22 January 2012

Deep Schettino

by Leigh Lundin

The tragedy of Greek tragedies is the protagonist often does himself in. I'm not a classicist, but I imagine those ancient plays and stories delivered messages of great moral import.

Costa Concordia

Like most of the world, I was saddened by the wreck of the Costa Concordia. I felt further dismayed by the wreck of the Costa Concordia's master, Francesco Schettino.

Cruise ships are international cities with crews drawn from around the world. Below decks and behind the scenes, you may find dozens of nationalities. The best become ship's officers with privileges separate and apart from the rest of the crew, privileges such as better quarters, better meals, and more freedom for shore leave. To be promoted to master– what most people call 'captain'– is a rare honor.

Giglio Island chart

Preliminary Points

With Schettino facing possible murder charges, I began to ask myself if the man was criminal or merely his behavior. Whatever a judge rules, what could have led a man entrusted with a half-billion dollars of machinery and four thousand lives to act (or not act) as he did?

Early reports claimed the rocks weren't on their charts (maps to non-seamen). I find that difficult to believe as the coast of Italy must be one of the most ancient seafaring lanes in the world. Was it on their GPS? That's a different question, but the answer should be the same.

As far as the grounding, although Costa Cruises denies it authorized the course deviation for a 'salute', it appears Costa had approved this particular course in the recent past. The company and probably Lloyd's would have been aware of their position on virtually a minute-by-minute basis. In other words, a course variation probably wasn't a surprise.

When it became apparent the ship was badly holed, it appears whoever was on the bridge maneuvered the vessel into a position nearer the shore, possibly in an attempt to facilitate rescues. If true, turning a wounded 114,000 gross tonnage ship must have taken gargantuan effort. Unfortunately what the bridge knew wasn't immediately reported to passengers.

A Caution

There are claims that a Moldavian blonde was present on the bridge that may have distracted the captain. Now identified as a former cruise employee, the woman says she was not on the bridge until after the accident where she assisted with translations of announcements. Sensationalism aside, no firm evidence suggests she's not telling the truth. She defends the captain who ordered her at 23:50 to evacuate to the lifeboat deck.

This is a good moment to point out what we've heard and what we think we know may be inaccurate or entirely wrong. News gathering in times of crisis is incremental and constantly correcting. Speculation– including my own– is subject to the vagaries of what is presently thought to be accurate. With that in mind…


Stricken Ship Founders, Captain Flounders

After the impact but before the full extent was realized, Captain Schettino reportedly said, "My career is over."

When it comes to mysteries, I dislike so-called psychological cues, which depend upon the author's knowledge (or guesses) of characters' mental states. Contrarily, when it comes to true crime, I've become very interested in the psychology of criminals.

A dramatist writing of a life about to implode might stage that line as the beginning of his psychotic break. The enormity of his error appears to have unhinged the captain from reality when he was needed most.

Italian newspapers report the captain reached land and grabbed a taxi. This may suggest he was putting as much psychological distance as possible between him and the disaster.

satellite photo

Walking Dead

In modern times, we've taken to calling survivors heroes. To me, a real hero is someone who steps outside his (or her) self to accomplish a greater goal. It might be someone who risks their life to save a swimmer or stand on the HMS Birkenhead's deck to die while others are saved. It might be Police Chief David Dean, Staff Sergeant Dixon Hill, or Special Agent R.T. Lawton who unassumingly put their lives ahead of others. It would be a working stiff father or widowed mother who labors toward an early death to provide for their family.

But what is a coward? Military psychologists point out that successful warfare depends on fear: Most young men are so afraid of being thought a coward by their fellow man that they risk or even sacrifice their lives rather than live with that (perceived) indignity. Heroism is being afraid and doing what needs to be done anyway.

Scathing British and Italian news media express little doubt, but I'm not sure we can classify Captain Schettino a coward in the ordinary sense. Instead, he seems a man who suffered a mental breakdown. He collapsed when he was desperately needed, much like Frank Shaft in the peculiar 1970 movie, Brewster McCloud.

In the radio-telephone conversation with Coast Guard Commander Gregorio De Falco, Schettino's voice isn't of a man afraid of dying, but the echo of a man already dead.


Whatever you think of Schettino, let's turn our focus on the ship's company, Costa. How was a man allowed to rise to the peak of his profession with such a debilitating and disastrous flaw?

Modern police departments in large cities screen potential police officers for psychological stability, seeking men and women who will protect and serve rather than seek petty power, thrills, and self-aggrandizement. Besides drug-screening, shouldn't those in charge of transporting hundreds and especially thousands of lives be no less tested?

