Perspectives on the Costa Concordia Incident

Last week I wrote up Studying the Costa Concordia Grounding. Many folks sent me mail with interesting perspectives. Two were sufficiently interesting that I wanted to repeat them here. The first was from someone who was actually on the ship on that final cruise. The latter is from a professional captain with over 35 years’ experience as a certified Ocean Master.

Experiences From a Costa Concordia Passenger

One of the engineers I work with at Amazon was actually on the Costa Concordia when it grounded. Rory Browne works in the Dublin office and he made an excellent and very detailed presentation on what took place that final trip. He asked me not to post his slides but OK me posting my notes from his presentation.

Here are my notes from Rory Browne’s experiences on the final cruise of the Costa Concordia:

· Boarded the ship at 1400

· Went to bed at 1700 (long trip from Ireland)

· Woke at 2140 and started getting dressed

· Fell towards mirror a few minutes later and the lights went out

· The next hour:

o Public address announcement stating that an electrical fault had been experienced but the situation under control

o I Explored ship and noticed some “foam or froth on one side of the boat” – thought it might be a maneuvering thruster but, in retrospect, this was likely the side of the boat that had been ripped open by the grounding

o Noticed the crew had asked restaurant customers to put their dishes on the floor

o Returned to cabin to get out of the way of the crew

· Seven whistles were subsequently sounded indicated abandon ship

o Proceeded to muster station #4

o People still blocking stairwells and pushing to get onto lifeboats

o Lifeboat entrances were very crowded with long lines but I noticed a second lifeboat entrance with only a couple of people in line and was able to get on quickly

o People on lifeboat didn’t move away from the entrance but it was easy to slip past them to the far corner

o Estimate that they could easily have fit another 10 on the lifeboat (there were roughly 25 on it)

· When lifeboat was lowered the roof hit something and the fiberglass roof was bashed in behind my head. Now slightly worried about lifeboat integrity

Observations from a Licensed Master

What follows is one of the more interesting notes I got after blogging the Costa Concordia incident. This one from a professional captain. He’s given me permission to reprint it here but preferred not to include his name:

The original Letter:

Your January 29th blog discussing the Costa Concordia incident was an excellent presentation, and the links you provided were excellent as well. Because of your boating experience you have an understanding better than most of what took place with the cruise ship.

Like you, I often look further into incidents and disasters in order to have a better understanding of what actually took place, primarily because I know press releases and news reports of an incident rarely if ever delve into the underlying facts of a case. More often than not the media isn’t interested in much beyond sensationalism. Costa Concordia is the perfect example, as was Fukashima Dai-1. The miracle of Costa Concordia of course was that more lives weren’t lost.

There were two points you made in your discussion that might not be correct. Notice that I say, “might.” The first point being your mention that Captain Schettino was “clearly very experienced,” and the second point you made was that Captain Schettino’s ship handling after the initial grounding “appeared excellent.”

Regarding the first point, I’m not sure much is known about the quality and extent of Schettino’s actual hands-on experience at sea. At this point I think about all we can safely assume is that Schettino’s personality and demeanor were well suited to representing the cruise line to the paying passengers. Beyond that, I think we know little. Its one thing to set for and obtain a Master’s license, but it’s quite another to have the practical experience to captain a 114,000 GT vessel.

An experienced captain of a vessel, no matter what size, would never approach landfall at night (or even in daylight with good visibility) without repeatedly checking his radar. An experienced captain would know the maneuvering characteristics of his vessel, the turn radius, the advance and transfer when making a turn, the use and calculation of turn bearings, etc. On the other hand, I’m not sure at this point we know which officer actually had command of the vessel during the interval leading up to the initial grounding.

The second point you touched on was that Schettino’s handling of the vessel after the initial grounding “appeared excellent.” It’s well that you included the qualifier “appeared.” I’m not sure we know or will ever know what Schettino’s thinking was after the grounding, so at this point I believe all we can go on is to speculate what was he was doing based upon the available AIS data. Schettino might have been taking the action a prudent seaman would take, once propulsion power was lost; however, I’m not sure we know yet what effects the wind, the current and the attitude of the vessel were having. Perhaps there wasn’t enough force to overcome these and other outside influences on the maneuverability of the vessel, so perhaps the vessel once it went almost dead in the water was at the mercy of influences outside the control of the captain. Perhaps the vessel was simply lucky to have found itself grounded back on the island.

One of the many things that haven’t been explored fully regarding the Costa Concordia is the vessels stability, and in particular the stability after the ingress of the water began when she was initially holed on the port side. It some point in time there will be a computerized animation showing the progressive changes to her stability, the free surface effects, which compartments were impacted by the initial flooding, how the flooding progressed through the vessel, the effects of maintaining or not maintaining water tight integrity in her various compartments, the effects of wind and current, etc. That will be interesting.

I have over 35 years experience on the water and at sea and was a licensed oceans Master, so I have a little understanding of how this ship stuff works.

Again, I want to complement you on your Costa Concordia blog. You did a super job.

My response:

A super interesting note. I really enjoyed your background points.

One point you argued was where he had experience at anything beyond essentially being the front man for a 1,500 room hotel. Specifically you said “An experienced captain of a vessel, no matter what size, would never approach landfall at night (or even in daylight with good visibility) without repeatedly checking his radar. An experienced captain would know the maneuvering characteristics of his vessel, the turn radius, the advance and transfer when making a turn, the use and calculation of turn bearings, etc. On the other hand, I’m not sure at this point we know which officer actually had command of the vessel during the interval leading up to the initial grounding.

It’s hard to not agree with your conclusion. Bringing that large a ship that near the rocks at over 15 kts is incredibly bad judgment. But, that is my point. Very experienced operators sometimes make catastrophically bad judgment. Lapses that are incredibly hard to explain. For example the Captain of the Washington State Ferry Elwha going on a 15 mile unauthorized pleasure cruise that ended in grounding ( The captain of the Valdez drunk, not at the helm, and trusting his 3rd mate to take the ship through the most dangerous part of their entire trip. I have been to Bligh rock in Prince William Sound and it’s a LOOONG way from the shipping lanes. Even the 3rd mate had too much experience to have put the boat there. There are many, many stories of operators “buzzing the tower” even though they have experience and should absolutely know better.

My conclusion is that experience is not a cure. Perhaps it’s because bad judgment isn’t expressed frequently enough that it gets filtered out before the person has a significant command. Or perhaps the bad judgment actually comes from the over-confidence that experience can bring.

I’m not debating your point that it was crazy to head for the rocks at 15kts but I am arguing that very experienced people really do make some incredibly bad judgments.

Your point on boat handling is well taken. It’s not possible to establish whether the captain made good decisions after his one catastrophically bad one. The helm orders appear correct for the conditions. The use of the thruster seemed to work. But, some have speculated the ship would have been better out in the channel so it could launch life racks (they are speculating that it wouldn’t have developed the significant list so quickly). And, you are right, current conditions and other factors, may have put the ship where it landed with commands form the Captain not being the dominant influence. Certainly all possible.

My conclusion in the article was “pilot error” and my main point is that experience is either not a solution or perhaps it was a contributor to what was very poor judgment that led to loss of life.

Thanks for the your observations from experience with commercial vessels.

James Hamilton



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2 comments on “Perspectives on the Costa Concordia Incident
  1. You are right that the partial capsize is a definite issue where more information is needed. Its more complex in that the ship was grounded when this happened. It likely happened through the flooding of multiple watertight compartments.

    I’ve not yet seen data on whether the hull damaged extended past multiple compartments. Your probably right in your speculation that there was flow between compartments.

    I’ve not found the stability data on any large cruise ships but, having boated near them, 17 decks straight up sure looks like a lot of metal WAAAAAY up there in the sky :-).


  2. Re Costa Concordia there were at least two incident:
    1. The strange contact at 21.41 hrs ripping open and pushing in the port aft vertical side causing up-flooding of watertight compartments and black out, etc. Vessel survived it and most people were evacuated to shore.
    2. The sudden capsize many hours later tipping the ship 90° onto the shore followed by partial sinking due to down-flooding of all compartments. The cause of the capsize must have been progressive flooding through open watertight doors (tah should not have been fitted in the first place).

    Pls note that the displacement of a damaged ship remains constant and that only buoyancy is shifted from below waterline of up-flooded compartments to dry compartments previous above waterline (the reserve buoyancy) which reduces the the stability. Vertical centre of gravity G remains always constant, only metacentric centre M shifts due to shift of buoyancy. There are no new free surfaces or similar to consider. If GM is positive and righting arm GZ>0 for a certain range after up-flooding, vessel remains floating and upright … like CC after first incident.

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