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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About the Costa Concordia

Ships fascinate me, although I'm not a sailor and have never owned a boat. A ship is a three-dimensional puzzle that must perform a function -- moving cargo or people, waging war, etc -- while holding up to the rigors of a corrosive, dynamic, and forceful environment and remaining economical to build and operate during a long life. All the pipes, tanks, electrical circuits, passageways, and structural steel must align, and the ship must be balanced in two dimensions while meeting criteria for reserve buoyancy and stability. A ship is self-contained in the sense that all its systems are internal. Furthermore a large ship must flex without leaking too much. That's an enormous design challenge.

In my teens I considered becoming a naval architect. I went into electrical engineering instead, but I've never lost my interest in ship design. I have walked through many naval vessels, some in port on active duty and others in museums. And on one occasion, I persuaded Gail to set aside her discomfort with ships and take a week-long Carnival cruise.

During that week en route from Cozumel to New Orleans in the very middle of the Gulf of Mexico, I remember thinking that we were several hundred miles from any land, should something go amiss. I had the same feeling once in a Qantas 747 flying from Sydney to LAX: that's a really big ocean down there. One can be comforted by the virtual certainty that nothing will go amiss.

Umm, not exactly. Disasters at sea happen regularly with ferries, cargo vessels, and passengers vessels in third world locales. First-world passenger vessels aren't immune; they're just affected less often.

In a year or two we will read a detailed and complete analysis of what went wrong on the Costa Concordia. Wikipedia already has a good collection of facts from which inferences can be reasonably drawn. The proximate cause of the disaster is poor judgment and performance of the captain, both before and after the initial grounding. What interests me more, however, is forensic engineering analysis. There's a good chance that this vessel will be dewatered and refloated, although it's unlikely to be returned to service. Engineers will have ample opportunity to examine the damage and to run computer models that explain how the vessel flooded, how it handled as it settled into the water, and -- most importantly -- why it capsized to starboard even though the rip in the hull was on the port side.