Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Heave! Ho!" To Misused Nautical Terms

Capt. Franceso Schettino being arrested, but not for abandoning ship.
Photo by Enzo Russo/Reuters/ANSA

Once again, a maritime tragedy leads the news cycle. And once again, I am reminded of why I started this blog in the first place. I don't expect every general assignment reporter covering the Costa Concordia disaster to be an expert in nautical terminology, but I think sometimes terms are tossed around because they sound "nautical," and not because they're accurate. Maybe I'm being a curmudgeon, or a nitpicker. But to any reporter who's been frustrated when someone incorrectly used "off the record" when they meant "not for attribution," or had to explain that yes, things have changed since The Front Page came out in 1931 (and maybe the movie wasn't all that accurate even then), I ask you to put yourself in my shoes. Then, I offer my short list of top misused nautical terms in the Costa Concordia coverage:

Charged with abandoning ship. Many news reports, including those on the major US television networks, used this phrase, but “abandoning ship” is not a crime. Capt. Francesco Schettino may have abandoned his post, or be guilty of desertion, dereliction or many other crimes. Abandon ship is an order, almost always reserved to the captain, given when remaining on board ship becomes more hazardous, or is threatening to become that way, than getting into life rafts, life boats, or even the water itself. The process of abandoning ship can itself be risky, which is why such an order is not given lightly. Schettino has been criticized for delaying too long to give that order, but there are cases where ships were abandoned too early as well, leaving the ship relatively safe and afloat while the crew and passengers vanished. The Mary Celeste is the most famous example of this.

Off course. The Costa Concordia was off its planned trackline, but this was apparently the captain’s intention. Even the everyday definition of off course takes into account this lack of intention, but in a maritime environment a course is the direction a ship is intentionally steered.
Keeled over. There is no doubt this term comes from the nautical world, but its meaning in everyday language has changed. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, keel over refers to something a human being does when sick or dead. A ship may be keeled over, but in that case it is upside down, what is commonly referred to as capsized. The Costa Concordia, as I write this, is heeled over, or listing.

The captain goes down with the ship. A “tradition” that, if it were ever actually true, is certainly not true now. The captain does have ultimate responsibility for every life on his ship, but that also includes his own. In an emergency, every crewmember has a job and the captain’s is usually to be the “situation commander,” overseeing all aspects of the response. In an abandon ship situation, the captain will oversee the evacuation of crew and passengers while coordinating with search and rescue units ashore or on scene. The station bill, the document that describes each crewmember’s job in an emergency, will often specify which life boat or life raft each crewmember is supposed to board in an abandon ship. The captain’s lifeboat or raft will often be the last one to depart the ship, and may include other senior crewmembers like the chief engineer and chief mate. But every situation is different: ideally, the captain will be, if not the last one off, a least one of the last. He is not required to sacrifice himself, either for form’s sake or for others in situations beyond his capacity to help.

Women and children first. Another myth, a holdover from Victorian attitudes still in place in the days of the Titanic incident (and thus firmly fixed in popular culture). Like the crew, a ship’s passengers have a job to do in an emergency, a job that should be explained to them and rehearsed early in a voyage. In an abandon ship, that job is to follow the instructions of the crew and to board lifeboats or rafts in the manner directed by the crew. On a large ship like the Costa Concordia, each passenger should be assigned a lifeboat ahead of time and know how to get there. Usually, families will be kept together, regardless of the gender of any given family member. One exception to this may be passengers with disabilities; many ships have separate evacuation procedures for these folks.

Black box. A term many reporters are using for the bridge data recorder, or BDR, similar to the flight data recorders (FDRs) found on aircraft. Pilots who first flew with these devices called them “black boxes” because they were the one piece of equipment whose inner workings the crew was not privy to. Since then, the term has been used as a lazy analogy for a recording device used in post-accident investigations. I’m not saying I’ve never heard a mariner describe a BDR as a “black box,” but more often a more colorful term is used.

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  1. Great posting Capt Rob. You expressed what has been bugging me for the past week!

    One minor correction: It should be VDR (Voyage Data Recorder):

    Love your blog!
    All the best,

  2. Capt. Martin is absolutely right and -- at least in this instance -- so is Wikipedia. Here's the IMO link on VDRs: