Of Stabilizers, Stability and Lawyers

Mississippi lawyer John Arthur Eaves is supposed to be good at his job and is, by reputation, a pretty smart fellow. He recently filed a law suit claiming that the Costa Concordia was “defectively designed,” a ” floating coffin,” had a “propensity … to roll and list” and was dangerous “because of the maze-effect within the vessel…”   I am not a lawyer, but as a naval architect, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that Mr. Eaves does not know the first thing about ship stability.

He didn’t even bother to get the most basic facts straight. He was righteously indignant that Carnival has “the audacity to try and refloat the Costa Concordia which we know was defectively designed. I think it is a dishonor to the families that lost loved ones and to the people that went through this tragedy to try to refloat a boat, put it back out into commerce and put other families and other passengers in jeopardy.”  Of course, if Mr. Eaves had bothered to read the press reports, he would know that the plans are to break the ship up, not to put the it back into service. He also seems unaware that there are five other Concordia Class cruise ships of the same design currently in service.

Unfortunately, regarding ship stability, Mr. Eaves is not alone in his ignorance.  Jim Walker, attorney and blogger at Cruise Law News has been saying some awfully bizarre things, as well.  I have always thought Walker was reasonable and well informed but then I read the following statement in a post defending Eaves’ quixotic lawsuit: “Cruise ships like this depend on stabilizers. But stabilizers are of no help when the cruise ship loses power. Ships like this seem likely to tip over.”  It appears that Walker read a blog post by an uniformed soul which claimed that the stabilizer “is the only thing that keeps the ship upright in any bit of a breeze.”  Really?

At this point, one either can laugh or cry.  Fin stabilizers on cruise ships have almost nothing to do with the stability of the ship.  Then why are they called stabilizers? I don’t know. Why are movie “trailers” called trailers when they come before not after the movie? My guess is that  calling them  “gyroscopically controlled  hydrodynamic roll dampening fins” is too much of a mouthful.  Stabilizers, or whatever you might wish to call them, actively dampen the roll while the ship is moving. When the ship stops moving, they have no real function. They most assuredly do not provide any sort of stability to the ship, nor does the ship “depend on stabilizers” for stability. If you want to know more read this:  How Cruise Ship Stabilizers Work

The other topic that is not quite so foolish, but comes close, is the claim that modern cruise ships are too “top heavy.”  There is no question that cruise ships have more decks above the waterline than they used to. More windage is not good for stability but to suggest that the additional decks are adding too much weight largely misses the point. The criticism is invariably based not on facts or stability calculations, but on visual inspection and/or gut feelings.  The facts are that passengers and the decks they occupy are relatively light. The additional space is primarily occupied by air.  Other types of ships also have significant windage, including car carriers and, of course, sailing ships.  Just like cruise ships, with a reasonable distribution of ballast, these ships can be stable as well.

The stability of the ship is not very mysterious. Intact stability is a function of the center of gravity of the ship, the center of buoyancy of the immersed hull, the moment of inertia of the water plane area, the ship’s displacement and the area under the righting arm curve.  None of this is all that complicated but it does not lend itself to snap judgments like, “gee, that ship looks too top heavy.”  And the ship’s stability does not have anything to do with the fin roll stabilizers.  I know that I have said that before, but it seems worth repeating.

Damaged stability is somewhat more complicated than intact stability.  Then there is grounded stability, or more properly the loss of stability when grounded, which has everything to do with the contour of the bottom where the ship grounds.  Any ship suspended on rocky ledges at the bow and stern with the midships no longer supported by the buoyancy of the water, will roll one way or another.  I am not sure how anyone could design around that bit of unfortunate physics. (This applies to all ships, not just large cruise ships.)  I am willing to bet that that is the determination of why the Costa Concordia rolled to 80 degrees.

Why is any of this important? It is important because there are serious issues of cruise ship safety that are not being addressed and silly claims like that a stabilizer “is the only thing that keeps the ship upright in any bit of a breeze,” only serve as distractions.  When there are serious problems, misinformation and Mississippi lawyers don’t necessarily help.

