Saturday, 14 January 2012

Costa Concordia's wreck exposes unlearned safety lessons

Yet again a cruise ship tragedy shows that the marine industry is still prepared to sacrifice passenger safety on the altar of profit. The cruise ship, Costa Concordia, reportedly hit submerged rocks around 9 pm, January 13 when only hundreds of metres from a harbour on the small island of Giglio off the Tuscany coast. The 114,500 tonne vessel with over 4,000 people on board suffered a 100-ft gash and quickly began to list to starboard. It is this listing action which exposes the most serious deficiencies in lifeboat capacity common to most cruise ships, despite their legal compliance with safety legislation. Three people are confirmed dead with reports of up to 70 others missing. All 24 Britons on board were reported unharmed.

One line of enquiry into the accident is looking into an electrical fault which could have caused loss of ship control but whatever the cause it is the ability to cope with the aftermath that should concern all potential cruise ship passengers most. The fact is that current SOLAS regulations do not adequately protect all passengers on board cruise ships primarily because lifeboat capacity is typically 25% short when listing precludes use of all lifeboats on the opposite side of the list. But it gets worse.

This writer has been on various big ship cruises and conducted a survey of 10 large cruise vessels' lifeboat/craft capacity. In all but one vessel there was a 25% shortfall in life craft capacity when listing was applied to the equation. The problem is further exacerbated when allowance is made for the heavy use of inflatables, typically holding 25 people each, which is a cost consideration as they are so much cheaper than rigid, covered lifeboats and they help meet safety compliance.

While inflatables can be useful the fact remains that most would not be davit-launched but jettisoned to self inflate on hitting the water. This means that many passengers would be expected to jump up to 50 ft or more into what could be a freezing, raging sea and somehow scramble into them, irrespective of obesity and any infirmities they may have. Alas, that is just what some passengers felt compelled to do on the Concordia in a bid to swim to the shore. One travel broadcaster and writer said that many of the 150-capacity lifeboats were not deployed owing to the list and subsequent rolling over onto her side. If a stricken vessel's list is very rapid then there could also be problems launching lifeboats on the listing side.

This time round the world was spared another marine tragedy of Titanic proportions. Close proximity to the shore, benign weather and the use of five helicopters prevented huge loss of life but in other circumstances it could have been tragically different. More and more cruise ships are now moving in hostile waters of the polar regions, thousands of miles from inhabited land and, sometimes, other ships. Had the Concordia been in these harsh waters and rolled over in similar circumstances the loss of life would have far out rivalled the Titanic 100 years ago, again a ship that met the then current Board of Trade regulations on lifeboat capacity.

So far the cruise ship industry has been lucky, escaping relatively unscathed from serious loss of life. But there are recent tragedies disturbing enough to demand action on lifeboat capacities. In 2006, for example, the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 sank in the Red Sea after quickly listing. Of the 1,400 people on board there were complaints among the 400 survivors that there were insufficient lifeboats. This vessel also had an extra deck installed which would have raised issues of ship stability. To pack in as many passengers as possible, new cruise ship leviathans have ever more decks. Sharp ship turns at high speed have been known to injure passengers who reported a near flipping of their ship.

Could at least some good emerge from the Concordia wreck? If it spurs progress towards more lifeboats on cruise ships to cope with listing problems then yes it would. But the supine response of the marine safety industry so far, depicted by all the lessons unlearned, does not inspire much confidence, to the industry's indelible shame. Passengers and crews deserve and expect better. Must it take another Titanic to prove a point? Evidently, it must.

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