The captain of that Italian cruise ship that ran aground over the weekend is in serious trouble, and while he's made one of the lamest excuses we've ever heard, there are some perfectly good ones out there. Capt. Francesco Schettino told a magistrate during a hearing that he ended up in lifeboat while his ship sank by accident: "I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats." Really. Beyond the fact that that's the kind of thing you say when you're making fun of how lame someone's excuse is, the whole "I tripped" line probably isn't even going to work because transcripts of Schettino's ensuing conversation with the coast guard have him refusing to return to the ship.
Schettino may be his own worst defender -- being spotted at a restaurant afterward doesn't help -- others have mounted much better excuses for the cruise ship captain. We're no maritime lawyers, but these seem a lot more arguable on a common-sense level than trying to persuade a judge that you accidentally abandoned ship.
- He did what was natural: Sure, it's a captain's job to face danger aboard the imperiled ship. But Carnival Cruises is not Master and Commander. And as psychology professor Bruce Hood argued in The Guardian today panic could easily overwhelm most people put into that kind of terrifying situation. "In the face of impending danger, our brains can swing into reflexive defense mode, operating much faster and more automatically than when they recourse to calm, rational reasoning. Respond first and ask questions later, is the message, rather than place yourself in harm's way," Hood wrote. He went on to stress the importance of training to overcome this reflex, which he suggests was lacking in the Costa Concordia's case because "cruise liners are not supposed to sink." If the problem is a lack of training, then Schettino could perhaps parlay some blame to the company for its policies on safety drills.
- The chart was wrong: Schettino has already acknowledged he steered off course, but he said early on that "there shouldn't have been such a rock" as the one that sunk the Concordia. Turns out that may actually be true. The shipping journal Lloyd's List Intelligence put out a statement on Wednesday that said the route Schettino steered, which ship owner Costa says was a deviation, kept the ship 500 meters from shore, while "the previously approved route took the vessel far closer to shore than the 500 meters claimed by Costa." And that rock? Just a mistake, Lloyd's says: "UKHO charts of the area show no rocks in the area where Concordia was holed." Schettino's already admitted that he steered the ship off course, but maybe the Lloyd's evidence can help him avoid the manslaughter charge that now seems to be in his future.
- The crew had it under control: Schettino's lawyer told reporters at a press conference that "the captain has always been there in front of his ship, albeit on the shore, to coordinate operations." OK, that's pretty lame. But what if that was the best place he could be in order to orchestrate the maneuvers of his expert crew? As Reuters reports, the crew really did have its act together. Officers guided passengers into life boats and stayed on board until the evacuation was over. Schettino's responsible for his crew, and they did a good job, so some of that credit should go to him, right? Unfortunately for him, since he's become a national pariah his crew is busy throwing him under the bus. "Unlike the captain, we were there until the end. We did all we could to avoid catastrophe," third officer Andrea Carollo told Reuters. Clearly, he doesn't plan on getting sunk by Schettino twice.
Let's say Schettino avoids the maximum 15 years in prison he faces and gets off with minimal or even no time behind bars. He's still one of the most hated people in Europe right now, and probably will be for a long time. But as Schettino's finding out during his house arrest, he's got lots of support in his tiny hometown of Meta di Sorrento. There, according to The Telegraph, he's hailed as a hero. "The media have got it all wrong. He saved 4,000 lives," a local politician told The Telegraph. Once Schettino gets past whatever official punishment he faces, he'd be best off just retiring to his hometown and spending the rest of his days ensconced among its 8,000 or so sympathetic locals, never turning on the television, the Internet, or reading a newspaper. It doesn't sound like a bad life. That place is absolutely beautiful.