jokes regarding hot air and/or serially self obsessed windbags.

So, you will be seemingly deprived forever of the chance to move, with all of your luggage, between each of three classes every two days. Nor will you be able to pose for tasteful ‘Jack and Rose’ style shots on the prow, even as you sail over the gravesite of the real thing. Oh well, it’s all back to the Queen Mary 2, then.

On the other hand, it also neatly deprives Celine Dion of any excuse to get back into a recording studio somewhere.

I suppose every cloud has a silver lining.

AUGUST 19TH 2014 UPDATE

The brilliantined buffoon that is Clive Palmer has just had an extraordinary national meltdown on world wide television. On the subject of China- where he was supposedly going to have his Titanic II built, Palmer has fumed that ‘They shoot their own people; they are mongrels, they have no rule of law, and they want to take over this country.. . (Australia).’

Phew. While it is good that Clive has noticed all of this, it is just a shame that none of it seemed to register with him while he was attempting to get them to build his ‘ship of schemes’.

Amazing how quickly grapes can go truly sour these days, no?

I guess we can also call time on that guard of honour from the Chinese navy as well?

Thanks and goodbye, Clive; it’s been emulsional.

BOAT DRILL- A NECESSARY EVIL?

Boat drill. No fun, but necessary

Boat drill. No fun, but necessary

There are few really negative things about the cruise experience, other than the fact that it has to end, I guess. Sure, you might cite unpleasant passengers, and some of the shows might not be to your taste. The same could be true about the food, or even elements of the service.

But these are individual things and, for every hater, another ninety nine fellow voyagers are probably very happy with those self same things. Yet if there’s one thing that gets up the back of just about every passenger on any cruise, it’s the mandatory lifeboat drill held before sailing.

The drill is, without doubt, the boil on cruising’s otherwise beautifully sculpted backside. A dentist’s drill would probably elicit less in the way of agonised groans. Passengers loathe it and, truth be told, so do the crew. They know that the passengers would rather be anywhere than there, and that they need an inordinate amount of goading, chiding and coaxing just to get many just to participate at all. For the crew, boat drill is no fun whatsoever.

I have no credibility to lose here, because I have to admit to finding the drill as monumental a pain as anybody else. Yet I always make myself go because, better than most, I know just how and why it came to be so damned necessary. There is no excuse for anyone to miss boat drill and, as a maritime historian, I have fewer excuses than anybody.

Of course, over it all there still hangs the long, ghastly shadow of the Titanic.

When that ship had to be abandoned in mid Atlantic, the evacuation- carried through with a kind of ruthless, desperate haste- was so badly botched that there were almost five hundred empty seats in the boats that did get away. Most of those employed as boat crews did not even know how to hold an oar, much less row with one.

The sinking of the Titanic hit home like a hydrogen bomb, and resulted in a whole raft of new legislation that followed in its wake. One of the first was an across the board diktat of boats for all on board, and a mandatory boat drill at the start of each voyage, so that passengers and crew alike know exactly where to head in the event of an emergency. This was the genesis of the lifeboat drill that we love to hate to this day.

if you’re wondering why the drill emphasises that you should use the stairs, and not the lifts in the events of an emergency, that goes back to the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, when screaming passengers were trapped in lifts stalled between decks as the water overwhelmed them. Sobering stuff, for sure.

Costa ships now hold one of the most rigorous boat drills of any cruise line

Costa ships now hold one of the most rigorous boat drills of any cruise line

No towels to be left on balconies? This one is down to a fire that started on a passenger balcony aboard the Star Princess a few years ago that did quite horrific damage to that ship.

And if ever you needed to be reminded just how important the drill still is, you only have to remember the ghastly charade of the Costa Concordia last year. Only calm weather and the ship’s (very) close proximity to land prevented a far more horrific loss of life.  Thirty-two was more than enough.

So, next time you- like me- stop and think that there’s no good reason to endure yet another lifeboat drill, just remind yourself that there are, in fact, at least thirty-two. Truth.

