Costa Concordia aftermath: When is it OK to challenge a captain's decision?

The Costa Concordia accident raises the difficult question of how officers on the bridge should respond to a captain who gives dangerous orders that violate basic safety standards.

Costa Concordia's officers, including Capt. Francesco Schettino, are under investigation for safety violations. The case sheds light on teamwork and chain-of-command issues among bridge crews. (Associated Press/Alessandro La Rocca/La Presse photo)

As many as 32 people died in the Jan. 13 sinking of the 114,500-ton cruise ship near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany. Capt. Francesco Schettino took the vessel, carrying 3,206 passengers and 1,023 crew, within .28 miles of Giglio, striking a ledge, which sank the vessel.

Schettino and First Officer Ciro Ambrosio are being investigated for causing the shipwreck due to imprudence, negligence and incompetence. They maintained a speed over 15 knots close to obstacles, according to Italian court papers cited by the newspaper La Repubblica. The document refers to Ambrosio as first deck officer, responsible for the watch. Schettino, Ambrosio, the chief mate and three deck officers are charged with multiple counts of manslaughter and failure to notify maritime authorities.

Third Officer Silvia Coronica told investigators who was on the bridge when the cruise ship struck a ledge, according to the Italian television station TGCOM 24. They were Schettino, helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, Ambrosio, second mate Salvatore Ursino, Coronica and deck assistant Stephen Iannelli. Coronica said that maitre d’hotel Antonello Tievoli and purser Manrico Giampedroni also were on the bridge.

Despite the fact that master no longer holds absolute authority in the modern merchant marine, questioning that captain can still be difficult.

"The captain may no longer be master under God anymore, but the captain is still the paramount authority figure without any question," said Daniel S. Parrott, an associate professor of marine transportation at Maine Maritime Academy.

What happens on the bridge depends a great deal on what type of captain is running the vessel.

"An enlightened captain will accept information from the officers," said Parrott. "Because everybody makes mistakes, including captains. It stands to reason that an alert, qualified officer could catch those mistakes and bring them to the captain in an alert, timely way."

As an officer, "you have a responsibility to politely, but affirmatively, inform the captain when the ship is standing into danger, but the captain has to be open to that information," said William Doherty, director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group in Alexandria, Va.

"It's not a matter of ego, it's a matter of responsibility," said Doherty, a former safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines. "Leadership goes both ways. Information is passed both ways. Anyone who believes they have all the information they need is basically playing God. You have to be able to work together."

Teamwork is stressed in bridge resource management, a process to use all the available resources during critical operations. A captain should delegate authority and trust his officers that they can carry out that authority, said Doherty.

But officers have to learn when it makes sense to question the captain.

"For any junior officer — what they have to decide for themselves and learn, perhaps through experience, is when to speak up and when to shut up," said Parrott. "And there are times for both."

Parrott remembers many times when he was worried about what his captain was doing. "In the cases I am thinking of, the captain was right," he said. "It was my lack of experience that was leading me to judge him. He actually knew what he was doing."

Parrott talks about this issue with his students. He advises them what to do, but he points out that too much questioning can lead to chaos.

"I wouldn't want a shipboard ethic where everybody is questioning the captain willy nilly," Parrott said. Officers should not feel that they "question the captain's judgment as a matter of course. You need a chain of command."

Then there is the problem of the autocratic captain.

"When the captain is doing something patently reckless or goes against the norms of seamanship in a really obvious way, and the junior officer is not being invited to express his thought on the matter, (they) are now in a very difficult position," said Parrott.

One option for an officer who is concerned about the captain's orders is to cite a specific regulation, a written company procedure or a well-established best practice, according to Parrott. In the case of a navigation concern, the officer could cite a violation of regulations about voyage planning. One example is a deviation beyond the margin of safety for that course, he said.

When a captain is careless and breaks the rules, it creates a culture where this manner of operating the ship is considered normal. There is a problem if "everyone is part of the same culture, and all the junior officers who have worked there and seen this done, without any consequences, they will not perceive it as risk," said Parrott. "Once you have a culture of violation, it is really hard to break."

Italian television station TG5 broadcast an amateur video that purports to be of the bridge of Costa Concordia about 45 minutes after the vessel struck the ledge. Alarms are going off, and officers are shouting. An officer is heard saying, "Commander, passengers are getting on lifeboats spontaneously." A voice replies, "Whatever, OK," according to the U.K. newspaper Daily Mail. Another officer shouts, "What shall we do? What shall we do?"

"There was even confusion as to who was in charge," said Doherty. "That comes from a lack of leadership and a lack of bridge resource management. I watched that. When the information was coming in, no one knew who was supposed to handle what category of information."

In a crisis, it is too late to expect officers to speak up, if the captain has shown he won't listen. "That should have happened a long time earlier than that, when the captain was developing leadership skills and being an open communicator," Doherty said. "It's too late to become an open communicator because everybody is afraid of you."

Schettino was accused of abandoning Costa Concordia while many passengers still had not been evacuated. His lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, has stated that Schettino coordinated operations from shore. By steering the stricken ship into shallow waters, Schettino saved the lives of many passengers and crew, the attorney said.

Published statements in defense of the other officers could not be found.

By Professional Mariner Staff