Disaster at Sea

Your Move!      by Mike Creasy


 We are frequently reminded that ships get into trouble; they leak, catch fire and burn, strike rocks or logs. ​​ Occasionally we get a romantic notion of an old ship that wants to decide her own end, but most of the time the human element is the sad key.

 Of course, islands and rocks are easy targets because they aren’t moving, despite what the Captain of the Exxon Valdez might say, at least compared to another moving ship.  ​​​​ A modern phrase in the seaman’s lexicon is “radar-assisted collision” meaning that radar was warning of imminent collision, if only someone could – or would - read the display. ​​ We can update this to “technology-assisted collision” to account for all the new gadgets but the end result is often the same, and when large ships become dance partners, shipyards and lawyers usually have lots to do…...

 And so it was a little over 50 years ago, when post-war travel was booming. ​​ Going by air was still an expensive ordeal in piston-engine aircraft, making the new fleets of luxury ocean liners a very attractive option. ​​ July 25, 1956 was typical hot summer day in New York, when the gleaming white Swedish-American liner MS Stockholm (12,000 tons) sailed, following the famous French Line flagship SS Ile de France (44,000 tons) which had sailed a few minutes earlier. ​​ Both liners dropped their harbour pilot at Ambrose Light and set course for the Nantucket lightship some 200 miles east – the final landfall on the North Atlantic crossing. ​​ Stockholm was making 19 knots; Ile de France had pulled ahead at 23.5 knots. ​​ Both ships were reporting good visibility, and had switched on their running lights around 8 pm under the glow of a near-full moon.

 Meanwhile, another big liner was inbound. ​​ The three year old Italian Lines flagship SS Andrea Doria (29,000 tons) had passed Nantucket lightship at 10:20pm and changed course for Ambrose Light. ​​ She was now steering 268T at 21.8 knots, having passed within 1 mile of the lightship by radar without sighting it due to thick fog.

   ​​​​ Stockholm was now approaching Nantucket from the west on course 091T. ​​ At about 10:40pm, the Officer of the Watch noticed the radar return of a ship nearly dead ahead, at about 12 miles range. ​​ He immediately plotted the range and bearing of the return as the first step in determining the other ship’s speed and heading. Stockholm’s OOW would plot updated range and bearing two more times in the next few minutes to decide how to avoid collision.  ​​​​ He believed the oncoming target to be slightly left (2 to 4) of dead ahead, and began planning for a standard port-to-port pass.

 Aboard the Andrea Doria an opposite-direction radar return was first noticed at about 17 miles, and was watched for a few minutes by several officers including the Captain. ​​ Range and bearing were not plotted – in fact this was seldom done on the Doria’s bridge - but the Captain felt that it was slightly right (about 4) of dead ahead, and decided on a non-standard starboard-to-starboard pass.

 Things get a little “foggy” after that, with plenty of spin from both sides, but these are the fundamentals: these two ships were approaching each other at night, at high speeds, on nearly reciprocal courses, in radar contact, and within a few degrees of dead ahead. ​​ No other ships or shoals were factors. ​​ One ship was in fog, the other not. ​​ 

 By the time they were within 3.5 to 5 miles of each other, each believed they would pass within 1 mile - too close for comfort. ​​ So, what to do? ​​ More to the point, what could the other ship be expected to do? ​​ There were four basic choices:

  • Maintain course and speed, forcing the other to keep clear;

  • Alter to starboard so as to pass port-to-port;

  • Alter to port so as to pass starboard-to-starboard;

  • Reduce speed until the other’s intentions became clear.  ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 

Stockholm picked #2; Andrea Doria picked #3. ​​ Stockholm’s bows hit the Andrea Doria on the starboard side below the bridge, penetrating deep into the Italian liner. ​​ 

 At the moment of impact, over 500 tons of seawater rushed into her empty starboard deep tanks, on top of a massive intake into normally dry machinery and accommodation spaces. ​​ Ansaldo, the Italian yard that had built the Andrea Doria, later claimed that their design called for the ballasting of her deep tanks as they were emptied during a voyage. ​​ This had never been done during her service career, and her Captain said that he was not familiar with these stability requirements. ​​ With the imbalance from the still-empty tanks portside, Doria heeled over 20 within seconds – well beyond her design maximum of 15 - a list so severe that lifeboats couldn’t be launched. ​​ The list angle was so great that efforts to flood the portside tanks (and thereby reduce the list) had to be abandoned – the weight was making the massive list worse. ​​ 

 Once seawater entered the two compartments at the point of impact, it should have been contained by watertight bulkheads – after all, she had ten of them, and was designed to float with any two of them broached. ​​ But, she also had an access tunnel running aft through two of the bulkheads, from the main generator room near the point of impact, all the way to the after engine room. ​​ There were no doors on this tunnel! ​​ Once the cold Atlantic started to flow, it couldn’t be stopped and the Andrea Doria’s fate was sealed. ​​ 

 By daybreak, most of the passengers had been ferried across to the Ile de France and the Stockholm, plus several other vessels. There were only 43 fatalities amongst the 1,706 passengers and crew, and 5 fatalities aboard the Stockholm.

 Lawyers soon got to work and preliminary hearings began, but agreed to settle out of court before blame was decided. ​​ Swedish Line agreed to pay about 30% of all costs, and promoted the Stockholm’s Captain and officers to a brand new ship. ​​ Stockholm got a brand new bow, and continues in service to this day. ​​ The Italian Line picked up the other 70%, and Andrea Doria’s last Captain never sailed again. ​​ The ship lies rotting, 225’ down. ​​ 

 What move would you have made???  ​​ ​​​​ 

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Collision Course, Alvin Moscow, Grosset & Dunlap, 1959/1981

Out of the Fog – The Sinking of the Andrea Doria, Algot Mattsson, Cornell Maritime Press, 2003