SCHETTINO ON TRIAL, AND THE GHOSTS OF THE PAST

CNV00002Even as the grisly, ghostly remains of the Costa Concordia rose sluggishly from her watery grave off the island of Giglio, the trial of her former captain, Francesco Schettino, was going full speed ahead in a converted opera house in Grosseto, Italy.

Unlike his five co-accused, the wretched Schettino has not been allowed to enter a plea bargain. His defence team are now conducting their stand along the extraordinary idea that Schettino alone was not responsible for the grounding and subsequent sinking of the ship under his command.

This ghastly playing with semantics will no doubt be of much concern to the families of the thirty two victims of the Costa Concordia, or indeed, the thousands of traumatized survivors, both passengers and crew, that lived through the terrible events of that dreadful night back in January of 2012. Frankly, for Schettino to contest that he is not solely responsible is more than laughable.

Because, as captain of the ship, he had the ultimate responsibility for- and to- all those under his care and command. And that duty did not end when the Concordia came shuddering to a halt after ripping her hull open. And in the exercise of that care and effort, Schettino failed spectacularly.

One of his officers has testified under oath that his captain seemed lost and uncomprehending after the disaster. Lost, indeed, to the extent that he failed to order an abandon ship, and lost to the extent that he failed to notify the local authorities of any accident to his ship, Indeed, so ‘lost’ that he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat, and then left his grounded ship while there were literally thousands still left on board. in the freezing darkness.

But if Schettino did indeed go to pieces after realising the enormity of what had happened to his ship, would it really have been at all surprising? Look back at two other classic examples of command in hopeless situations, and a tangible pattern emerges.

The obvious one is Edward Smith of the Titanic. Once the realisation of his ship’s true situation hit home, Smith seemed to implode spectacularly. Better than anyone, he knew that the lifeboats on board were sufficient for less than half the souls on Titanic, even if every seat was filled. He knew that the nearest rescue ship was four hours away, and that his ship had half that amount of time at best.

Coupled to that was the knowledge that he would ultimately be held responsible for this nightmare situation. That night, everything was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller allowed women and children only into the boats. Murdoch, his opposite number on the starboard side, allowed men in as well when no more women were in evidence.

The result? Three times as many people were saved from the starboard side of the Titanic as from the port side, despite the exact same availability of seats on both sides. Another five hundred people could have been got in the existing boats, but Smith did nothing to overrule Lightoller, as he easily could have done. Captain Smith, with his thirty eight years experience at sea, was easily the most famous and feted skipper of any Atlantic liner. But he was simply overwhelmed by the events that overtook him.

Paradoxically, Edward Smith was to prove no more effective at evacuating the Titanic than was Francesco Schettino on the Costa Concordia. Two men, a century apart, bound  by the common ties of the same paralytic sense of stupor.

Another example of command in extremity was Captain Ernst Lindemann of the Bismarck. On the evening of May 26th, 1941, a torpedo wrecked the steering gear of his ship, leaving her limping helplessly towards an overwhelming, avenging pack of Royal Navy warships, all of them baying for the blood of the slayer of the ‘Mighty Hood’. For Lindemann and his young crew of 2,200, the Bismarck had become the biggest condemned cell in the world.

Add to that the fact that Lindemann, like most of his crew, had been awake for almost five days on end, as they fought a desperate series of skirmishes and pitched battles on a storm tossed, enemy dominated ocean, where any ship encountered could almost certainly be deemed hostile. After the torpedo hit, the already exhausted captain spent hours trying in vain to steer the crippled ship to safety by using the propellers.

In the small hours of May 27th, the duty engineer on Bismarck rang the bridge to request a routine order. The Captain’s response stunned him; ‘Ach, do what you like. I’m finished with them’…

Having realised the inevitable doom hurtling toward him, and knowing that he was powerless to either prevent it, or save his crew, Lindemann, like Smith before him, quietly imploded. At the same time, he was seen walking morosely around the bridge, while wearing an open life jacket.

