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Monday, 23 January 2012

Costa Concordia sinking, and how it impacts India

Most of the articles on the subject of the sinking after the absolutely rash behaviour of the ship and people onboard the Costa Concordia seem to focus on the navigational and behavioural aspects of the whole episode. However, there are other issues of ship design, stability, documentation, alcohol onboard and more, which also need to be fleshed out.

Here's the first article by me on the subject.

Costa Concordia capsizing— and how it impacts India...
January 18, 2012 08:31 AM |
Veeresh Malik

How did the Costa Concordia simply keel over and capsize so quickly after being breached? Slightly deeper waters and she would have simply gone down, with no trace on the surface. Half exposed, she is going to be like that for a long time now, as a daily reminder to an industry slow on pro-active steps for better ships

As a leading provider of maritime workers to the world, not just technical but now increasingly in the hospitality and catering part of matters maritime too, thesinking of the Italian passenger liner ‘Costa Concordia’ impacts India in more ways than just the 300-odd Indian families whose bread-winners worked onboard what turns out to be a case of alleged criminal activity by a master and his complete set of navigating and other officers onboard. Variously being referred to as ‘grounding’ or ‘accident’, it is clear to all that this was an episode which was the result of a top-down failure of any form of responsible behaviour, from the owners and operators ashore to the junior-most officer onboard.

Not just the captain. In other words, if the captain was doing something, which was criminal to the point of being insane, then there were enough alternates available to counter such activities. In the so-called “good old days” the concept of being a “crack skipper” did not mean that the ‘Old Man’ was a psycho, but to be frank, it was close enough. And as long as they got the job done, some eccentricities were not just tolerated, but often treated as virtues. A life at sea is not easy, simple as that and the special breed of men and women needed have to be given latitude. It is even tougher on passenger ships, where the cargo tends to be far more demanding, since it is on two feet.

Going too close to rocks or shoals for sight-seeing, however, is not part of it. Certainly, there were navigators in the old days, present company included, who would venture to go close to Dieo Garcia to see if they could ‘spook’ the Americans into launching aircraft to chase them away, or head right next to Krakatova to take photographs of the volcano, or, most commonly, hug the Portuguese Coast when in the Atlantic so that the Goans on board could get a glimpse—but even then, in cargo ships with far less windage and certainly lesser potential loss of lives, the distance away from any features was in miles, not metres.

The Costa Concordia tried to get to within 150-200 metres of a known shoal. It was over 300 metres long, 35 metres wide, and even trying to turn away fromthe rocks would bring it closer, because the stern would swing into the turn towards the rocks, even before the bow would swing away—that is the nature of ships. Add uncertain winds close to shore, the natural attraction of land masses and ships, and a novice sailor on a dinghy would stay clear.

But then again, the bigger question is, what were the other people doing while this master apparently took actions which were not just stupid but criminal?

Consider the following:

# Even basic cargo ships are now equipped with data loggers that send live reports on a variety of parameters to shipping company offices ashore. It is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to keep a 24x7 watch on the progress of the assets afloat, multi-million dollars worth of ship, cargo and lives onboard. Just one of many reasons—the risk of environmental pollution due to leakage of oil, and the liabilities that follow—keeps people on board on their toes, aware that their every move is not just being tracked for analysis ashore, but also watched and listened to in real time. These parameters include status in live feed on aspects such as navigation, engine, performance, weather routing, even rest hours of crew working on board. Anything even whispered on the bridge or engine room can and is heard ashore.

# It is far more stringent on passenger ships. The days when a master of a ship was the last word on what happened on a ship have vanished quite some time back. A deviation from a course laid out, especially landwards into dangerous waters, would typically raise alarms and escalations at a variety of levels onboard and ashore. Analysing by hind-sight is always 20/20, but in this case, there is no way that such a violent deviation to within metres of an island would not have required an escalation to a person ashore with authority over the master. Such a person or persons is known as a DPA (Designated Person Ashore) and every ship afloat has to have more than one, so that action, if required, can be guided also from ashore.

