The Titanic Chronicles: 100 Years Ago Today

TitanicThe story of RMS Titanic, immortalized by the 1997 James Cameron film of the same name, is a lasting one. Bringing the story to theaters in a blockbuster hit, enhanced and re-released this month, gave the story life long after so many had died at sea. Now, footage of recent maritime events, including the grounding of Costa Concordia and fires aboard other ships, brought home a realism no film could match. Still, the fate of Titanic still holds as the worst maritime disaster ever, one that occurred on this day, 100 years ago.

11:40 p.m. on April 15, 1912 was a Sunday and the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic was well underway. Earlier in the day, radio messages received warned of icebergs in the ship’s path but were ignored. That night, a lookout cried “Iceberg, right ahead!” but the ship could not avoid a collision. That iceberg ran down the right side of the ship causing fatal damage to what was believed to be an unsinkable vessel.

Just after Midnight, the ship’s captain ordered lifeboats into the water in what had to be his most difficult decision ever.

Still today, the Captain is referred to as the Master of the Vessel. Still today, he or she has a great many lives to be responsible for. In January, it was Captain Francisco Schettino who gave the abandon ship order for Costa Concordia.

In April of 1912, it was Captain Edward J. Smith as the master of Titanic who was fully aware of the iceberg warnings that had been received via radio days before the tragedy. To insure safety, even back then, Smith charted a new course, slightly south of the original plan, to avoid icebergs.But radio was a new thing then and the focus was on relaying messages sent to and from the ship by passengers or those on land. Earlier in the day of that fateful night in 1912 – 100 years ago today – Titanic had received a message from the steamer Amerika warning of icebergs directly in the path of the ship. Later, another message of iceberg danger was received too. Both went unheeded as radio operators worked to send and receive more important passenger messages.

Today’s cruise ship Captains regularly alter courses too, commonly in response to changing weather conditions. When a crime occurs involving passengers or the crew, the captain, as master of the vessel, is responsible for those people as well and works closely with the US Coast Guard, US Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies to insure a swift and just resolution.

Not long ago, evidence indicated that Captain Francisco Schettino altered the course of Costa Concordia, coming too close to shore and causing the tragedy that followed. The event caused cruise industry leaders to reaffirm their commitment to safety.

Officers and crew members from Royal Caribbean, along with sister-brands Celebrity and Azamara Cruises, now have the advantage of being a part of new simulator training center at Resolve Maritime Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Signaling a renewed focus on safety, staff of the $6.5 million facility cut the grand opening ribbon recently as part of an ongoing safety program but timing surely looked to address current concerns of the cruising public.

“This was not a knee-jerk reaction to recent events,” Captain William Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises said of the two year process to get the facility to opening day.

Still, while simulations can take into account a variety of factors that can go wrong, staff members at the Resolve training facility quickly note that it is the human element that can often make the difference in avoiding disaster at sea.



Fiction: The Titanic being raised out of the Atlantic.

[Flickr photo by mecookie]

Cascading changes likely for cruise travelers

cruise travelersChanges are coming for cruise travelers even though exactly what happened to force Costa Concordia to ground off the coast of Italy has yet to be defined by forensic evidence. Playing out as everything from rumors to accusations and first-hand reports from passengers actually on the ship, media outlets have been working overtime reporting the story. Some accounts seem reasonable, some far-fetched and some totally bizarre. But churning to the top and coming more in focus all the time are changes likely to be seen in the very near future that will affect every cruise traveler.

Thinking of what we know and have seen about the Costa Concordia event, there are some facts that we don’t need an official report to verify. We see a once-mighty cruise ship on its side with our own eyes and ask “How could this have happened?” That’s the big question that concerns cruise industry experts and will force changes in the operation of cruise ships in the very near future.

“This tragedy has called into question our company’s safety and emergency response procedures and practices,” Micky Arison, chairman and CEO of Carnival Corporation said last week, calling for an audit of safety procedures.

