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Was the Costa Concordia a taut or loose ship?

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Captain of your ship. Captain of your company. Are there lessons to be learned from the captain of the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia, who has been dubbed “Capt. Coward” and the “Chicken of the Sea” for leaving his ship before all of the passengers and crew?

Capt. Francesco Schettino has become our latest poster child for hubris, poor judgment and terrible leadership, to say nothing of his questionable navigational skills.

I interviewed two longtime safety experts last week for a column I wrote in Soundings about this improbable accident, which to date has claimed 16 lives, with more than a dozen people still missing. We talked about the role that an overreliance on electronics and complacency may have played in the grounding, as well as command styles, situational awareness and a host of related issues.

Are there lessons to be learned from this cautionary tale of a captain who runs a $450 million ship the size of a World War II-era aircraft carrier (900 feet) onto the rocks while passing too close to a tiny Italian island, apparently attempting the nautical equivalent of a pilot “buzzing the tower?”

The conversations often come back to leadership and judgment, critical skills on the bridge of a ship or at the helm of a small boat, with the head of a large company or with the owner of a small business with a half-dozen employees.

What kind of ship do you run?

“You want to judge the command presence that existed on the ship,” says retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Dein, who for six years supervised the agency’s rescue and survival systems program. “Was it a taut ship or a loose ship? On a taut ship, everything is done properly. It starts with the CO. He sets the tone for how he wants the ship run. He sets the standards, and it’s all about standards. From the reports I read, it was pretty loose. It would seem he didn’t have particularly high standards, and it caught up with him.”

Dein adds: “How did this guy ever get to the command of a ship like this? I have to question the system that put him there.”

I also spoke with Capt. Daniel Parrott, a professor at Maine Marine Academy, about whether our increasing reliance on navigation electronics may have played a supporting role in the accident, especially as positioning technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, accurate and reliable.

“At some point, reliance becomes overreliance,” says Parrott, a licensed captain with 20 years of experience at sea and the author of “Bridge Resource Management for Small Ships” (McGraw-Hill/International Marine).

A sort of blind faith in technology can erode a mariner’s traditional vigilance and lead one to accept smaller and smaller margins of safety, Parrott says. Or none at all.

The fact that the captain has been quoted as saying he was “navigating by sight” at the time of the grounding is an indication of the extent to which his judgment, prudence and overall situational awareness had been undermined. The siren call of technology, of knowing where you are at every moment, with so little effort? “It takes a real effort not to get sucked into it,” Parrott says.

And here’s a lesson applicable on the bridge of a ship or in a boardroom: We all have to guard against complacency, with the paradox being that the more experienced one is on the water (or in business), the more likely the person is to lower his guard.

“Complacency is very much a byproduct of overfamiliarity,” Parrott says. “It is this cruel reward for becoming very good at something. You become very accomplished, and it becomes easy for complacency to sneak in.”

Lastly, there is the disturbing business about leaving the ship before all of the passengers. With the captain being the “paramount leader” on the vessel, he is obligated morally, if not legally, to stay on board and use all of his experience and authority to ensure an orderly evacuation. Leaving is “counter to any principle of good leadership I can think of,” Parrott says.

Capt. Schettino says he “tripped” and fell into his lifeboat by accident, according to reports. Makes you pine for those days when captains “stepped up” into a life raft or lifeboat.



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