It is hard to believe that this year marks 100 years since the sinking of quite possibly the biggest and most famous shipping disaster to dominate the headlines of the world’s press. 100 years for lessons to be learned from the mistakes that led to the “unsinkable” Titanic sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, with this in mind, it has come apparent in the last few days that some lessons have proven difficult to learn. Over the weekend, news coverage has focused solely from a stricken Cruise liner near Giglio, off the west coast of Italy. The Costa Concordia hit a submerged rock on Friday evening, and is now partially submerged, lying on its side, with a full investigation and recovery operation underway.
Over 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members were on board. Official sources report five people have been found dead since rescue efforts began, with 17 people still missing. As 4,000 people abandoned the ship in a situation described as “chaos”, the disaster of the Concordia echoes that of the similarly ill-fated disaster on board the Titanic. A massive hole in the side of the ship leading to a flood of water, submerging the ship under the ocean. Scenes of panic and frustration as passengers reach for the safety of the on-board lifeboats, with little help from a crew deemed “helpless”. As the Captain, Francesco Schettino, is questioned, it seems human error once again proved the cause of such an accident, as it did on April 15th, 1912.
I find it surreal to believe that, in times of technological advancement and extensive developments in ship safety, an accident like this could not have been averted. Crew members have told reporters that the ship was sailing too close to the coast, and consequently the ships Captain made a terrible misjudgement. Mr Schettino, 52, who has worked for Costa Cruises - the company who owns the Concordia - for 11 years, denied misjudgement on his part, and declared to Italian television reporters that faulty nautical charts were to blame. Although both sources provide different reports on how the accident occurred, both are simple mistakes that surely could have been corrected if safety was a top priority.
The cruise industry in the UK is one, which year on year, has seen increasing passenger numbers. In 2010, 1.62 million Brits sailed the high seas on a cruise, a 6% increase on 2009 (UK Cruise Census 2010), with the Mediterranean cruise proving the most popular, with a 38% increase in passenger numbers. Offering a variety of activities and packages, they were described by Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus International as “effectively small towns at sea”. But, it seems bigger ships create much bigger problems in cruise safety.
On a recent vacation to New Zealand, I was made clear of a similar shipping tragedy that has been dominating news coverage for the past 3 months. MV Rena, a Greek container ship, ran aground near Tauranga in October. It resulted in 350 tonnes of oil leaking into the Pacific Ocean, in a situation described by New Zealand environmental minister Nick Smith as “the worst maritime environmental disaster ever in New Zealand history.” Although an inquiry has yet to have taken place, it seems human error once again proved the problem. The captain of the Rena, who was thought to have been partying when the ship ran aground, was warned about safety concerns just days before the accident happened.
Whether it is the loss of life, the destruction of habitat or the extensive pollution caused by such accidents, it seems the safety of the shipping industry - from haulage to cruises - is likely to come under fresh scrutiny in the face of adversity. Because if the story of the Titanic has taught us anything - besides glitzy stories of love and romance - no ship is safe from the inevitable.