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Costa Concordia disaster: Was faulty ship design to blame?

Costa Concordia disaster: Was faulty ship design to blame?

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A maritime union says profit motives may have given rise to mega-ships that accomodate more passengers but compromises their safety.

Forty minutes. That's all the time 4,200 passengers and crew members aboard the Costa Concordia had to evacuate safely after the ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany. After which point the ship started listing so badly, lifeboats couldn't be lowered.

The fact that the situation turned so disastrous so quickly has lead many to question the design integrity of modern mega-cruise ships. One such group, Nautilus International, a trade union for Maritime employees, has even called for a re-examination of similar boats in operation.

In a statement released shortly after the accident, the group said they wanted a "thorough review of regulations governing the construction and operation of passenger vessels - in particular, standards of stability and watertight integrity."

It shouldn't have happened how it did, Nautilus International spokesman Tony Minns told New Scientist. The design of watertight compartments should be such that such vessels remain stable for much longer, perhaps by having more hull beneath the water or by installing systems that pump water to help rebalance a listing ship.

One of the main causes for concern is the fact that cruise ships have undergone a rapid transformation in a relatively short period of time. Just over the past decade, the vessels have doubled in size, as measured in tons. And while the trend toward mega-ships has enabled the industry to increase profitability, the union feels that the same motivation for higher profit margins has lead the industry to make compromises that increasingly endangers those onboard. For instance, Minns pointed out that shipmakers are now opting for a very shallow draught as a way of providing passengers with stunning views of the landscape. However, the drawback is that shallow draught hulls, coupled with high structures, may cause them to capsize sooner if stability is lost.

Additionally, the group says there are other ways the move toward bigger ships has made ocean travel much riskier:

The height of cruise ships is a problem, too, says Minns. "It is known in sea trials that these vessels are what we call 'tender' in stability terms – they are very stable but have a quick rate of roll when the rudder is moved a few degrees." In other words, they are quite sensitive to being upset.

"So the regulators need to look very, very carefully at balancing commercial needs with the needs in the event of damage to the watertight integrity – as we had on Friday."

Mark Staunton-Lambert, technical director of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects in London, agrees that the rapid capsizing of Costa Concordia needs explaining. "A modern design should not heel over as far as it did until quite a long time later," he says.(New Scientist)

However, some experts have disputed these kinds of speculative assessments.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, was cruising aboard the small Azamara Quest off China when reached Monday by phone. A "sloppy" safety procedure, not ship size, was the issue on the Concordia, she said, adding, "It was a perfect storm."

Cruising is "nothing to be scared of," Brown said, but passengers "need to respect the muster drill. I've seen people drinking beer and talking like it's a cocktail party. I think [the drill] is a pain in the butt, but I think it's a necessary pain in the butt." A journalist once boasted to her that he hid in his bathroom to avoid the drill.

A super-sized ship can be a super-safe ship, Brown said. On the Oasis, she said she was "absolutely blown away by the steps Royal Caribbean took in designing the ship. I'd put my life in their hands any day of the week."(LA Times)

An ongoing investigation should turn up some clues as to what transpired that fateful morning and help to address any design issues, if any.

Photo: AP

(via New Scientist, LA Times)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure