What happens on the Titanic Nights

A sailing boat passes in front of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side after running aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. The Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, sending water pouring in through a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in the hull and forcing the evacuation of some 4,200 people from the listing vessel early Saturday, the Italian coast guard said. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
A sailing boat passes in front of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side after running aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. The Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, sending water pouring in through a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in the hull and forcing the evacuation of some 4,200 people from the listing vessel early Saturday, the Italian coast guard said. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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They call them Titanic Nights.

At Fleetwood Nautical Campus they plunge their indoor training tank into darkness, whip up the waves, set off the alarms and give those present the toughest test it is possible to endure without actually being at sea in a genuine emergency.

It’s the sort of training that has made the campus one of the world’s leading maritime training establishments.

And it means the loss of the Costa Concordia on Friday is of vital interest to staff and students at the campus, especially with the usual fail-safe of electronic navigation equipment which should make such a disaster impossible.

The vessel’s owners revealed yesterday there had been an “unapproved, unauthorised manoeuvre” which went against a pre-programmed route.

The view the 114,500-tonne vessel should have been helped by electronic aids is largely correct, according to Tony Dumbell, head of maritime operations at the campus.

He said: “Electronic charts do tell you when you are within a certain distance of a shallow area and give contour depths.

“You can set them so that if you are, say, within mile of water just 10 metres deep you will get an alarm.”

But could charts be wrong, as Captain Francesco Schettino had claimed?

Mr Dumbell said: “There is a port in the Far East that has been used for years and years and suddenly a ship ran aground on an underwater pinnacle that was not known about.

“Countless ships had gone in and out of that port and no-one had known about that pinnacle, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.”

He added: “There are places in the world where ships will go close to land.

“In Hawaii, ships go close in to look at the lava flows that go into the ocean, but the water is very deep there. Also in Hawaii, there is another island where they filmed Jurassic Park and ships get close up to have a look.

“In Norway, there is a whole passage that goes between islands on the west coast that is very scenic.”

He added: “I can’t believe reports the crew did not know where life jackets were.

“I don’t know this ship, but on a lot of cruise ships they have life jackets held where the boats are so people can get them as they come through. As regards panic, you will hear stories from one of the ship and another from the other end. These ships are huge and some people are going to panic and start screaming.

“You can imagine, one moment everything is going OK and the next things are going wrong.”

Dancer Rosalyn Rincon, 30, from Layton, was one of those forced to flee for her life from the Costa Concordia .

Planning and training to cope in such emergencies is standard at the campus.

He said: “In our training tank we black the place out completely, get everybody in life jackets, set of the alarms, fire-crackers and thunder-flashes: it disorientates people.

“We then get them into the water, into life rafts and then battened down and safe.

“It’s part of training for every single student.” He added: “There is a whole range of that we just don’t know about with this accident.

“Accidents at sea are often not made up of one thing, they are made up of a number of things which, added together make up what we have seen in this incident. The owners of the Costa Concordia are very safety conscious.

“When you have a ship that is worth so much money, you have excellent crews on board.

“With something of that size and capacity with all the electrical aids and experienced people on board, I couldn’t say what went wrong until I see the accident report.”

But even when the cause of the collision is established, there will be concern about what happened afterwards to put the 4,200 passengers and crew in peril. As water poured in through a 160ft gash in the hull the ship should not have presented such an immediate danger.

Campus head John Matthews said: “It’s very unusual for a ship like this to list so quickly. So often these ships are designed to sink more slowly.

“They are designed differently to large cargo ships. This just shouldn’t happen.

“Something has gone catastrophically wrong for it to get into trouble like this.

“Ever since the Titanic, ships have been designed so this should not occur.”

But whatever electronic aids are in place, there can still be the human element.

As Costa chairman and chief executive, Pier Luigi Foschi: “This route was put in correctly. The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a manoeuvre by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorised and unknown to Costa.’’

tom.halstead@

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