It is one of the most tragic maritime accidents in recent times. The 7-year old, 291 meters long cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized outside Giglio Island harbor on the 13th of January 2012, killing 32 people.
The Costa Concordia was carrying 4,252 people from all over the world and was on the first leg of a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea. She had left the Italian port of Civitavecchia in Lazio, when she hit a reef during an unofficial near-shore salute to the local islanders.
To perform this manoeuvre, Captain Francesco Schettino had deviated from the ship’s computer-programmed route, claiming that he was familiar with the local seabed.
It was 20:43:25 in the evening when the Costa Concordia set course on a heading to Le Scole rocks. There was only a distance of 2 ship’s length when the Costa Concordia’s bridge team saw the razor-sharp Le Scole rocks right ahead, if not a little bit on her starboard side. At this moment the Captain gave the order: “Hard to starboard”
The ship had a speed of 15.9 knots. She had started to turn to her starboard side, but at the same time she was drifting in a direction opposite to where she was being steered to: right onto the Le Scole rocks. The time was 20:44:53 and the speed was 15.3 knots when the Costa Concordia’s bow just missed the rocks but the ship was still drifting towards the lethal Le Scole rocks.
And now comes the contentious point.
Could the Costa Concordia have missed the rocks, if the ship was put “hard to port” when the bow had just missed the rocks?
Well, this is the most recent argument of Captain Schettino, who has put the blame on the Indonesian helmsman of the ship.
Schettino said: “From the black box, you can hear that I had asked the helmsman to move the rudder to port and said “port, 20 to the port!”. At that time the ship had an angle leaning towards the starboard and the error of not putting it to the port immediately -, the delay of this action has, caused this accident”
Well, on paper, Schettino is right! In ship maneuvering terms, such a command would have resulted in the starboard-side swing of the ship’s stern (away from the rocks). Theoretically this could have saved the ship’s stern from hitting the rocks hard. Of course this is if you can forget about the initial drift.
As a ship maneuvering expert, I analyzed the ship’s AIS track many times, and also watched the animation made by Transas which shows how the ship had drifted towards the rocks. From the speed data, it is clear that the ship’s speed had dropped during the whole process, which was good for reducing the impact of collision but bad for the maneuverability of the ship. My final thought is that the collision with the rocks was inevitable from the point when Captain Schettino took the wrong decision at 20:43:25 to take the ship just 600 meters away from the rocks!
This reminded me of another tragic disaster, when the Titanic hit an iceberg in the Atlantic, probably an iceberg as sharp as the rocks of Giglio Island.
“Iceberg, right ahead!”
These three words were spoken by Lookout Frederick Fleet at 11:40 p.m. on 14 April 1912 from the crow’s nest of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The story goes that, reacting to this three-word warning, First Officer William Murdoch ordered “hard a-starboard.” The ship started to turn to port, but its bow grazed the iceberg.
Looking at both incidents- Titanic and Costa Concordia- I see that the situations were nearly the same, preventive actions were nearly the same, and results, also were nearly the same! Both ships were badly damaged from the side, that made the transvers bulkheads useless and as a result, their sinking was inevitable.
(Attentive readers might have noticed the above command and resultant reaction of the Titanic: Helmsman was ordered hard to starboard and ship moved to port. The reason is that in the British Merchant Navy steering orders used to be given as helm orders as though the helmsman at the wheel was actually holding a tiller. So ‘hard a starboard’ would mean ‘put your helm or tiller hard a starboard’. This would turn the ship’s rudder to port and so the ship would turn to port.)
In both situations, both with the Titanic and the Costa Concordia , a preventive command could have stopped the ship in the shortest time possible; which is:
“Stop! Full astern!”
On ships, this action is called as “Crash stop” in which the engine is put to full-astern without any concern about possible damage to the main engine A modern cruise ship with strong engines can stop within 3 ship’s length at 24 knots speed when put to full astern. In the case of Costa Concordia which was at 15,9 knots and at a distance of more than 2 ship’s length to the rocks ahead- the time when Schettino had ordered “hard to starboard”; nothing but a “crash stop” could have saved the ship and lives of 32 passengers, including the Captain’s own professional life.
During a crash-stop manoeuvre, the ship’s heading can be maintained by the bow thrusters in order to avoid damage to the sides. A head-on crash onto the rocks at low speed-in case the ship could not have stopped before- would result in insignificant damage to the ship and the bulkhead doors would have perfectly prevented the ingress of water... ν