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How could that have possibly happened was a question raised by many! The Costa Concordia-“A Shower of Turkeys on the Bridge”

February 1, 2012

How could that have possibly happened was a question raised by many!

The Costa Concordia-“A Shower of Turkeys on the Bridge”

Who among us was surprised upon hearing of the tragic wreck of the Costa Concordia? Even boaters with limited experience know that adding the latest radars to the slickest GPS chart-plotters at the helm does not necessarily equal safe navigation. For all they have to offer, even the latest navionics in aircraft cockpits are designed to be interpreted, and overridden, if necessary, by pilots.

Despite the advanced state of marine navigation safety at sea depends, as it has in the past, on the quality of a ships crew. Angus Menzies, a retired British Navy commodore who is now the chief executive of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, a professional association in London for sea captains stated after hearing that the Costa Concordia ran aground, “nowadays that’s unlikely, but it’s possible. The other possibility is that they were just a shower of turkeys-incompetent-on the bridge”.

No Surprise

The causes of tragedies at sea are predictable, and for the most part preventable. Daniel Parrott in his recent book “Bridge Resource Management for Small Ships” dutifully catalogs the many weak links that are repeatedly found to cause disasters at sea (see NFTB’s review of Bridge Management…)  These include:

  • Inadequate bridge crew training
  • Poor communication among crew
  • Excess speed
  • The shutting off of electronic navigation alarms
  • The lack of cross-referencing between GPS and radar positions
  • Tight schedules
  • And perhaps the most common and dangerous among all mariners…misplaced confidence that derives from prior success

From what I have read and heard, a combination of all of the above aboard the Costa Concordia resulted in her sinking. Add the insults of lack of leadership and poor passenger safety training, and the result is a predictable disaster.

Crisis at sea, like most disasters, is the result of not one, but many poor decisions. One or more of these poor decisions in and of themselves, may go unnoticed for years aboard a ship. Unfortunately, once ignored, poor management choices often become standard operating procedures.  At the current time, without the benefit of a formal inquiry, we know the following about bridge resource management aboard the Costa Concordia:

  • Prior successful “fly-by’s” in the same waters provided the Captain with a false sense of security
  • No passenger safety briefing took place
  • A proper alert to the Coast Guard was delayed
  • Initial reports to the Coast Guard were, at best, incomplete
  • The ship was allowed to list considerably, making lifeboat deployment difficult or impossible, before passengers began abandoning ship
  • The Captain may not have been on the bridge during a critical maneuver
  • The crew was inadequately trained and experienced to handle such an emergency
  • The Captain did not effectively lead abandon-ship maneuvers

What is not yet known is the precise speed of the ship as the mate in charge attempted to maneuver around obstructions, by whom and how the course was plotted and executed, exactly where the Captain was during the critical maneuver, and how the lines of communication, command and control had been established and practiced by the Captain. My guess is that the ship was moving too fast for safe operation given the underwater dangers (it takes a long time to turn and slow a ship as big as the Costa Concordia), that control and monitoring of the bridge crew by the Captain was poor, and that passenger safety was a low priority.  Simply put, the situation was much worse than just a shower of turkeys on the bridge.

Conclusions

Safely going to sea involves preparing for, practicing, and skillfully avoiding known risks. In order to do this consistently a Captain must practice effective bridge resource management. It usually takes a combination of poor decisions to cause a disaster, but such scenarios are, unfortunately, not hard to find.

This is what is most important to remember:

  • Just because a GPS course worked in the past is no guarantee that it will be safe to follow in the future
  • Just because a failure to cross-reference radar with a GPS position did not lead to catastrophe in the past does not preclude future disaster
  • Navigation alarms are annoying for a reason, and should be left in the “on” position
  • Bad things happen when we are in a hurry
  • Nothing good happens fast

The lessons of the Costa Concordia are those of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987; the S/V Maria Asumpta in 1995; the tug Scandia and the Barge North Cape in 1996; the Anne Holly in 1998; the Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi in 2003; the tug Valour in 2006; and countless other maritime disasters.  Each should remind us that modern navionics are not substitutes for situational awareness. Adherence to established laws; the cross-referencing of multiple methods of navigation; effective communication among crew; and practice to reduce the risk of human error are all prerequisites for marine safety.

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