The sinking of the giant Italian-American cruise liner “Costa Concordia” is among the most amazing and bizarre events in modern nautical history.
Having long, long ago been harbor master of Montego Freeport, Jamaica, and operations director of a line of West Indies freighters, I watched this Italian drama with professional fascination and horror.
Investigators are still sorting through the wreck and trying to figure out what really happened on the dark night of 13 January.
But from preliminary findings, it seems Captain Francesco Schettino was guilty of dereliction of duty for steering his 290 meter-long vessel perilously close to the island of Giglio’s rocky coast. Mind you, he had done this maneuver a year earlier, sailing within pistol shot of land to supposed salute the 1,500 islanders.
Some witnesses claim the 52-year old captain was wining and dining a 20-something blonde Moldovan dancer on the bridge. He probably tried to impresses her by cruising very close to shore – a most Italian accident.
The maneuver worked last year. But this time, the “Concordia’s” showboating master ran out of luck. He was probably a meter or two off the previous course and hit an uncharted rock, or rocks, that ripped open the huge vessel’s side below the waterline, spoiling his romantic dinner and dooming the liner.
Schettino now faces lynch mobs in Italy, an angry wife, and condemnation by the media. To what degree Costa headquarters was responsible in the accident remains unclear.
The Captain’s claims he saved the ship were greeted by derision. But he may have.
Schettino quickly reversed course and grounded his sinking vessel on a rocky ledge. At the time, he could not have known the full damage to the ship. But he made the right decision to run it aground.
This quick decision saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Otherwise, “Concordia” would have rapidly capsized and sunk in deep water.
But Schettino was derelict in joyriding his ship close to shore. He was shamefully negligent not holding evacuation drills before sailing. His miserable behavior and that of his first officers after the crash was deplorable. One can’t imagine a stiff-upper-lip captain of a British liner ever performing such craven antics.
Eleven passengers and crew are dead and 21 missing. The vessel’s 500,000 gallons of fuel oil threaten the important marine refuge for dolphins and whales around the island of Giglio and the entire region.
Carnival Cruise Lines, owner of Costa Lines, has so cleverly insulated itself legally and its Panama-based ships that it may face only modest threats of damages and punishment. It’s like trying to sue a moving ship.
I was running Montego Freeport harbor soon after the founder of Carnival, a brilliant Israeli businessman named Ted Arison, got his start by repainting a old Baltic car ferry and rechristening it “Sunward.”
The “Starward” and “Skyward” soon followed, creating Norwegian Caribbean Lines, pioneering short, low-cost Caribbean cruises for the common man. I used to greet them from our little red tugboat and guide them into port.
Fast forward forty-two years and today Carnival Cruises has eleven brands, including the venerable Cunard Lines and P&O, and a 21.1% share of the world cruise market, one of the most remarkable business success stories of our era.
Speaking as an old salt, I find the new, 4,000-6,000 passenger cruise Leviathans far too large for either enjoyment or safety. They ride too high in the water and are top heavy, posing potential problems of stability in high seas.
These floating cities pollute in spite of storing garbage and waste, disturb marine life, and swamp small ports with mobs of passengers.
However, cruising remains one of the safest modes of transport. But it’s best to avoid tired, third-hand ships with outdated safety systems and cruises run by firms or nations with a poor record for seamanship or maritime responsibility.
Like cut-rate airlines, their rock-bottom prices attract the lowest common denominator of maritime passengers. These monster vessels should not be allowed to operate in the constricted waters of the precious Mediterranean Sea that has only two narrow outlets, Gibraltar and the Dardanelles. The seas must not be despoiled for commercial profit.