Technically, by the numbers, cruise vacations are safe. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 16 million passengers sailed in 2011 and 2012 is projected to exceed that by at least another million. This type of accident is rare. But so was the sinking of the RMS Titanic, 100 years ago in April. That disastrous event served as a wake up call to an overly confident cruise industry at the time much like Concordia has shaken even the hyper-safe cruise industry of today.

“While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews, this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn’t happen again,” said Arison.

To insure future safety at a higher, more effective level, Arison ordered a complete review of safety procedures fleet-wide across all the various cruise line brands that fall under the Carnival Corporation umbrella.

On the safety topic, everyone in the cruise industry seems to agree.

“Any loss of life at sea is tragic, but the Costa Concordia disaster is even more traumatic since it was entirely preventable,” said Captain Bill Doherty, director of maritime affairs for Nexus, a provider of private maritime safety and security solutions.

“Safety is a journey rather than a destination,” said Royal Caribbean President and CEO Adam Goldstein echoing the position of many in the cruise industry. Goldstein notes the need to look for lessons in every minor incident or accident. Looking to the future, Goldstein cautions against complacency. “This is a never ending cycle. As our Chairman Richard Fain says, there is no such thing as perfect safety but there is such a thing as perfect dedication to safety. We strive to be true to that concept.”

A complete review of safety procedures will naturally come in contact with security issues that can create potential safety problems. Right after 9-11, the travel industry was on it’s highest level of security ever. Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and airports in addition to governmental agencies put into place new protocols to help prevent a disaster such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center from happening ever again.

In the process, the cruise industry inquiry will probably run into other areas of safety and security that will force cascading change on areas other than lifeboats, safety drills and the like.

Changes to look for:

  • Safety Drill before the ship leaves the dock on every sailing- This is just a no-brainer after the Costa Concordia event where hundreds who had embarked the vessel the day of the grounding had received little if any safety instruction.
  • The modification or end of Navigational Bridge and behind the scenes tours– They went away right after 9-11 but have crept back in from one cruise line to another as a revenue source that offers an opportunity to cause harm that could affect a ship full of passengers.
  • Increased security presence on ships– Although rare, instances of binge drinking and other associated “I’m at sea so its OK” behavior will come under greater control with an increased security presence on ships industry-wide.
  • Tighter rules on teens– Teen rape, underage drinking and other associated problems with teen travelers are caused by an environment that inadvertently allows these things to happen. While cruise lines have a zero-tolerance for crime and drugs on ships, the very nature of a cruise ship environment allows them to happen. This will be a tough one to address but one that is overdue for action.
  • Passports required– The issue has been kept on hold for years as the travel industry moans that requiring passports for US citizens would prevent many from traveling. One step toward better security and resulting safety would be the increased level of security brought by requiring passports of all passengers embarking any ship, any time.
  • Background checks– Critics of the cruise industry point to a lack of diligence that allows sex and drug offenders and child molesters, required to register on land, to easily board cruise ships. Their presence creates an environment of easy prey as underage passengers are allowed to roam free. Once seen as the call of overly-critical cruise foes, the industry will give the topic serious consideration.
  • Psychological profiles of command officers– Especially if evidence confirms that the captain of Costa Concordia was on a joy ride to show off the ship to the folks on shore, this will be huge. “Captains ultimately answer to no one — on board,” Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic told MSNBC. The reasons are steeped in seafaring history, she said. “But I think that’s something that will change.” More checks and balances are needed, and Brown anticipate changes in the future as a result of the Concordia grounding. “A lot of standardization is probably coming out of this,” she said.

Experts agree, this can’t happen again, but questions are raised.

Done right, this increased focus on safety and security plus all the areas of cruise ship operations that are affected by both will be costly. Expect cruise prices to rise as a result. Still, wouldn’t it be better to pay $50 more for a cruise and greatly reduce the odds of these things happening ever again?

It was not all that long ago that safety concerns over trouble spots like Egypt, Mexico, Japan and others around the globe were driving travelers toward cruise vacations. Does this Costa Concordia tragedy change that attraction?

These are questions that will be answered over time as the cruise industry, still reeling from this latest event, recovers, regroups and moves on.

Flickr photo by Cyr0z