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

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.

COSTA’S 2014 COMEBACK- A PIVOTAL YEAR?

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

After the ghastly tragedy of 2012’s Costa Concordia disaster and a less than inspiring 2013, Costa Cruises must be hoping that 2014 will represent a favourable turning point in its fortunes. However, the line isn’t simply wishing on a dream. it has taken a series of admittedly tentative steps towards recovering its former status, and these are looking encouraging.

Firstly, the sodden, solemn remains of the Concordia herself should literally disappear from view at last, as the wreck of the raised ship is finally towed away and scrapped at an as yet undisclosed location. This in itself should be a huge psychological lift, though the ongoing trial of the cringeworthy Francesco Schettino continues somewhere in the background.

New up is the November 2014 debut of the new flagship, Costa Diadema. This 130,000 ton ship- a variant on the Carnival Dream design- is so far the only one of the class on order. She was recently floated out, and is slated to operate seven night Western Mediterranean cruises year round. The Costa Diadema is the largest passenger ship ever built for any Italian line, and an enormous amount hangs on her success. She is by far the biggest and most visible example of renewed forward momentum from the Italian cruise juggernaut, but by no means the only one.

Out in the Far East, Costa Victoria- the original Costa megaship- has just had a generally well received, $18 million renovation of her interior spaces. She has now been joined in year round service in the region by a second large ship, the Costa Atlantica. And, despite initial denials to the contrary, Costa is, indeed, ridding itself of the delightful, diminutive Costa Voyager after the collapse of her winter 2013/14 Red Sea programme. The line is also set to lay up or sell a second,as yet unnamed ship in the not too distant future. The smart money would be on this being the unreconstructed Costa Classica.

Her sister ship, the massively reconstructed Costa NeoRomantica, has not been the success that the company hoped, at least in the short term. For 2014, she will be joined by the newly acquired Costa NeoRiviera, the former Grand Mistral of Iberocruises. With these two ships, Costa is diverging off the beaten track and into a new, very interesting direction.

Typically vibrant, Farcus style Costa interiors. This is the Costa Favolosa

Typically vibrant, Farcus style Costa interiors. This is the Costa Favolosa

Here we have a brace of much smaller ships than the rest of the Costa alumni; the idea is to sail them in the Baltic and Mediterranean next summer, on longer twelve to fourteen night itineraries. These will feature a high number of overnight stays in popular, flagship ports- not something Costa has previously been known to do in the past.

The emphasis will also be on creating a more intimate experience, with upgraded service and shore excursions. In a way, it’s a kind of return to the sort of voyages that the line was once famous for in the sixties and seventies, and it should be very interesting to see if what amounts to Costa 2.0 can pull off this ‘back to the future’ kind of volte face after so many years of successive mega ship birthings. For sure, a lot is riding on it.

My advice? Stay tuned….

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.