The Costa Concordia accident – tragedy – is now 10 days old. It’s all but slipped out of the news headlines and features only if there’s a report of more bodies being found by the search divers. Seeing it in the photo above, proud and majestic in Grand Harbour in 2007, just a year into its life, it’s near impossible to believe that it would be sunk in its prime. We’re led to believe that bigger and more technologically-enabled craft (planes or ships) equate to infallibility. Fly or sail by wire can somehow avoid a Titanic repetition.
If anything sails the seas, it can fall prey to natural disaster or be felled by human error, or a combination of the two. Costa Concordia was off its scheduled course by sailing far nearer to the isle of Giglio, just off the Tuscan coast. But it transpires that similar unscheduled routes in these waters had been plied before by cruise ships of the same size and class and just months before. Did navigational equipment fail to detect the rocks; did the captain ignore any automated warnings; did systems fail? There’s a vast amount of technical detail that the enquiries will plough through, quite apart from eye witness accounts. Nothing is clear cut.
History is littered with such seafaring tales. Recently, there was news that the original H.M.S. Victory of the British Navy (the predecessor of Admiral Lord Nelson’s ‘Victory’) is to be salvaged from the seabed in the English Channel around 100km off where it was thought to have sunk in 1744. For nearly three centuries, naval history had cast doubt on its commanding officer’s ability to navigate, saying that the ship was well off course when it sank in a storm near Alderney. Found around two years ago by the Odyssey Marine Exploration team, the wreck lies where the course was set and some 300 years of rumour about the ability of its commanding officer, Admiral Sir John Balkin, are now laid to rest.
Who knows how history will judge this tragedy. But there is one aspect of the affair that is understandable, particularly is you live on small islands yourself. The Costa Concordia’s unscheduled, and this time allegedly unauthorised route close to Giglio, was apparently in order for the ship to ‘salute’ a former colleague who lived on the tiny island. The folk of Giglio, an isle of some 700 houses, would probably all have felt a kinship with the Costa Crociere liners. One of their own had been a crew member. How proud then to see a Costa liner in full glory, lights ablaze across the water, larger than life and nearer to home than usual.
Anyone who’s seen the giant cruise liners almost on eye level with the Barrakka Gardens in Valletta or seen them enter or leave Grand Harbour, deep sonorous siren sounding, will feel a frisson of excitement – however many times you’ve witnessed it as a resident here. The feeling that the cruise ships ‘belong’ here, to us, and are part of the life blood of Malta runs deep.
Malta too often celebrates it locals who’ve made it out there, internationally; those who’ve hit the bigger time. We can understand, if not sanction, Captain Schettino’s deviation on the night of the 13th, that was intended to show that even in a cruise industry dominated by two megalithic international players, there’s still a local heart to the business. No wonder then that some reports show Giglio residents deeply shocked – it’s not a tragedy that happened to play out on their island, it’s a tragedy in which they all feel they share, deeply.
Photo: courtesy of Robert G. Henderson