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6 Responses to Of Stabilizers, Stability and Lawyers

  1. RICK: I was delighted to see that you “called-out” these lawyers on the issue of stability and other maritime points. Between them and the instant TV Media knowledge and truth suffers greatly. While the Media is just ignorant and rushes to get the report out first – refer to the recent SCOTUS confusion the other morning on CNN and FOX. The lawyers of course do it to make their pre-conceived points. Having prepared data for maritime lawyers it is my experience they are only interested if it fits in with this pre-planned presentation. They hope to dramatically impress (confuse?) a jury and go to any lengths to do so – the truth does not really come into the issue. However I must say that in the United Kingdom having an Admiralty Court greatly improves the issue as many of the Judges and Barristers have served at sea and hold Certificates of Competency. I myself hold a Masters Foreign-going and a Legal Assitants diploma.
    Good Watch.

  2. Lawyers concoct and present stories for a living. Their specialty is knowing the law and concocting a story to use points of it on behalf of their clients. They are often at a disadvantage if they know something about the subject underlying a case. “Don’t confuse me with facts!”.

    Frightening, isn’t it?

  3. Rick Spilman says:

    I would not lump all lawyers together into the same category. Some corporate lawyers will find a reason to stop you from doing anything whereas some will just keep you out of trouble. I am also biased because I sleep with my lawyer, (my wife of 26 years.)

    Personal injury lawyers, including Mr. Eaves, seem to occupy their own category. The illustrious/infamous John Edwards, recently in the news on this side of the pond, was a personal injury attorney before venturing into politics.

    As an aside the phrase “Mississippi lawyer” is a slang term for a catfish in the Southern United States. I have always thought that that was very unfair …. to the catfish.

  4. Gene says:

    What do you have to say about Mr. Walker’s last comment?

    I know you are a maritime architect but I doubt you have or ever would design one of these monsters.

    These ships have had a well known stability problem for years as they flood right across with no center line bulkheads. The Concordia rolled not because of an “uneven ledge” (which would have rolled the ship into the depths not into the shore) but because of a high superstructure, relatively shallow draft, and no center-line bulkheads. What a nightmare to be on one of these things on the high seas in an abandon ship situation.

    Jim Walker ”

    Is any of this true? I’m just curious…

  5. Rick Spilman says:

    Oh, well. No, I haven’t been following Walker. Center-line bulkheads? Really? What total and complete nonsense. Dangerous nonsense, actually. And I am not sure what a “maritime architect” might be. I am a naval architect.

    Anyone who suggests that center-line bulkheads are the answer does not even understand the question. Center-line bulkheads cause uneven flooding. Uneven or asymmetrical flooding causes ships to roll over. Anyone remember the RMS Lusitania? She capsized and sank in 18 minutes. The ship had longitudinal bulkheads. Flooding on one side of the ship but not the other, causes ships to roll over. No news here.

    Now I guess I need to go read Jim’s blog. I hope at least that he has learned what ships stabilizers really do. That was simply embarrassing.

  6. Rick Spilman says:

    I have gone back and replied on Jim Walker’s blog. Here is my response:

    This is getting a touch embarrassing Jim. The term is naval architect. I am not sure what a maritime architect might be.

    Center-line bulkheads contribute to asymmetrical flooding, which causes ships to roll over. Remember the Lusitania? She had longitudinal bulkheads and capsized in 18 minutes in 1914. Pretty basic stuff.

    Center-line bulkheads would make a cruise ship less, not more safe. That is a bit like claiming that the roll-dampening fins commonly known as stabilizers actually keep the ship stable. Foolish and wrong, but we have been over that already.

    Video from an ROV shows that the Coast Concordia is supported on a rocky ledge on her bow and stern. The middle portion of the ship is unsupported. The entire weight of the ship is being carried by the narrow ends. The buoyancy that once supported the ship and provided stability is gone so, the ship rolled. Why did she roll toward shore? The wind that night was reported to be gusting to over 20 miles per hour. As you have rightly pointed out these ships have considerable windage. The ship rolled away from the wind.

    The problem, Jim, is that there are real and serious safety issues on cruise ships that are not being addressed. Ridiculous statements about stabilizers and center-line bulkheads distract from addressing these issues. They also do nothing to help your credibility.