The Nut Behind The Wheel

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday January 18, 2012 10:13 PM

If you spend any time in boats, one thing you learn early on is how quickly things can go horribly wrong, even on a calm pleasant day in well-charted waters, with a functioning GPS and all the other mod-cons.

Such was the fate, it seems, of Capitano Francesco Schettino. He took his ship a little too close to the well-charted rocks of Le Scole, a little south of Porto Giglio.

He was over-bold, no doubt. I wouldn't take my little boat -- which draws four feet of water -- anywhere near that close to those rocks, without decades of local knowledge. I would stay a half-mile seaward. Capt. Schettino's ship draws something like six or seven times the depth mine does. This fact in itself amazes me; a ship that big ought to draw fifty feet of water, not twenty-four. But they want to take the big ship into shallow picturesque harbors; so somehow they've built this floating soap-bubble. Which accommodates a staggering four thousand passengers and change.

The passengers want to be entertained. They want to see quaint Tyrrhenian fishing villages close up. Perhaps the villagers like to see it close up too; perhaps the company -- which has laid down officially charted courses far from any nasty rocks -- winks at the venturesomeness of its captains.

Schettino had the local knowledge; he and his colleagues had done this stunt before. The company didn't fire him. In fact they seem to have had some nice letters from the mayor of the quaint little Tyrrhenian fishing village about previous too-close passages. They know, thanks to the wonders of GPS, rather precisely where their ships are and were at any given time; if they had thought these daring 'fly-bys' were really a bad idea, they could easily have put a stop to them. But they didn't.

So why did Captain Schettino's ship rip a 150-foot gash in its hull, upon the rocks of le Scole, on this occasion, though others had escaped unscathed?

This may not be an answerable question. GPS --civilian GPS, that is; the military gets better spatial resolution, or so I'm told -- doesn't report your position down to the foot. A ship that big doesn't turn on a dime, in spite of all its stabilizer fins and thrusters. Did a gust of wind, or an unlucky set of the swell, push the ship twenty feet this way or that? Or did Schettino just fuck up? I doubt that we will ever really know -- though the owners will certainly favor the last of these hypotheses.

Let the record show that Schettino did at least one good thing. He brought his ship into the shallower waters of the bay north of the rocks that ripped her bottom open, and ran her aground near shore, in waters where she couldn't sink right down. This probably made the difference between the dozens of deaths we're seeing, and hundreds or even thousands if she had sunk in deeper water.

Four thousand people and more on that ship. How quickly could that many people have been marshalled into lifeboats and lowered away -- even if the ship's sides were perfectly vertical? And as the event showed, when the sides aren't vertical, the lifeboats can't be lowered.

And why weren't the sides vertical? There too lies a tale, I suspect. A lot of water came in, not surprisingly, when le Scole gashed the ship's hull like a can opener. But when the captain does his life-saving left turn into the shallow bay, all that water sloshes over to the starboard side and capsizes the ship, into the position now familiar from a thousand images, among them the one above. So there were no compartments belowdecks, designed to keep water from sloshing around. Or so it seems.

A case of optimistic design. Assume no water coming in. Or if it does come in, assume the ship is stationary and riding on an even keel. Assume you have time enough, before she sinks, to get all those four thousand fuddled retirees into lifeboats, and lower them down, past obligingly vertical sides.

Assume, above all, that nothing can go wrong; that human error can be ruled out. And when the human error occurs -- why then, blame The Nut Behind The Wheel. It couldn't possibly be anything... structural.

Captain Schettino doesn't cut a very heroic figure, to be sure. He does seem to have lost his nerve and abandoned his ship. Not a guy you want to hold up to your children as a shining example of what humankind ought to be. And yet, and yet... I personally have never been in his shoes. I would feel a lot more confident condemning him if I had ever faced what he faced and done better. In fact I'm not entirely sure I would have done so well.

Comments (6)


your list of assumptions has
the same amiable spirit
as most well heralded
economistical modelings

the results of the modelings manipulation
are heralded of course

not the underlying set of assumptions

"well then... is she safe ??

" by our modeling ....yes"

that could be the default swaps market
as well as these
steel sided soap bubble cruise monsters


This is a superb post

One hopes these floating mass coffins will be subjected
to a real roasting

These uncanny craft
are comparatively recent designs

I think the recent rip and dip
nicely establishes
a long since confirmed law of free for all
profit driven
market guided
design development

When the owner outfit hasn't as yet
found thru enough use
The extent of the damage major accidents can produce

Asume any new design is certainly utterly treacherously



One thinks of air line hijack protocols prior to 9/11

One upside to this, if one is even possible:

No Leonardo DiCaprio leaning off the prow screaming I'm King of the World!, and no Celine Dion singing.


I love seeing the horrible thing lying there like some boring toy thrown aside by a spoiled child. I hate these cruise ships. I see them in the Hudson all the time -- in fact, once or twice they've nearly run me down; they have a vast sense of entitlement, and they drive way too fast through my crowded home estuary. Like guys from Jersey in SUVs. From a design point of view, they are obviously disasters waiting to happen -- top-heavy Marriotts-sur-mer. I hope this particular disaster knocks the props right out from under the whole industry; but I'm not holding my breath.

You all win, Michael most of all.


I agree about the ugly dumped and abandoned toy

But what does it look like ?

Surely Not a yar vessel that's for damn sure

No kid would crave a replica of such a ship no ?

So bloated above the water line and dainty below

It looks like
I don't know

Some screechy panoplitic electronic instrument

you might carry under your arm
And to play
you finger like an accordions key board

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