Costa Concordia sinking–simply driver error, or are cruise ships unsafe?

Last week saw some truly remarkable images come out of the Mediterranean, images that made it look like a gigantic ship had just been plucked out of the water and dumped near a small island.  But rather than fantasy this was the sinking and grounding of a £370 million, 290 metre long, 115,000 tonne cruise liner.

As I write this, all focus seems to be on the Captain for leading his ship astray, diverting this massive vessel off it’s pre-planned course as a treat for the islanders on Giglio or to salute a fellow captain at his home.  The investigation into the exact cause of this disaster is likely to go on for some time, but importantly questions are also being asked as to whether or not cruise liners are safe?

Modern cruise liners are true behemoths of the sea, reaching up to 220,000 tonnes and featuring restaurants, swimming pools and cinemas to entertain up to 6,000 passengers.

Naturally, the media was quick to conjure up comparisons between the Costa Concordia and the RMS Titanic, but one thing remains as true today as it did back in 1912 – no ship is unsinkable.  The key differences between then and now lie in design and evacuation procedures, which essentially boil down to how long the ship should take to sink if the hull is breached, how well it is able to prevent listing (toppling over) and how quickly passengers and crew should be evacuated.

A specialist in ship dynamics at the University of Southampton, Professor Philip Wilson pointed out that modern ships are incredibly stable, when interviewed by the BBC.  Ships have systems in place allowing water flooding one side of a ship to be pumped to the other, or even to deliberately take more water on board to correct any imbalance.  So the severe listing experienced by the Costa Concordia remains a mystery to be solved, as is the fact that the ship eventually toppled over to starboard, even though the main hull breach was on it’s port side!

Personally there’s one thing that puzzles me much more, and that’s this: why exactly are ships worth hundreds of millions of pounds, carrying thousands of passengers and crew, even allowed to sail off pre-defined routes apparently at the ‘whims’ of their captains?  Engineers managing projects worth mere hundreds of thousands of pounds must follow strict specifications and raise any change requests with their stakeholders – how is operating a cruise ship any different?

Rob Thornton

I’m a Lecturer in Mechanics of Materials at the University of Leicester with specialist interests in manufacturing tribology and metallurgy, with an MEng and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Sheffield.

I’m a registered PRINCE2 Practitioner and an Associate Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. While I do stick my nose into other areas of interest/outrage, you’ll probably find most of my blog posts are about research and higher education issues.

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  1. Trevor Thornton says:

    As an occasional cruise passenger this news came as a bit of a shock but really no matter how big and clever the ship the sea is bigger and cleverer (and meaner). I vaguely assumed the ships would have sonar to detect and keep them away from underwater obstructions but this seems not to be the case. Apart from the captains apparently silly behaviour it does seem as though the alleged levelling systems failed here. As for stopping random changes of course – I guess those steering the ship have to be able to change course at any time to for example avoid unexpected obstacles, double back to collect an infants thrown away dummy etc – not sure how a system could be designed to allow only ‘sensible’ deviations from the programmed course.

    1. Rob Thornton says:

      “…not sure how a system could be designed to allow only ‘sensible’ deviations…”

      A fair point to make but I guess I was thinking more principles and procedures that cruise ship captains should be expected to follow – i.e. no ‘tourist’ deviations from course that have not been pre-agreed with the cruise line and thoroughly checked for nearby obstacles. It’s one thing the owner of a small yacht thinking ‘I quite like the look of that island over there; I’ll go take a look’ and quite another the captain of a 100,000 tonne cruise ship thinking the same thing!

  2. Trevor Thornton says:

    Also this was a missed opportunity for the author to use in house picture sources.

    1. Rob Thornton says:

      And yes, from now on I will remember to check your photos first so that you don’t have to shamelessly plug your wares on my blog posts!