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The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Italy cruise ship disaster: did island 'sail-past’ put ship on course for disaster?

Published: 15 January 2012

Setting off on its regular voyage from the port of Civitavecchia near Rome, it had become traditional for the captain of the Costa Concordia to salute locals on the island of Giglio with a blast on the ship's siren.

On Friday evening, islanders gathered as usual along the rocky shoreline to greet the huge vessel as it sailed along its customary route past the island's picturesque port.

But, rather than passing the island several miles out to sea as expected, locals were stunned to see the ship just a few hundred yards offshore and perilously close to its notorious rocky outcrops, known as Le Scole, at the southern end of the port.

At around 9.30pm, just as many of the 3,200 passengers on board were sitting down to dinner or were settling in for one of the ship's entertainment shows, a huge bang shattered the relaxed atmosphere of the evening. Minutes later the 114,500-ton vessel was plunged into darkness as the power failed, confirming that something was seriously wrong.

In fact, the ship had passed so close to Giglio's shoreline – possibly to within 150 metres, according to some estimates from islanders – that it had struck the rocks, tearing the hull beneath the waterline. Within an hour, and with the vessel almost capsized, the captain was forced to give the order to abandon ship and a chaotic evacuation effort began.

The unanswered question last night was why the Costa Concordia, which apparently travels the same route every week, had managed to veer off course and so close to the island's treacherous coastline. The ship's owner, Costa, on Sunday night insisted that the vessel had been following the same route as always, while Francesco Schettino, the ship's captain, insisted he had been a "safe" 300 metres from the reef and his charts had shown no underwater rocks. He also said the ship's state-of-the-art navigation equipment had failed to warn of a problem.

Some islanders, however, told a different story, saying they had never seen the ship come so close to the shore.

The theory being examined by prosecutors last night was that Capt Schettino's attempt to honour the Concordia's long-standing tradition of the Giglio salute could be to blame for the tragedy. Reports suggested that one of the ship's senior crew members has a friend in the Italian Merchant Navy who lives on the island, and wanted to get extra close before sounding the traditional greeting.

There were also claims that a similarly close "sail-past" last year had prompted the local mayor to send a congratulatory email to the captain for helping entertain the island's tourists.

Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of Giglio, explained: "Costa ships often pass close to the island – tourists and locals gather on the jetty to see the ships go by. We light up the Saracen tower [a stone tower built to spot pirate raids during medieval times]. It's a great sight."

But Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the ferry service between Giglio and the Italian mainland for more than a decade, said: "This was too close, too close."

An Italian cruise ship captain, who did not want to give his name, said: "During the summer it is easy to see the rocks because they are illuminated by a small tourist resort. But in winter, all the lights are off."

Franco Verusio, the procurator of Grosseto who is leading the investigation into the disaster, said questions remained as to why the ship had been so close to shore. "It was a deliberate but carelessly clumsy manoeuvre," he said.

Speaking for the first time in detail yesterday, Capt Schettino defended his actions, blaming the accident on an undetected reef. "Even though we were sailing along the coast with the Tourist Navigation System, I firmly believe that the rocks were not detected," he insisted

"The ship was not heading forwards but sideways as if underwater there was this rock projection. I don't know whether it was detected or not, but on the nautical chart it was marked at about 100 to 150 metres from the rocks and we were about 300 metres from the shore more or less; we should not have hit it."

But maritime experts have called into question his explanation, insisting that 300 metres was still far too close to the shore. Capt Syamantak Bhattacharya, a maritime academic based at the University of Plymouth, said: "To hear talk of being 300 metres from dangerous rocks is very worrying. In my long career I have never heard people talk about such situations in terms of metres, it is always in terms of miles, so I do not understand how that can suffice as an argument."

He added: "The weather was favourable, there was good visibility and this was a familiar route, so it is very perplexing how an accident of this kind occurred."

Some maritime experts also criticised the captain for attempting to turn the ship around and bring it into port once he realised the vessel was taking on too much water and could be in trouble. Within 15 minutes of the collision, the ship had started to list badly and Capt Schettino made the decision to change course and head into Giglio port. But before the ship was able to reach safety, the stricken Costa Concordia ran aground on a rocky shelf.

Modern design means that even if the vessel is holed beneath the waterline, it can still stay afloat. But in grounding the Costa Concordia, further damage to the hull appears to have been caused, resulting in the catastrophic capsizing.

At 90 degrees in around 50 feet of water, many passengers were unable to negotiate their way through the maze of corridors. Once on the outside decks, many of the lifeboats were rendered unusable by the angle of the ship's list.

However, Dr Richard Shaw, a specialist in Maritime Law at the University of Southampton, said the captain's actions could have helped save many of the 4,000 people on board. He said: "It looks like the captain has tried to beach the ship in shallower water. If the ship had not been brought into shallower water, there would have been a much greater loss of life."

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