And yes, I think something similar happened to Schettino; a kind of reverse ‘shock and awe’ if you will. What the public man is unwilling to admit, the heart and the brain can not deny. Schettino was overwhelmed by the events he had set in motion and, in the final analysis, he can never rise above that.

COSTA CONCORDIA SALVAGE- PARALLELS WITH THE PAST (UPDATED)

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

As the attempt to finally right the enormous Costa Concordia begins off the Italian island of Giglio, all sorts of superlatives are being bandied around to describe the operation. The general consensus is that there has never been a salvage operation on this scale.

That consensus is wrong.

In February of 1942, the giant French luxury liner, Normandie, caught fire and capsized at her berth in the middle of New York harbour, at the foot of her berth at Manhattan’s 48th street. The big liner was in the final stages of conversion into a troop ship- the USS Lafayette- when she was ruined in a set of circumstances every bit as farcical, needless and incompetent as those that were to wreck the Concordia, almost exactly seventy years later to the day.

Statistics are interesting to compare here; Concordia was 114,000 tons, with a length of 952 feet. Normandie was smaller in terms of gross tonnage- 83,000- but was a full 1,029 feet long. In terms of bulk, she was every bit as impressive as her Italian counterpart.

It took a full eighteen months to raise the Normandie; without the benefit of today’s cutting edge technology, the capsized French leviathan was first lightened by cutting away all her upper works, her masts, and her three huge funnels. The hull, flooded by a catastrophic ingress of water from forty three fire engines and her subsequent partial immersion in the Hudson river, took months to make sound and pump dry.

However, it was fully intended that the Normandie would not only be salvaged, but repaired and returned to service as a troopship. But the liner capsized on her port side and, as she did so, part of her keel was twisted on a rock ledge near the pier. In addition, her port side engines were ruined beyond any economic repair and, by the time of her amazing resurrection in November of 1943, the need for troopships in general had began to recede in any event. So, instead of returning to service, the Normandie was eventually towed to a New Jersey shipyard and scrapped.

Yet despite the apparent waste of time, effort and resources, the raising of the Normandie was an unparalleled, Herculean effort. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before; and valuable lessons were learned that have  often been applied in similar situations since. That includes the current efforts to raise the Costa Concordia.

Of course, the Costa Concordia capsized in partially open waters off the coast of western Italy, whereas the Normandie went over in the middle of New York’s Hudson river. The need for haste in the case of the Italian ship is heightened by the looming inevitability of another Mediterranean winter; storms could finish off the seriously weakened hulk of the Concordia if she is not raised in the next few days.

Sadly, there is no hope that she will ever sail again. Like the Normandie, she has already been shorn of her funnel and masts; her last destination is not in doubt.

The raising of the Concordia also coincides with the curtain opening on the trial of her former master, the hapless, wretched Francesco Schettino.  And you don’t have to be an expert to form the idea that both are ultimately bound for the scrap heap.

UPDATE: JANUARY  11TH, 2014

Costa is currently considering bids for the final disposal of the remains of the Costa Concordia. Some twelve shipyards have bid for the work, including Middlesbrough in the UK. A decision on the favoured contractor is slated for announcement at the end of February/early March. The wreck is expected to be removed from it’s current location off the island of Giglio in June, either by tow, or by heavy lift ship. Demolition is expected to commence in September.

Currently, the wreck has been stabilised and secured to protect it from the worst of the winter weather. The environmental impact of the sinking has been apparently- and thankfully- negligent.

Meanwhile, the ongoing trial of the former captain, Francesco Schettino, has ground to a halt at Grosetto as the result of a nationwide strike by Italian lawyers. No definite resumption date has been announced.

Some thirty-two people were lost as a result of the sinking in January, 2012. All the missing bodies have now been recovered.

STAY OR GO? A CAPTAIN’S DILEMMA… updated

Aboard the Costa Favolosa, the sister ship of the ill fated Concordia

Aboard the Costa Favolosa, the sister ship of the ill fated Concordia

With the looming September trial of Francesco Schettino, and the recent guilty verdicts on five officers and shoreside staff in connection with the Costa Concordia tragedy, the whole question of a captain’s responsibility is once more under the microscope, and as never before.

