An Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, collided with rocks off the coast of Tuscany and capsized this week, leaving many unanswered questions as to how and why the accident occurred. The Monitor spoke with admiralty and maritime lawyer David Y. Loh, who points out how an over-reliance on technology and staffing shortages have been problems in the industry. Mr. Loh is a former Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy and specialises in risk management.
1. How reliable are navigation systems on big ships?
The captain of the Costa Concordia cruise boat that ran aground off Tuscany on Friday claims the rock he hit wasn’t marked on navigational charts, reports Reuters. But maritime lawyer David Y. Loh says relying on one navigation system is never fail-proof.
“[A large rock] wouldn’t show up if the [electronic] navigation system was turned off,” Mr. Loh says. “If it was turned on and operating properly it would work properly, but that also presumes someone is monitoring the system and its settings.”
Some navigation systems will have an alarm built in that will go off when it is close to hazards, Loh says. When a boat is leaving port and close to land the alarm may go off incessantly. “If you’re close to land you might turn [the alarm] off to prevent that,” he says.
Steering a large vessel like the Costa Concordia cruise boat should never rely solely on electronic navigation systems, Loh says. “I don’t know why they were so close and whether or not [the ship] was in a sea lane,” says Loh, but if they intended to take that route, procedure would have likely called for consulting with a local pilot familiar with the coastal terrain.
2. Is reliance on technology overriding common sense in navigation?
“Yes, I think that’s always an issue,” Mr. Loh says. “There is increasing pressure on vessel owners and managers to … reduce the number of crewmen on board a vessel.” This is, in large part, a tactic to keep costs down, and has been happening since the 1980s, according to Loh.
It is unclear how many people were on the command deck, or bridge, when the recent cruise boat accident took place. “Normally the navigation system and collision avoidance is perceived as an aid to the normal bridge watch standard. It’s not considered a substitute for bridge watch,” Loh says. If the training and experience of bridge staff is low, the technology of navigation systems may be used as a crutch or relied on too heavily.
“The standard throughout the world is that the navigation system is only an aid to a fully qualified bridge watch standard,” Loh says.
3. In such high profile cases, can captains get a fair trial?
The cruise ship captain was arrested on Saturday and charged with manslaughter, according to Reuters. Given ongoing international media attention many question whether or not Captain Francesco Schettino has a chance at a fair trial. A front page editorial in Italy‘s Corriere della Sera read, “Italy owes the world, international public opinion, the families of those who lost their lives, those who were injured and those who fortunately remained unhurt, a convincing explanation and the toughest possible sanctions against those responsible for this tragedy,” reports Reuters.
“I don’t think he’s going to get a fair trial, frankly,” says Mr. Loh, who contends he doesn’t believe a captain should be brought to criminal trial in a case like this at all. “It’s unfair to criminalise negligent behaviour…. I think he can be held responsible, but there’s a difference between criminal and civil responsibility,” he says.
“It’s a question of mens rea,” a Latin phrase meaning a guilty mind, says Loh. “Knowing it to be wrong and doing it anyway is the nature of criminal behaviour … but is there any evidence the captain knew what he was doing was wrong?”
4. How do you view the details emerging about the evacuation?
When a collision or grounding takes place, the captain must take many pieces of information into consideration before a full understanding of the circumstances can be reached, says Mr. Loh.
“Just because you run aground doesn’t mean the vessel will tip over,” Mr. Loh says. “How bad the hit was, how much water is coming aboard, …is the boat listing immediately,” all need to be accurately evaluated. “That may take some time,” he says, and can lead back to the question of how many people are on duty.
“If you have a lot of look-outs on the bridge, you can send someone to see what happened, guage the level of seriousness, and respond more quickly,” says Mr. Loh.
Furthermore, the captain does not gather all of the pertinent information of a collision on his own. The Chief Engineer evaluates whether or not a vessel will list, or tip over. The Chief Mate typically aids in evaluating the stability of a vessel and measuring fuel, cargo, and people. He will assist in figuring out how stable the boat is taking those numbers into consideration, says Mr. Loh. “The Chief Mate and Engineer should have some important knowledge or understanding about what’s going on … and we haven’t heard anything about them.”
Regardless, the crew “could have called Mayday earlier,” says Loh.
5. What are some lessons learned from recent ship disasters?
In 2007 another cruise ship ran aground offSantorini Island in the Greek isles. The vessel went close to the island’s picturesque cliffs to give the passengers a good view, but struck rocks and sank.
“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” says Mr. Loh. “You go close but you don’t go too close.”
Stopping a boat or quickly changing course to avoid an immediate collision threat is not a realistic manoeuvre for most cruise boats, says Mr. Loh. “You have to understand when you’re at sea and in a large vessel like this, the bridge is extremely high up in the air, and you can’t see the entire vessel or over the side of the vessel … and you can’t stop on a dime”
“In order for you to avoid [a collision] requires a lot of prior planning to figure out where you are at any particular time,” Loh says. “If you’re really close [to land] you have to be in a position that no matter how much momentum you have at that time the forces of inertia could not possibly put you in a position to rub up against a large rock.
“Which means you have to be fairly far away to avoid [collision],” he says citing a full boat length, at least, from any known hazard.
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