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Friday, January 28, 2022

It Can’t Happen Here – The Costa Concordia

By Wickersham’s Conscience

The Costa Concordia still lies on her side off the Tuscan coast, with 16 confirmed dead and many still missing. Alaskans know, to their sorrow, that not all ship’s captains are scrupulously careful, not all crew members fully qualified, and not all accidents truly accidents.

A Dutch salvage company is struggling to off load the half million gallons of fuel still on the ship, before something fails and another of the world’s pristine marine environments falls victim to industrialization. In this case, industrial tourism.

But as sad as the Costa Concordia’s story is, as tragic as the grounding has already been for the families of the dead and the injured, WC  can’t help but imagine the consequences of a similar accident in southeast Alaska, in Prince William Sound, or in Kachemak Bay. Imagine a Carnival Cruise ship laying on her side at the head of Muir Inlet, sunk in a too-close approach to the glacier to give the passengers a thrill. Imagine a ship this size going down in Dangerous Passage on the west side of Prince William Sound because someone mis-read a tide table.

Don’t say it can’t happen. It has. It will again.

Even if the technology were perfect – and it isn’t – human error, whether drunkenness, showboating, or plain incompetence  can overcome any fail safes. The problem with making things foolproof is that fools are so ingenious.

As industrial tourism, with its 4,000 passenger ships, penetrates the arctic, and cruises through the northwest passage become more routine, the problems will only become more acute.

Sure, there are damage control plans, contingency plans and drills. But you will forgive WC his skepticism. There were plans for oil spills before the Exxon Valdez, and they were worse than useless. The Costa Concordia struck that rock on January 15; as of this date, she still lies there. This shipwreck is in the heavily trafficked, well-developed Mediterranean; can you imagine the chaos if this was in the Beaufort Sea, thousands of miles from the nearest help, in a much more hostile – and fragile – environment?

Alaska has a … difficult … relationship with the cruise ship industry as it is. But the incontrovertible lesson of the Costa Concordia is that it will happen again, and Alaska once again will be nearly helpless to respond.



32 Responses to “It Can’t Happen Here – The Costa Concordia”
  1. Alaska Pi says:

    I was in a really snarky mood when i first stopped in on this thread.
    WC- you are correct- Alaska has a difficult relationship with the cruise industry.
    Here in Southeast we see around 1 million passengers a summer now, more and more on those floating city ships like the Concordia.
    As much as we enjoy seeing so many folks get to make a trip of a lifetime , the effects on our communities, waters, fishing and so on are large and our concerns are waved away by proponents of the so-called “clean industry” far too often, as are our concerns about what-happens-if-something-goes-badly-awry.
    The sheer number of trips increases the chance that some human error or mechanical failure of large magnitude will occur if for no other reason than people get comfortable doing things when they become commonplace and develop an auto-pilot approach to the commonplace.
    If a fire like the one which took out the Prinsendam occurred on one of these floating cities, do we even have enough capacity to assist operations to evacuate 4000 people?
    (There were only just over 500 folks on the Prinsendam)
    The whatever- was -going on with the Cruise West operation on their small cruises in 2007 and 2008 which resulted in 4 groundings has never been adequately explained in public.
    The 2010 oil cleanup of the long sunk Princess Kathleen (1952) made us breathe a bit easier on hand and hyperventilate on others.
    Alaska needs to get it’s buns in gear and look at how to evacuate/assist a ship with 4000 people on it because it IS going to need to be done at some point.

  2. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    At some point in the first half of this year I will be wrapping up my long stint here and heading home. I am seriously considering sailing instead of flying. It is not cheap, in fact it is more expensive than business class air travel. There is no regular passenger service between obscure points any more, but almost all large vessels have some passenger space available, so most likely I would end up on a container ship of some sort.

    I think in terms of the benefits. #1 is the pace, it seems appropriate after nearly 8 years of exile to take a couple or three weeks to get home. #2 is ports of call, stopovers could be very interesting and always involve enough hours of off-loading and on-loading cargo to afford an opportunity to look around some. Might need to line up a few visas for that. #3 is the whole experience of actually being at sea, out of sight of land and then experiencing the whole approach to a new shore, it could be quite a round about trip, that is I might have to sail to some place in the Med. to catch a ride through the Panama Canal… etc. #4 is the amount of “baggage” I have. Admittedly it is not really baggage, more like 350+ crates of rocks and drill core weighing some 15,600 kilos which will go by ship freight in any case, why not go with it? #5 Last but not least is avoiding the insulting and humiliating scrutiny that has come to be associated with air travel. Everyone is assumed to be a potential threat until they are proved to be innocent. That strikes me as upside down.

    Perhaps I am just hopelessly old fashioned.

    • StElias says:

      Hey, go for it. Sounds like fun.

      Remember the author, Alex Haley? He used do his writing and thinking while traveling the world on freighters. It is pretty common and has been for years. The larger freight carriers establish two or three special staterooms for this and assign special staff for officers and guests. Years ago we had an old friend who retired from teaching, she did just that, even gave us a subscription to a pertinent publication.

      We ended up going the cruise ship route during our high seas travel but I sometimes wish we had tried the freighters. Today, we have pretty much seen that done that, having almost went around the earth twice on ships. But occasionaly, when in port docked along side one of those particularly appealing large container ships I wish I could experience a voyage on her.

      Today there are a number of travel agencies that specialize in this type travel as well as books and magazines for reference. Here is a link for openers:

      As far as visas, you have to get them yourself, sometimes even with the big outfits. Besides, from reading some of your previous posts, I believe you have already mastered that anyway. As far as air travel’s contemporary security procedures, etc. being a downer: well, I really think there is too much unwarranted verbal intimidation and hyperbole over those procedures. Never have we had much problem at all. Immigrations can be a pain in the butt but I can only think of one time I was really pissed, and that was at London’s Heathrow. But then, the next couple of times through that airport, all was pleasant.

      Good luck and enjoy.

  3. StElias says:

    I prefer expedition type cruising on relatively small liners and dislike these huge slab sided condominium looking ships the industry has galvanized itself with today. The lack of open deck space and subsequent safety is my main peeve. When taking part in and witnessing life boat drills on them, I become really concerned.

    The absence of adequate open deck space allows for extremely compacted conditions during drills. Promenade decks seldom wrap around the ship anymore so all the vessel’s passenger complement is forced to cram onto this limited space, you are so packed in one can hardly bend over and tie a shoe.

    To overcome these deck overcrowding conditions, drill procedures implemented on some ships establish muster stations within the interior of the ship, using the larger lounges, etc. This is even worse. Presumably, in an abandon ship event, a “crew person will escort groups to their awaiting life boats”. But just imagine, during an accident, all the passengers, plus a goodly portion of the ship’s crew complement, all jammed onto the open deck areas and/or into the ships movie theatre. Wow, even under normal conditions, cruise passengers are the most pushy-shovey people on earth, every man for himself. So, as on the Concordia, for some reason the ship begins to list to one side or the other. Transverse corridors are few and far apart, their length runs with the beam of the vessel, somewhere between 120 and 220 feet in length on the big ships. Envision, all those people, aged, very young, crippled, etc. attempting to move to the high side which is already jammed with passengers, and trying to do that through already jammed passage ways. Then throw in a worse nightmare, “a fire”. In scenarios like that, to say one booked passage on a death trap is an understatement.

    They are marine engineering floating disasters waiting to happen here folks, all in the name of creating sea going land type resorts with the almighty dollar, or euro, trumping reason and logic. Where is governmental safety regulation for the high seas travel today? Well, it is very rare, in our wealthy western laissez faire capitalistic societies, anyway. Just listen to the blowhard GOP politicians eyeing the Whitehouse, condemning what little oversight and rules we have now for public protection. Scary.

    • OtterQueen says:

      Those big cruise ships are an abomination. I can take an hour or two of Disneyland, but I wouldn’t want to live there for a week.

  4. OtterQueen says:

    I went through the Galapagos on a 105′ sailboat. (It was the Andando then, it’s the Beagle now.) It had this thingy on board that told the crew where the rocks are. I believe it’s called an echo-sounding fathometer, although it could have been a different piece of equipment. Anyway, it allowed the crew to navigate into pretty tight spaces, even getting us into the former volcanic crater that is now Isla Genovesa. We had about 20 people on board. With thousands of lives at stake, I have to believe that these cruise ships have even more advanced equipment on board.

    Am I missing something? With maps, GPS, and electronics, how does this happen? I admit, I am no expert on sea travel, it just seems so unlikely.

    • StElias says:

      We were in Santorini (Greek Islands) a year ago last October. Santorini is one of most cruise ship frequented attractions in the world. Out in the bay a circle of buoys mark the location where the Sea Diamond sunk, April 6, 2007. 460 feet long and 1600 or so on board, two drown. The Greeks can’t understand what the captain could have been thinking. No one ever took a ship into that location, they say.

  5. Karla says:

    Interesting to see how carefully Carnival Corporation removed itself from the event. We read of an Italian cruise line and a “ship’s owner,” but the owner is carefully not named in most news reports. The spin doctors at Carnival are working overtime on their crisis management plan to manage their image above all else. Note that Carnival Corporation is the owner of Princess, Holland America, Carnival and many other cruise lines. All the profits, none of the blame.

    Recently a naturalist who was aboard the Disney cruise ship (doesn’t belong to Carnival) mentioned they cruise up the Endicott Arm once when another ship was in Tracy Arm. Last I heard Endicott hadn’t been charted up at the head of the bay because the ice is retreating so rapidly. The possibility of a ship hitting bottom, or a big rock or chunk of bedrock, feels pretty real to me here in our dynamic coastal environment with uplift, glacier transported debris and recently deglaciated areas.

    • My daughter worked briefly for Disney Cruise Line and we finally sailed on the Disney Dream last May (I highly recommend it). Anyway, after her time on DCL she is very critical of Carnival. They are not known for good practices in safety or treating the environment kindly. When some friends sailed on Carnival or one of the curise lines they own, they had a bad experience and my daughter’s reaction was that they got what they paid for and she had told them they should pick another cruise line.

      • Lacy Lady says:

        My Grandson works on the Celebrity Equinox. Has been in Europe the past year. He is to have a vacation soon, and I hope to talk to him about this when he gets home. I know they are very strict as to who is hired. ( has a degree in Music from Miami U). They are required to have physicals that include lung X-Rays.

  6. ks sunflower says:

    Great post, but shouldn’t the author be WC of Wickersham’s Conscience? He refers to himself near the end, and there is a tag of “guest blogger” but no direct attribution, just AKM listed as author. I bet this was just an oversight, but it would be nice to have it clarified.

    • ks sunflower says:

      Well, ooops – I just looked at the author tag – did not see the “by Wickersham’s Conscience.” My huge and totally embarrassing mistake. Please delete Comment 9 and this 9.1.

      Goodness, way to go, huh? Make a total you-know-what in front of two of my favorite blog authors (AKM & WC) plus all the dear mudpups. Sorry, everyone.

      • Zyxomma says:

        You’re forgiven; it’s forgotten.

        • mike fom iowa says:

          Zy, please reconsider. We can use this to blackmail KS at a later date. Split the take 60-40 in my favor. We do have to keep this under our hats or else we have more splits.

  7. Irishgirl says:

    I used to think ships were infallible. I spent a month on a huge liner back in ’74 when our family travelled from Australia to England. We were in the lowest deck!

    I don’t think I would do it again.

  8. mike fom iowa says:

    It seems like some many of these luxury cruise ships have Liberian registrations,I think it is way past time to conjure up some whacky lie and bomb Liberia back into the stone age. That’ll fix them pesky cruise ships.

    • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

      MfI – not required, most of Liberia is still living in the stone age. Except for the abundance of AK-47s of course. Registering foreign vessels has been a source of revenue for Liberia for many decades. Another major registiry country is Panama. I am not sure that the benefits of foreign registry extend much beyond the reduction of the fees, that is, I don’t think it necessarily absolves a company from abiding by the labor and other rules that apply to territorial waters in which such ships operate.

  9. Mo says:

    The 22 people in the missing lifeboat had an especially harrowing 18 hours…

  10. Lacy Lady says:

    It seems that the Carnival cruise ships have had more problems than other lines.
    The Captain of this ship—-in my opinion—-was drunk.
    The cook on the ship, said the Captain was having dinner with a woman, after the ship hit the rock.
    He was waiting for dessert?? Whew!!!!!
    If I am not mistaken—-it was a Carnival cruise ship where everyone got very ill, and had to be let off , I think in Ft Lauderdale, Florida. (a few years ago)

    • Alaska Pi says:

      LL- search the lines and find out how many are all owned by same company, Different names, same company- consolidating assets and ships thingy going on there

  11. Mo says:

    Ha! Just ask us in Juneau about cruise ships sinking. I’m old enough to remember the Prinsendam. The Princess Sophia disaster was much earlier (took about 350 people down with her), then there was the Princess Kathleen, then…well, read all about ’em:

    I think the latest is the Star Princess, now nicknamed Scar Princess after she ran into a charted rock and got a hole in her hull.

    • Alaska Pi says:

      Yes! Mo.
      And ask us about our worries about whales smooshled along the way and …

      ( oh stop Pi- you’ll wreck your blood pressure if you get going on this one)

      And thank you WC.

    • StElias says:

      Yes, It was the Star Princess which hit the rock north of Juneau, June 13, 1995, but that is not the Star Princess of today. Not even certain if the old Star Princess is still in service somewhere under another name and line, maybe scrapped. It was made in 1989, 63,500 gross tons, and had 2226 persons were on board. Flooding was contained and she sailed into Juneau on her own. No abandon ship. The current Star Princess was built in 2002, is 109,000 gross tons, double hull, 3102 passengers and a crew of 1200.

      The HAL Prinsedam sinking in 1980 in the Gulf of Alaska just south of Yakutat also was not the Prinsedam of today either. That Prinsedam was manufactured in 1973. 427 ft. long and carried 320 passengers and a crew of 190 when the U.S. Coast Guard rescued everybody. Abandon ship occurred due to an engine room fire that could not be contained. It caught fire on October 4th and sank October 11th. If you go to Valdez today you will see one of its life boats out in front of the museum there. Holland America acquired the Seaborn Sun in 2002 and renamed it Prinsedam, it still sails today. It was built in 1988.

      • mike fom iowa says:

        StElias-the Star Princess,according to Wiki,was christened in France in 1988 as the Sitmar Cruises ship Sitmar FairMajesty.P & O Princess took over Sitmar in 1989 and ship became Star Princess for Princess Cruises(1989). In 1997 Star Princess was renamed MV Arcadia. In 2003 was transferred to a new P & O subsidiary as Ocean Village and later transferred to Australia/New Zealand and renamed Pacific Pearl in 2010.

  12. UgaVic says:

    Well said!

  13. Zyxomma says:

    I’ve never been on a cruise ship. I have taken a sunset cruise on a large sailboat; it was loads of fun and I got great pictures of Newport. It’s hard to imagine being in a huge hotel that happens to be floating on the open seas. I wish the Dutch company success with their fuel removal. It can happen anywhere.

  14. Cortez says:

    I’m not a fan of cruise ships, as even without accidents, they are major polluters and destroyer of small l, local business in their ports of call. But these accidents can be avoided with tougher regulations. And therein lies the problem. These monster companies control the regulators, or stay outside of their jurisdiction. Cruise lines are just a recent example of the need for fundamental economic change that is desperately needed.

    • Mo says:

      Parnell can tell you all-l-l-l-l about partying with cruise line execs and reducing passenger taxes as a special consideration for their industry.

    • Alaska Pi says:

      They sail under foreign flags here in AK and avoid US labor law for wages and all for their staff.
      Amongst other #%^&^$#ing things…

    • ibwilliamsi says:

      Most of these ships are not flying under the US flag and are regulated in other countries. They have agreements when they come into your ports, but I don’t know that tougher Federal regulations would make a difference. It seems to me that it’s up to the individual ports to set regulations that fit into Federal law and enforce them.

  15. Dia says:

    Well said, thank you.