The most chilling memory of the Titanic’s demise was its lack of lifeboats. The Board of Trade regulations required British vessels over 10,000 tons to carry 16 lifeboats with capacity for 50% of passengers and crew, and in fact the Titanic exceeded requirements by stocking 20 lifeboats, enough for 52% of the people on board.
This mistake was never repeated. Lifeboats must be provided for everyone (today’s ships also carry liferafts for a further 25% of people), regular lifeboat drills and inspections must be carried out and all passengers must have the evacuation procedure explained.
No maritime regulation has saved more lives. As a number of Titanic passengers in lifeboats died from hypothermia, lifeboats must now be fully or partially enclosed to better protect against the elements, and emergency immersion suits are now available for passengers.
However, lifeboats still have their shortcomings, says Markku Kajosaari, manager of concept development at the Arctech Helsinki Shipyard. “Think notably of the disaster of MS Estonia [in 1994], where lifeboats were almost no use [due to bad weather], or even the case of Costa Concordia, where they had remarkable difficulty launching the boats,” he says. “There remains clear demand for real innovation."
Some kind of back-up, or means to evacuate the vessel has to be provided. "The solution may be a further developed lifeboat with some kind of launching arrangement, an inflatable device or semi-inflatable,” says Kajosaari. “There have also been several proposals for various types of capsules or floating ship sections, but the real step forward is still to come."
Over the last five decades, computer modelling and analysis has increasingly replaced the type of lengthy, laborious calculations used to design ships around the time of the Titanic. But the Concordia has highlighted a re-examination in the use of computer-aided design, the maritime trade union Nautilus International told New Scientist magazine. In an eerie echo of the Titanic, the ship shouldn’t have capsized as it did, listing at an angle too steep for lifeboats to be lowered from its port side, leading Nautilus to call for regulators to scrutinize current cruise ship design.
Vassalos says a huge challenge is to get countries around the world to adopt a common set of standards. "By law, no [computer simulations] are required!" he explains. "There is only one exception referred to as Stockholm Agreement, which applies only to Ro-Ro [cargo] passenger ships in the EU."
It is not an issue that looks like it will be solved anytime soon. Since the 1950s, many ship-owners have turned to open registries, called “Flags of Convenience”, which allow them to register their ship in a different sovereign state to their own. The benefits of doing so include tax incentives, the ability to hire non-national crews and the often more relaxed laws of the registered state. Today more than 40% of merchant ships worldwide are registered under Panamanian, Liberian and Marshallese flags, with Liberia overtaking the UK as the world's largest shipping registrar in 1968.
As the Costa Concordia also showed, all the design, safety and regulation changes in the world are useless when confronted with basic human error. Concordia deviated from its regularly navigated route for the thrill of passing the Italian island Isola del Giglio at close proximity. Like the Titanic, where Captain Edward Smith was encouraged to arrive in New York at day ahead of schedule, despite six ice warnings, the Concordia incident involved ignoring warning signs provided by the technology of its day.
“The Costa Concordia committed the most egregious of maritime sins by steaming into shoal water with seemingly little or no concern for the risks involved," argues retired US Navy Captain John Kunert. "Why? The answer, I submit, lies deep within the human conditions of hubris, ego and arrogance. Each of these elements, when taken individually, are fatal flaws unto themselves."