Who knows what Captain Francesco Schettino was thinking when he altered course, driving the magnificent Italian liner Costa Concordia onto Isola del Giglio’s off-lying rocks? The usual course for the weekly cruise between Civitavecchia and Savona had been entered into the ship’s computers, and explanations for a later, manual over-ride of the system have been confusing at best.
Schettino first claimed to have been on the phone with a retired captain living on Giglio, a friend he hoped to impress by deviating from his course, cruising near shore and offering a salute. Under increasing pressure from investigators, Schettino himself tacked, insisting the course change was meant to satisfy Costa’s managers. “It was planned,” he said. “We should have done it a week earlier but it was not possible because of bad weather. They insisted. They said, ‘We do tourist navigation, we have to be seen, get publicity and greet the island’.”
Whatever Captain Schettino was thinking, he’d made one of the worst mistakes a sailor can make. He’d headed for skinny water.
Most encounters with skinny (shoal or shallow) waters and the dangers they contain aren’t so dramatic. Leave a channel, miss a buoy, neglect the depth sounder or forget tide tables and the worst that will happen is a travel delay while you pull yourself off a sandbar or wait for a rising tide.
On the other hand, when a grounding occurs in the middle of an open channel for no apparent reason and a skipper still learning the ropes isn’t smart enough to refuse help from an stranger, she may end up feeling like Schettino.
When it happened, we were no more than ten minutes out of a favorite marina on the middle Texas coast. The stop, just hard enough to slop coffee from cups tucked into holders or cradled in hands, jolted the coffee-drinkers into wakefulness. “What was that?” said one. “Beats me,” said another. “Maybe that last storm rearranged the bottom.”
Assuming we’d made a soft grounding in a familiar and clearly marked channel, we tried without success to back out. When the engine proved inadequate, we tried hanging first on one side of the boat and then on the other, hoping to free the keel with our weight. Nothing happened. A pair of young boys in a jon boat circled and watched, finally offering to tie off our halyard and pull us over. They seemed sincere enough and may have known what they were doing, but they couldn’t stop giggling. We declined their offer, with thanks.
Finally, a fellow showed up in a larger fishing boat with twin Mercury outboards. “Well, well,” he said. “Guess you win the prize this morning.” We looked at one another, then at the fisherman.”What’s the deal? We’re not out of the channel, are we?” “Nope. There’s been some shoaling the past few weeks. We stuck a couple poles out here, but somebody’s run ’em over again. You just managed to come along before we got some more out here. Throw me a line and I’ll pull you off.”
Relieved, we tossed over a line, assuming he’d pull us off easy, steady and slow. We were wrong. When he opened up the throttle and took off at a ninety-degree angle, the boat came free, but we ended up with no steerage. Limping under tow to a local boatyard, we clutched our cold coffee and feared the worst. As the boat was pulled from the water, we saw our suspicions confirmed. The rudder had become a fiberglass jigsaw puzzle with more than a few missing pieces. It would take some time and effort to manufacture new pieces and fit them together properly.
Luckily, Jack Threadgill, owner of Sunrise Marine, had some space in his shop and some time to help out. We spent our first night ashore doing what sailors with a problem often do – drink beer and ponder. After a night of calculating, discussing and sketching out options, we had a plan.
Jack concurred, and the work began. Using the undamaged half of the rudder as a template, a fiberglass duplicate was produced and hung in the shop to cure while the propeller and shaft were checked and new zincs mounted.
Once the curing was complete, the new rudder was attached, fittings were sealed, and a new coat of bottom paint was applied.
As I recall, it took three weeks of grinding, molding, fiberglassing and painting, but in the end the rudder was good as new. Standing in the boatyard, watching the last coat of paint being rolled on while I tried to decide if it had been lack of judgement, inexperience, simple stupidity or pure bad luck that ended the cruise and brought us into the yard, I must have seemed dispirited.
“Guess you’re ’bout ready to get goin’,” one of the onlookers said. “Ya oughta have a smile on that face.” “Right,” I said. “But it sure has been an aggravation.” The old man pondered. “Look at it this way. You may’ve torn up that rudder, but you did it sailin’, not sittin’ home. Remember, if ya ain’t run aground, ya ain’t been anywhere.”
And isn’t that just the truth? Any time we set out on any sort of cruise – whether we’re cruising through our day, cruising into a new job or cruising into an unknown future – inattention, lack of experience, bad advice or unexpected circumstance can leave us grounded, hard on the shoals of frustration or defeat, our spirits shattered and our vessel dead in the water. Still, as the old man implied in his colorful way, the joy of going far exceeds the risk of grounding.
We just have to avoid skinny water.