The Real Menace to Today's Passenger Ships: It's Not Icebergs

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How disaster can strike, even 100 years after the Titanic

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Details of the grounding of the Mediterranean cruise ship Costa Concordia are still unclear, but it appears that the vessel struck a reef, killing at least six people, some of whom panicked and jumped overboard before the ship could be completely evacuated -- this only three months before the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic.

How could this have happened? What about all the advanced navigational equipment on today's ships? And especially, shouldn't hazards in the Mediterran be well mapped by now?

While the public's mind has been on icebergs (even though few passenger ships regularly travel the North Atlantic now), marine safety pros have been concerned about reefs. To quote from a document issued by a member of a voluntary research group, the Forensic Naval Architecture Committee, last fall, on the Titanic:

Q. Long tears down the side like the Titanic cannot happen again, right?

A. The solution to icebergs was radar. Unfortunately, pinnacle rocks and reefs don't show up on radar and can rip holes down the length of a ship. In 1998 Monarch of the Seas hit a reef with extensive holing down the length of the ship. Fortunately, there was a nearby beach to put her bow onto to avoid the risk of sinking. [Monarch incident background is available here. The complete report is here [pdf].]

Naval architects are once again pushing the boundaries of big -- 80,000 gross tons volume used to be a big ship but now considered moderate size in comparison to the 225,000 gross ton Allure of the Seas. There are still surprises out there -- nobody thought the outside of a cruise ship could catch on fire but it did on the Star Princess [pdf].

No lives were lost about the Monarch of the Seas, but another ship, the MS Sea Diamond, sank near the island of Santorini, also in the Mediterranean, leaving two passengers missing and presumed dead.

Besides the loss of life and economic damage in reef collisions, environmental damage can be catastrophic. I don't have an answer but it's worth pondering in the Titanic year: why has aviation, with such fragile craft and so many more things that can go wrong, improved its safety record so much more successfully than shipping?


Image: Reuters
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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