Three Black Balls

Update: The chart purporting to show the ship’s track below may not be accurate – the BBC has a different track for the ship, my follow up posted 18 Jan….

Last week I claimed expertise in counter-piracy. This week I’m back with another one of my particular areas of expertise – Navigation. I was Navigator on a US warship until the middle of last year, so I do know a thing or two about reading charts, plotting a track and keeping the bottom of the ship wet. I still wake up every couple months with a dream where my ship is headed for land and no one on the bridge will listen to me.

The Costa Concordia wrecked off the Italian coast last week, with stunning video and photos that will become the stuff of nightmares for navigators and Captains everywhere. If you want a better idea of what happened, here’s two pieces of media that you probably haven’t seen that will help give you an idea of the geography involved.

First, some context. The Concordia was pulling out of Civitavecchia, the commercial port of Rome, and was headed generally northwest to pass near the island of Giglio on it’s way counter-clockwise around the Western Mediterranean.

AIS (Automated Identification System) is a GPS-based tracking system used around the world – any ship over a certain size is required to have a transponder that constantly broadcasts the ship’s position, course, speed, etc. in real time. It helps with traffic management and collision avoidance. Anyone can tune into it with the right equipment, and someone posted this feed, showing the Costa Concordia’s track:

(Note – this feed is from someone else’s display – it doesn’t neccesarily represent whatever AIS and Navigation systems the Concorida was using).

What that video doesn’t show is the tight space the ship was trying to fit in – the rock that the Concordia hit is too small to show up on the very large-scale view of that video. This nautical chart shows the narrow gap the ship was trying to navigate – the small numbers are depths in meters, and blue-water typically denotes shoal-water, otherwise known as don’t-come-here-if-you’re-a-big-ship water:

Again, that is a reconstruction by someone else, not the “official” track of the Concordia, though AIS tends to be pretty good, so I would not expect the official investigation to differ too much in their findings. For those inclined to read charts, that’s clearly a reckless move – the gap itself is barely wide enough for the ship to pass through even if steered perfectly.

Lastly, there’s an interesting transcript of the conversation between the Captain and the Italian Coast Guard, with the Captain essentially being ordered to return to the ship to help supervise rescue efforts.  Tie all of that in with reports of the crew being unprepared for the chaos of the evacuation and you have quite the soup sandwich.


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About thinklikeafox

I'm a Naval Officer living in Southern California. I hope to be attending law school in the next year or two, and I started writing this blog out of a desire to improve my writing and critical thinking skills after a couple years outside of academia.
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3 Responses to Three Black Balls

  1. Sterilecuckoo says:

    There is much to ponder. I cannot fathom any captain trying to thread the needle. Aha.. click the image and you see the larger plan. OMG… and I am an agnostic… it appears that the intent was indeed to thread the needle…. Well, the investigation has already surely taken all the tracking info and imposed it on every conceivable chart.

    I wonder what the electronic displays really look like as compared to the paper chart. I use SeaClear II and appreciate the vivid detail of the raster image of the paper chart. Do the electronic (vector based) charts loose any of this detail? My $70 GPS antenna seems to be good to within a few meters – the more satellites it finds the closer my track is to reality… of course this based on situations when reality is a measurable distance from the antenna.

    While I can imagine circling back towards shore to sink in shallower waters and winding up in such a narrow channel, I cannot imagine getting that close to land in the dark… no way… been out there in the dark in a little boat and no way I want to get closer than 1 km.

    What a way to screw up.

    • Mike says:

      A lot of my reply is based on what I have seen in the news, so bear with me if any of it is incorrect… this is the first time I have seen the chart and track. My first thought upon seeing it was “why in the hell would they take the ship though the narrow passage when there is so much safe water to the west?” One of the articles I read said that they were passing closer to the island than normal to show of for the tourists… hope it was worth it, because this guy’s career is done. More importantly than that, 15 people died as a result of his recklessness…

      Also, he is being charged with abandoning his ship while there were still people onboard. I have always heard that the Captain goes down with the ship, but I did not realize this was a punishable offense. Supposedly it carries a 12 year sentence in Italy– any word on if there is a similar punishment in the states?

      • First of all, I just looked at your email and realized who you were – glad to hear from you!

        Second of all, from my reading, it sounds like under US Law, the Captain doesn’t have to go down with the ship, but is responsible for the safety of everyone on board. So getting into the lifeboat isn’t of itself a crime, but only if you got into the boat to coordinate/facilitate evacuation. The fact that the Concordia Captain got into a lifeboat and left the scene while many of his officers were still on board helping with evac says he probably would’ve been criminally responsible under US law as well.

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