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?