# That such alarms on board and ashore were not recognised or responded to can only imply that either the whole lot of the people involved were celebrating a late night, on a Friday, or that this was done with full complicity of all involved. It can also be conjectured that the famous “over-ride” switches came into play, but not only on the ship—this would have happened ashore also. If there is a case that voice and data transmission from a ship is disconnected, then that gives rise to an even higher level of response and accountability. To blame only the master on board in such a case would again be incorrect—there are people ashore whose job it is to see that such direct violations do not occur.

# And finally, most importantly, it is a basic rule of Bridge Team Management, or any form of relationship between senior and junior officers on board, that a junior officer is given the full liberty to escalate or even in some cases countermand an order that is so obviously dangerous. The days when a master could browbeat a junior officer are over—even the junior-most officer on the bridge or crew member on lookout or helm duties, or even the catering person making coffee, has the authority to pick up one of many sat-phones on board and call the DPA directly, to inform him that he can see the porch lights of the houses they are passing, so close are they to the coast. This authority, the right to call the DPA on 24x7 basis using the ship’s communication gear if required, is printed and pasted all over the ship including in every mess-room and alleyway on every ship.

So how then, does this impact India?

The now not so recent phenomenon of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa leading to a total revamp on ocean routings in the Arabian Sea has brought ships on international passages unrelated to India to within miles of the Indian coast. There is the most obvious risk of ocean-going ships of all sorts not familiar with Indian coastal waters coming far too close.

But more than that, other issues impacting India in context with a far-awaysinking are:

# Higher insurance premiums which shall be spread across all the fleets of the world as a direct result of the huge claims that shall certainly be raised on the Costa Concordia and their insurers and then their re-insurers. Liabilities on western fleets are much higher and the insurance industry, in its wisdom and no doubt with lesser resistance, is known to spread the downside to the rest of the non-complaining world. Alert readers may recall how the aviation industry globally paid for September 11—similar or even bigger aviation-related disasters in the developing world have never raised such huge bills for the rest of the world to carry.

# Disquieting reports on the issue of language unfamiliarity with the Indian crew on board are surfacing through the grapevine, as well as issues of their certification and documentation, which are both not surprising. The saloon and catering crew is also supposed to be trained in basic life-saving and fire-fighting as well as passenger ship safety and crowd management techniques. The reality, as is well known, is something different. A walk to the Shipping Master’s office at Ballard Estate in Mumbai will provide an inkling of how similar it is to the RTOs and passport offices in this context. It is also a fact that Italian maritime certification also leaves a lot to be desired.

# A further increase in certification of safety required on board passenger ships, which will impact the already depleted fleet of passenger ships available to us in India for coastal, coast-to-island and inter-island ferries. This is in addition to the ships required for riverine movement of passengers. Viewed in isolation, this is good from the single point objective of safety, but in reality it spells even more delays. The truth on connectivity by sea of India’s islands is pathetic, if not worse, and this episode will further alienate our islands.

Bigger passenger ship and ferry disasters take place in Asian and African waters frequently. Hundreds of lives are lost and often this does not spark more than passing attention and one reason is simply because those ships are often more than decrepit. The other reasons are too racist to mention here.

But ships like the Costa Concordia, amongst the biggest and costliest passenger ships that ever sailed the oceans, are not supposed to sink like this. Leave aside the human element, ship-design, especially recent passenger ship design, is supposed to take care of one major aspect not too many people are talking about.

And that is—how did the Costa Concordia simply keel over and capsize so quickly after being breached? Slightly deeper waters and she would have simply gone down, with no trace on the surface. Half exposed, she is going to be like that for a long time now, as a daily reminder to an industry slow on pro-active steps for better ships.

A lot of passenger ships in developed countries are now going to come on the block after this incident, because there is an inherent flaw in their design, which provokes such rapid flooding and then sinking. There is bound to be a major change in design, and that will include much stronger vertical segregation, as against the continuous decks so commonly seen nowadays on cruise ships of this sort.

And these old-design ships will land up, where else, but in our waters.

That’s the biggest risk we foresee.

(Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing. He is also involved actively in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves. Mr Malik had a career in the Merchant Navy which he left in 1983, qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, a love for travel, and an active participation in print and electronic media as an alternate core competency, all these and more.)

1 comment:

  1. dear veeresh malik,
    i have material to send to you that would strain credulity but is nevertheless true. please send me your e-mail address. my e-mail ids are---
    please treat the matter as urgent.