Weigh in with your opinion.


  1. "Cowards die many times
    The valiant never taste of death but once."
    Leigh, who else could make me quote Caesar via Shakespeare so early on a Sunday morning?

  2. Hmmmm. You raise several good points, Leigh! But I believe, when all is said and done, the captain was a coward, a big fat one (cowardice: failure to demonstrate sufficient mental robustness and courage in the face of a challenge), but unfortunately--or fortunately, because you don't want this kind of thing to happen on a regular basis, of course--you never know a person's real colors until they are truly tested, by which time it's too late. Either way, I am thankful that no more lives were lost . . . it makes me shudder to imagine this kind of thing happening far out to sea, like in the case of Titanic.

  3. I am put in mind of Conrad's "Lord Jim" which, I think, is one of the best novels ever written on the subject of cowardice. The events leading up to Jim's joining the crew in abandoning the pilgrims to the storm, and their fate, is both riveting and horrifying. I wonder what I would have done, understanding things as he did, in those crucial moments. Jim certainly never saw himself as ever surrendering to fear and panic. He does, of course. However, he gets the remainder of the tale to redeem himself--Captain Schettino, I doubt, will be provided that opportunity in this lifetime.

    The tapes of the conversation between him and the coast guard commander are damning, but I agree with Leigh that his words and tone convey a strange detachment. Still, in the end, it is all about what was done, or not.

  4. unJosh, Fran, and David are right... the result defines the problem, whatever the man's defect was.

    A dozen dead, twenty missing, and the death of a half-billion dollar ship is a hard way to learn about a man.

  5. I was interested in what you said about heroes. i got into an argument with a friend when i said that Captain Sullenberger was not a hero for his amazing job of landing a plane on the Hudson. Afterall, he had to do it to save his own life. But when he stayed on the plane, counting to make sure that everyone was safely away before lesving himself - now, that was being a hero.

  6. I well remember Fran's reference. As David says, I'm afraid Captain Schettino will never be able to retrieve his reputation. Yoshinori is right that his actions speak.

    Rob, I agree– merely surviving isn't heroic, you must stick around and help others survive.

  7. Leigh, I forgot to say that I thought your title for this posting was brilliant...and funny.

  8. My dictionary is much older than Yoshinori's, but the gist is the same. Cowardice: wanting courage. Courage: that quality of mind which enables one to meet danger and difficulties with firmess, valor.
    Proper training frequently makes courage easier to have. This training allows the person's mind to know instictively what to do in a disaster situation, assuming it's one covered in training. The person learns to react rather than going through a long mental process of evaluating and rejecting options of what must be done.
    All ship captain's are instructed in disaster drills, therefore he should have had the necessary knowledge. One news report, right or wrong, said there should have been a ship disaster drill for the passengers at a much earlier date, but it didn't happen. This makes it appear that the captain was lax in more ways than one. If he had not been so lax, then perhaps his courage would have been stronger when the situation was no longer a drill.
    Naturally, this is a narrow possibility of what if, since there are many other factors which could have influenced the captain's mind at the crucial time and we may never know what drained his courage. In the end, he was not prepared and truly was "all at sea." In the public eye, he has been branded a coward and rightfully so. The passengers had a right to expect a competent and courageous captain to entrust their lives to.

  9. Good definition, RT.

    It didn't seem important to the article, but I consulted for Disney Cruise Line in their early days. They hired top professionals from around the world and even their shore-based facility was densely populated with ex-Coast Guard captains, one a director whom I reported to.

    The Department was Safety and Contingency Planning, which they took deadly seriously. And RT's right– a disaster drill was held (and evaluated) each voyage in the first hours out to sea. That experience and exposure makes Costa Concordia foundering and the captain's actions so inexplicable and shocking.

    Evidence is emerging the captain tried to mitigate the disaster by guiding the vessel into shallow water and testimony now says he was on the bridge much later than believed and not one of the first off the ship. For his sake I hope those reports are right, but for certain it appears he left the ship before all the passengers were off.

    How terribly sad for all involved.

  10. Leigh, youreminded me that a few days before this disaster I noticed an ad for the Disney cruise line. Guess what they were using as a theme song? "Under the sea, under the sea..."

  11. I hadn't heard a detailed account of this whole thing yet, only soundbites. Thanks for the info. Oh, and I loved the title too!

  12. Thanks, Jeff!

    Oh, no, Rob! Say it ain't so!


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