Earning the rank of ship master in the maritime industry requires years of sea time accompanied by classroom study and simulation training. But accidents do happen, and the Costa Concordia incident proved just one thing: Human beings are flawed no matter how much training is imposed on them. Captain Francesco Schettino fell into a lifeboat along with his first and second officers while mayhem crippled evacuation routes and frantic passengers and crew lingered too long waiting for their commands, which – alas – never came.
Mandated training regulations can be overwhelming at times, but then an incident comes along to reinforce their importance and, sadly, it usually means there has been loss of life or an environmental catastrophe. ‘Safety at Sea’ and ‘Safe Return to Port’ are essential foundations of the maritime industry, meant to return capital assets to their owners safely while protecting human life. But in the end, human weakness or courage can only be determined when faced with survival or death. It is a basic instinct that no training will ever correct.
The Good Captain
Captain Michiel Willems sails for Holland America Line (HAL), and he is the first officer on the MS Zuiderdam. Willems began working for Holland America as a cadet and, after graduating from the prestigious maritime academy Kweekschool voor de Zeevaart in Amsterdam, he returned to HAL and worked his way through the ranks until he became captain.
On Friday, January 6, 2012, we boarded the 936-foot, 82,305-ton cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale about 1:00 p.m. for a ten-day cruise to the southern Caribbean. The ship was set to sail at 5:00 p.m., but at 4:00 p.m. Captain Willems conducted the mandatory lifeboat drill to familiarize passengers with Promenade Deck 3 where the lifeboats are stored. He sounded the general emergency alarm with seven short blasts followed by one long blast. All passengers were met on Deck 3 by crewmembers who assisted them in finding the right lifeboat, which was noted in large print on the HAL-issued charge card.
International law requires lifeboat drills within twenty-four hours of a cruise ship’s sailing on a new voyage, but at Florida ports lifeboat musters usually take place prior to sailing. In addition, Captain Willems conducted a number of different drills throughout the entire voyage. While at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, two portside lifeboats were deployed as launches to transport passengers to and from the island. Meanwhile, Willems used the anchorage time to deploy several starboard boats and operated them in and around the ship.
Over the course of the ten-day cruise, Captain Willems conducted a number of emergency drills for the crew, which could be heard on the ship’s intercom. During the course of the voyage every lifeboat was deployed from the ship. As we disembarked in Port Limon in Costa Rica for our excursion, we saw two lifeboats working in the water near the docked ship in what was obviously another drill. This took place on the morning of Friday, January 13, and late that very evening the Costa Concordia hit a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Giglio.
Captain Michiel Willems is without question a consummate professional who embraces his responsibility as master of the MS Zuiderdam. In my book he is “The Good Captain,” and I personally wanted to thank him for taking care of his crew and the ship’s 1,900 passengers. – MarEx
Tony Munoz can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.