The loss of the Concordia collided head on at 22 knots with the centenary of the Titanic disaster and, for the wretched Schettino, that inevitably invoked comparisons of his behaviour with that of Captain Smith, who famously went down with his command. The captain of the doomed White Star liner was posthumously hailed as a role model by a whole raft of armchair sailors. But was he?

First and foremost, there is no rule- written or otherwise- which insists that any captain go down with his ship. Captain Turner survived the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania- he literally stepped off the wing of the bridge as it came level with the water. One year earlier, Captain Henry Kendall was saved from the sunken Empress of Ireland in the Saint Lawrence seaway. Neither man attracted to themselves the level of opprobrium hurled at Schettino.

And yet comparing like for like is hardly fair. It may not be fair, but it is inevitable.  And consider Schettino’s actions- or lack of them- in the light of those of another Italian skipper; Piero Calamai of the Andrea Doria.

Calamai insisted on remaining with his mortally wounded, slowly sinking ship until almost the last minute, and only finally left her when he was convinced that everyone on board had been saved that could be. Some of his decisions that night can be questioned, but his personal bravery- and sense of responsibility for his passengers and crew- never were. Quite right, too.

The sinking of the Andrea Doria haunted him for the remaining sixteen years of his life. On his death bed in 1972, he cried out in delirium, asking if all the passengers and crew had been saved.

Schettino, by contrast, scarpered at warp speed, after wrecking his ship and then failing to raise a general alarm for almost an hour. Neither is excusable, as the language of an Italian coast guard officer at the scene made clear. His on the spot censure and railing at Schettino was scathing.

Naval men have a different take on such things. Japanese captains routinely went down with their vessels. The captain of the sinking Yamato was literally lashed to the wheel on the bridge. Six years earlier, Captain Hans Langsdorff took personal responsibility for the scuttling of the Graf Spee off Montevideo. He shot himself in a hotel room in Buenos Aires.

That said, no one is remotely advocating that Schettino- or, indeed, Smith- should have followed such ghastly, ritualistic immolations as these.

But the armchair genii that lauded Edward Smith over Schettino should also think before praising their man too much. Yes, Smith went down with his ship. But he also seemed to have lost all connection with reality once the awful truth sunk in about the true extent of the damage to the Titanic.

The Titanic Memorial in Southampton's East park

The Titanic Memorial in Southampton’s East Park

He imploded spectacularly on the inside; the botched evacuation of the Titanic was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers. The result? Almost five hundred empty seats in the boats that were lowered. Almost three quarters of the Titanic survivors embarked in boats on the starboard side of the ship. Here, men were allowed in the boats by first officer William Murdoch after the women and children were loaded. Yet the boat capacity on port and starboard sides of the Titanic was exactly the same. Smith did nothing to override Charles Lightoller, his second officer, who sent down boat after boat less than half full. Ironically, Lightoller survived, while Murdoch did not.

Smith proved no more effective in overseeing the abandonment of the Titanic than did Schettino of the Concordia.  The fact that he chose to stay and go down with the ship earned him his posthumous spurs but, either way, he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. He sank Titanic.  He would have been branded a coward if he survived yet, by dying, he avoided taking responsibility for his actions.

The world is full of armchair experts. One of whom is currently typing this piece. Darkness and confusion at sea can create, warp and enhance all manner of perceptions. The job- and the responsibility- of a ship’s master is sometimes lonely, and always a heavy one.

But it is also as unforgiving as it is undeniable.  And, on the most crucial count of all- the safety and preservation of the lives entrusted in his charge- Schettino failed totally, and in the full glare of public sight.

His assertion that he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat is too risible to even rail against. Period.

Additional:

Today, September 16th, a full scale attempt will be made to refloat the hulk of the Costa Concordia from its impact point off the island of Giglio. Francesco Schettino goes on trial later this month.

