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I’ve received an interesting submission on the continuing debate over the Costa Concordia incident, and specifically the behaviour of Captain Schettino. The author, Nick Young, is an ex-Radio Officer who served on a number of merchant and cruise vessels.
Nick’s suggestion of a ‘super-numerary Captain’, distanced from events but ready to take command should the worst happen, is a possible solution to consider for the future. Read on and discuss ..
“Should we be so eager to criticise and condemn those who have exhibited poor judgement or even dereliction of duty under the most testing of circumstances ? Who among us can, with any certainty, assert that they would not suffer the same collapse of character that appears to have beset Captain Schettino ? The history books unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, are full of Schettinos.
Listening to the media reports from Italy this past week I’m sure can’t be the only one who has had an unnerving sense of déjà-vu. Ship in trouble, Captain vilified for his performance. I have a recollection of a Greek cruise accident in the past 10 years where the Captain left the ship to ‘direct operations from ashore’ whilst all his passengers remained onboard in considerable peril. Even in that most famous of wrecks, the Titanic, it is notable that in all the subsequent inquiries and in all the eyewitness accounts Captain Edward Smith plays little more than a walk on part during the unfolding tragedy and is not seen by anyone for hours – and this in a time when honour and duty were far more keenly observed than they are today.
Should we continue along the well-worn path of simply trusting in a) the infallibility of Captains and b) their courage and strength of character in the face of – often self-inflicted – adversity ? Einstein once said words to the effect of ‘to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result is the definition of insanity’. Maybe he had a point. Perhaps we should consider a new approach to post-disaster management, particularly if we’re going to let 4,000 people get on one ship. Passengers – and crew – have an absolute right to expect the very best from their senior officers and to trust to luck that your man will rise to the challenge is not much better than a roll of the dice.
Responsibility can help to focus the mind. Culpability, on the other, is likely to have the polar opposite effect. One can only wonder at the thoughts clouding Schettino’s mind last Friday night but I would imagine that ‘What have I done ?’, ‘What will they do to me ?’, ‘What will the company say ?’, ‘How did I let this happen ?’ must have figured quite prominently. Can a man who has taken his ship to the brink of tragedy really be expected to be the best person to rescue the situation with cool and rational thinking ?
If cruise ships were to carry a super-numerary Captain, one who has taken no part in the ships’ day-to-day operation or decision making processes and could in no way be held culpable for any accident that took place, wouldn’t he be better placed to exercise command and control should the unthinkable happen ? He would have the responsibility for managing the situation but without carrying the burdens of the ‘I’s’ in an emergency. It could be argued quite powerfully he would have the far more reliable and clearer judgment required by the situation. Of course contemporary experience is vital and therefore the practice would require that every Captain sail alternate tours as a Captain then as a super-numerary. Equally, such a practice would not reduce the importance of sound command and navigation decisions by the acting Captain but like it or not Captains are human, mistakes will be made and we can be absolutely sure that Costa Concordia will not be the last example we see of such incidents.
Cruise ship Captains are often regarded, unhelpfully, as omnipotent demi-gods and, like most rock stars, I have seen many who ultimately believe their own ‘press’. It’s why the media and public wail and howl so when one is found wanting of the honour and fortitude we romantically assume they all have. It is hardly surprising that a man like Schettino has been described as having an ego. I can barely think of one I sailed with that didn’t fit that description. With adulation comes ego, with ego self-belief and with self-belief an unhealthy sense of infallibility. All cruise companies, understandably, actively promote and cultivate this Captain worship and thereby, perhaps unwittingly, increase the risk factor of a Captain getting too big for his boots. I suspect few of us would be immune to hundreds or even thousands of people every week treating us like royalty – or better. As a Radio Officer I used to get dressed in my finest uniform once a week and take a bow in front several hundred fresh faces then go on to host a table in the dining room and am all too aware of the little ego thrill that can bring. Multiply that a thousand-fold and you come close perhaps to what a Captain experiences day-in day-out.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with my 5 year old son a few years ago. My daughter, then about 2 and a half, had been crying for some time at that volume and pitch only a youngster can sustain. Unable to calm her down my blood pressure was reaching hospitalisation levels. My son was sitting next to us, seemingly oblivious to the incessant noise and I asked him if his sister’s crying wasn’t driving him mad like it was me. He simply shrugged and said ‘I don’t mind’ and went back to fiddling with whatever toy had his attention. He was neither culpable nor responsible for his sister’s troubles and consequently felt no stress or anxiety at the sound of her wailing and went about his business as if she wasn’t even there. How I envied him that day.”
Thank you Nick.
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