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Hubris can lead to a betrayal of the senses

How could it happen? How could a $450 million state-of-the-seas cruise ship with more than 4,200 passengers on board run aground in calm conditions on familiar waters just a day into its Mediterranean cruise?

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It likely will be a year or more before the official report on the grounding of the 950-foot Costa Concordia is completed and made public. In the meantime, new details of the accident seem to surface with every tide, each one more confounding and perplexing than the last.

If the news accounts are to be believed, the captain may have been “showboating” at the time of the accident, passing close to the tiny Italian island of Giglio so he could wave to a former captain living there; the captain didn’t actually abandon ship, but tripped and “fell” into his lifeboat by accident; in an audio recording and transcript, you hear an Italian port authority captain ordering the cruise liner captain back to his ship: “Dammit, go back on board!”
You can’t make this stuff up. Sadly, 11 people were known dead and as many as 21 were still missing at press time.
I spoke with two longtime experts on safety and seamanship to get their opinions about some of the dispatches we’d been reading and to discuss the lessons that anyone who takes to the water might learn from this unusual shipwreck.
I read a statement that was attributed to Costa Concordia Capt. Francesco Schettino to retired U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Dein, who for six years supervised the agency’s rescue-and-survival systems program:
“I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this manoeuvre [sic] three or four times,” Capt. Schettino reportedly told investigators, according to a report by BBC News. “But this time I ordered the turn too late, and I ended up in water that was too shallow. I don’t know why it happened.”
Dein, an expert witness in seamanship, navigation and search-and-rescue cases, was befuddled. “He was conning the ship by seaman’s eye?” asked the Coast Guard veteran of 24 years. “That’s negligence.”
Seaman’s eye is a term for the art of “visual navigation,” using ranges, angles, various objects and water color, aided by compass, depth sounder and other devices. We all use elements of seaman’s eye every time we head out. And Dein is a strong believer in the method on smaller vessels and when circumstances warrant it. But on a cruise ship nearly the size of an aircraft carrier that is pressing questionably close to shore? “You would never do that except in dire emergencies,” Dein says. “It’s too big a risk. It’s a hell of a risk.”
Call it a fatal case of big-boat hubris.
I also talked with Capt. Daniel Parrott, a professor at the Maine Maritime Academy, about our increasing reliance on navigation electronics and the supporting role that trend may have played in the grounding. “I think this is a major theme as our navigation equipment becomes more sophisticated, reliable and accurate,” says Parrott, a licensed captain with 20 years of experience at sea and the author of “Bridge Resource Management for Small Ships” (McGraw-Hill/International Marine). “At some point, reliance becomes overreliance. It doesn’t take very much effort to know where you are today, almost none at all.”
This sort of “blind faith” in technology can erode a mariner’s traditional vigilance and lead one to accept increasingly smaller margins of error, or none at all, Parrott says. The smaller the margin of safety, he continues, the more important it is to monitor your position and cross-reference it by several methods — GPS, radar, sonar, visual bearings — paying close attention to small discrepancies. “You have to ask yourself, What’s at stake?” Parrott says. “If there is a lot at stake, you have to widen that margin of safety.”
On small vessels and large ships, we all have to guard against complacency, with the paradox being that the more experienced one is on the water, the more likely that person is to lower his guard. “Complacency is very much the byproduct of over-familiarity,” Parrott says. “It is this cruel reward for becoming very good at something. You become very accomplished, and it becomes easy for complacency to sneak in.”
Dein questions the process that put the 52-year-old Capt. Schettino at the helm of the cruise liner. “How did this guy ever get to the command of a ship like this?” he asks of the man some have dubbed “Capt. Coward.”

“Ran over shoals not
on chart — about five fathoms minimum.
One learns what
it felt like in
the early days …
for navigation here
is practically a case
of feeling your
way, unaided by
accurate charts.”
— William Robinson

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.