"Vada a bordo, cazzo!"

A few years ago PBS’ Nova series aired a fascinating episode called “Why Ships Sink”.

[Short answer:  Water gets inside.]

It was called “Why Ships Sink” because the more honest, less generic “Why Cruise Ships Sink So Often” would doubtlessly have had them facing a barrage of legal threats from the cruise industry.

Bottom line: Cruise ships sink so often because the cruise industry staffs them with MBA graduates in hotel management, not real sailors.

One can understand the reasons for this.  Real sailors tend to be a colorful but often unappealing lot, foul mouthed and somewhat brusque to landlubbers.


Unlike the various navies and merchant marines of the world, the cruise industry places a priority on making their passengers’ experience as pleasant as possible.

They hire crews -- and captains -- based on their ability to interact well with paying customers, no salty dogs here!  As a result the crew can mix a really mean martini, provide hours of entertainment in the lounge, guide you to the best tourist traps bargains at the various ports of call, etc., etc., and of course, etc.

Navies and merchant marines hire sailors based on their ability to (a) keep the ship afloat and (b) fulfill the ship’s mission.

And of the two, (b) comes in second to (a) because without (a) there will be no opportunity to do (b).

Ya with me so far?

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On January 13, 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Carnival cruise ship Costa Concordia deviated from his assigned course to give his passengers a better view of the lights on shore.

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The Costa Concordia hit a submerged rock and lost power.  It began listing and sinking.  While the engine crew and a few other genuine sailors tried to keep the ship afloat long enough for the passengers to evacuate, while the entertainers and housekeeping staff tried to maintain order long enough for everyone to get safely aboard the lifeboats, Captain Schettino opted to hop off the ship and head for shore.

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The Italian Coast Guard, speeding to the Costa Concordia’s rescue, managed to make radio contact with Captain Schettino in one of the lifeboats.

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When they learned he had left his crew and passengers behind while he headed to dry land, they remarked in a typically reserved Italian understatement:

"Vada a bordo, cazzo!"

Which in common everyday English can be translated as "Get the fuck back on board!" or "Get back on board, for fuck's sake!" or "Get on board, damn it!"

Being half Italian, I lean towards the first two translations.

We jest, but the wreck of the Costa Concordia resulted in 32 people dying that night plus one diver later when the ship was being salvaged.  The 32 who died on January 13 were passengers who had paid handsomely to be entertained on what was advertised as a perfectly safe cruise, and crew members who despite their inexperience sacrificed their own lives to save passengers entrusted to them.

Unlike Captain Schettino.

Captain Schettino had no business being in charge of a ship carrying over three thousand passengers and a crew one/third as large.

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Though a graduate of a naval institute, his previous seagoing experience had been as a crew member on a ferry.  Hired by Carnival Cruises in 2002 to be a security officer, Schettino was promoted to executive officer and then captain by 2006.  He was then placed in command of the Costa Concordia and sailed her until he ran her aground in 2012.

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Compared to a typical naval or merchant marine captain, he had virtually no experience at all, and certainly was not entrusted with key decisions on the navigation and operation of the ship.

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It was, as noted above, his decision to deviate from his ordained course in order to show off to passengers that led to the disaster.

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Further, cruise ships are by intention the easiest to sail vessels on the open seas.  They are floating hotels that quite deliberately steer away from danger; rough seas and stormy weather will cancel a cruise, but merchant ships with cargos to deliver and naval vessels with hostile waters to patrol aren’t afford that luxury.

Those bad boys are trained to go out in the worst of it and accomplish their mission, quite literally come hell or high water.

Schettino acted more like a hotel manager than a ship captain, and a very poor hotel manager at that.

If a hotel suffers a fire or earthquake, then 90% of the job is getting people safely out of the building; once they’re on the street they are pretty much safe.

A sinking ship is still a danger to those trying to evacuate it, and lifeboats under the best of conditions are not easy to operate, and wind and water and weather can prove life threatening hazards to shipwrecked passengers.

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Yet Schettino’s first instinct was to leave these people behind and see to it that his own skin was saved.

Schettino had no real training in commanding a large ship.

Schettino had no regard for carefully established protocol to guarantee the ship operated safely.

Schettino had no qualms about showing off to impress others.

Schettino had no idea what to do when disaster struck his ship.

Schettino had no sense of duty or responsibility to the four thousand plus passengers and crew entrusted to his care.

Schettino turned a good situation into a bad situation and then made the bad situation even worse.

Schettino lacked the ability, education, experience, integrity, intellect, and temperament to be a ship captain, especially for the Costa Concordia.

Schettino was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong job and for the wrong reason.

Why am I writing about Captain Francesco Schettino?

Why do you think?

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