COSTA FAVOLOSA- A JUNE JAUNT OUT OF VENICE

ImageCosta is a company in a quandary. After the disastrous loss of the Costa Concordia and a nose dive in profits, the line still  seems to be in a state of flux. Not all of the ripples in the whirlpool have settled yet, and that is putting it mildly.

In the wake of this awful event, I was curious to see the company in action, and to record my impressions. Costa seemed less keen. They were not prepared to entertain the idea of a press trip. I booked anyway, and flew out to Venice to board the 114,000 ton Costa Favolosa, introduced as recently as July 2011.

The Favolosa is the almost identical twin sister of the late Concordia, so no better place to gain a feel for how things are now. As big ships go, she is quite beautiful, with the single, black and yellow stack really making her quite distinctive. But appearances are one thing, and delivery is another.

This brings me neatly to the lifeboat drill, which took place prior to leaving Venice. Costa have come up with the good idea of leaving a red, plastic card in your cabin- not unlike your cruise swipe card- that has to be handed in at the start of the drill. These are checked off, and properly. Those not attending were made to come to a make up drill next day. So far, so good.

All passengers are assembled, with life jackets, at their outside muster stations. All 3,500 of them. And this is where Costa, like many other cruise lines, run up against a brick wall. Or, more accurately, a wall of sound.

ImageOn these multi- lingual ships, every instruction had to be repeated in each of seven languages. Sadly, the passengers around me babbled and clowned about to such an extent that I was unable to hear any of them, in any lingo. They were completely and utterly blase and uninterested in any aspect of the drill.

I was stunned. This was not just any ship, but the TWIN SISTER of the Concordia. It had all only happened only five months ago. Yet here they were, flippant and unfazed. Amazing.

Of course, all of this will be familiar to most passengers embarking on mega ships anywhere in the world. Quite what can be done about such attitudes is difficult to tell. Far as I could see, Costa made the best job of it that they possibly could.

ImageThen, a little bit of karma. As the Favolosa got under way and loomed out of Guidecca, the ship tilted briefly as thousands of passengers thronged to rubber neck at Piazza San Marco. There seemed to be one sharp, nervous intake of breath for a moment. It served to concentrate minds quite wonderfully, if only for a few seconds. Then we were passing the Doge’s Palace, and moving towards the open sea.

What followed can aptly be described as ‘twenty thousand sales pitches above the sea’. Costa filled the Favolosa by offering rock bottom prices, and then hanging price tags on everything on board. The low point had to be a ‘display’ of massages, complete with models draped across massage tables ,held in the atrium lobby during cocktail hour. The usual, excellent cocktail musicians were shooed aside for this grub-a-thon, while the cruise director shrieked for ‘applausa!’ from the stunned throng standing around.

I don’t know what this did for spa sales, but I do know that it emptied the very full bar quicker than a Justin Bieber tribute act would have done. I have never seen anything so puerile in more than thirty years at sea.

ImageCruise wise, we had wonderful weather, and the ship was always big enough that you could find somewhere quiet. Food was average to good at best, with poor quality cuts of meat and- incredibly for an Italian ship- lack lustre fruit.

Service was all over the place, from some exemplary South American bar and waiting staff, to plain sloppy. Drinks would arrive not properly dressed, and sometimes without place mats. When these did arrive, they were small, thin and useless- an obvious, and totally self defeating, cost cut.

On the other hand, there was more than enough entertainment to keep everybody diverted and amused; a key consideration on a week long trip.

ImagePhysically, the Costa Favolosa is fantastic; a floating theme park full of enough whimsical charm to leave you wide eyed with wonder. And that’s all well and fine. But when you are falling down on product delivery in other crucial key areas, it is only a matter of time before some tipping point is reached- pun wholly unintentional- and you decide that the glitter can no longer outshine the grime.

ImageSo yes, on the whole I enjoyed my week. But if Costa is to regain it’s pre-eminence as a product, it needs to look long and hard at just what is a practical economy, and what will cost them far more than it ultimately saves. Time alone will tell.

This article is reposted in view of the charges outlined against Francesco Schettino and his officers in relation to the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia.