Some big-ships lore


Yesterday at a family gathering I got to talking with my nephew-in-law, someone I don’t get to see very often.

He is in his 33rd year of working as a tugboat captain for the port of Venice, so I made the most of the moment, grilling him lightly on both sides with questions about the floating Alps.  Specifically, what sort of danger they present to the city — especially that nightmare scenario in which a ship the size of Madagascar goes off course and cleaves the Piazza San Marco in twain.

Here is what he told me:

1.  The ships have many propellers (I forget the number) and it is highly unlikely that they would all go out of service.  More than the propellers, I think it’s probably the motors one should be more concerned about.  Here too, the probabilities are notable:  Cunard’s Queen Victoria (my floating Alp of choice) has six diesel engines, as well as three bow thrusters.  Could they all stop at once?  I suppose, if you lived long enough.

2.  The big ships each arrive and depart Venice with two tugboats attached, one at the bow and one at the stern.  If the ship were to suddenly go dead in the water, the two tugs would be capable of keeping it on course. Pushing, like two little sheepdogs.

3.  The last factor which is perhaps unique to Venice (at least in the big-cruising world) is that what’s down under the surface is mud.  The channel along which the ship traces its passage provides a rather narrow strip of sufficient depth; tide and the action of many motors have pushed mud up against the embankments.   We don’t have rocky shores, like some islands I won’t mention, which dealt the fatal blow last January 13 to a ship whose name I will not utter.  So even if a ship did suddenly head straight for the Doge’s Palace, it would run aground in the mud before it got there.

I have rowed a little mascareta at full speed (arguably not comparable to that of the Queen Victoria) up onto a mudbank.  You’d be amazed how fast the boat stops.  Which I mention to confirm that mud has phenomenal braking powers.  And when you try to pull the boat off the mudbank, you appreciate that even more.

So I’ve stopped caring about the buoyant metropolises that steam past us all summer.  I’d be a thousand times more afraid to find myself in the path of an illegal clam fisherman at night, as he races across the lagoon with his 300-horsepower engines trying to get away from the Guardia di Finanza.  I promise you, he wouldn’t even ask his friend “Did you feel something?” as he went over you and kept on going.  But I shouldn’t change the subject — because the world is lying awake at night worrying about Venice, not about me. I merely note that on the “clear and present danger” list, big-ships-sundering-Venice is pretty low.


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Categories : Venetian Problems


  1. Beth
    Twitter: skywalkerbeth

    I have been thinking about cruise ships run amok since your post last week! Good o know it’s unlikely…

  2. Ross says:

    Thanks for those tidbits of information. It is interesting to know those facts that most people tend to overlook.

    I can use those knowledge to impress people, right?
    Ross recently posted..adult costumes

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      By all means, use anything you read on my blog to impress people. Just mention where you got it.

  3. Johnnie Higgins says:

    impressive write-up, by the way what CMS are you presently using?
    Johnnie Higgins recently posted..Reviews of Top Psychic Networks

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’m not sufficiently advanced technically to be able to answer your question. The blog is on WordPress, if that helps.

  4. Robin Hilliard says:

    Is ‘…cleaves the Piazza San Marco in twain.’ a conscious play on words? or am I imagining the spirit of Samuel Clemens sitting on your shoulder, as you write of water ways and mud banks? An echo of his wry, gentle humour is certainly there….

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      No play on words intended — just another example of my eternal search for the mot juste. And I wanted to use “sunder” later, so had to avoid repeating myself. And I would never approach the sacred confines dividing Samuel Clemens from me and from the rest of the world. But I appreciate the compliment.

      • Robin Hilliard says:

        Someone once said about their own stellar achievement, “I stand on the shoulders of Giants…”
        Or, as Picasso is reported to have said, “I have never borrowed an idea from anyone. I steal them outright.”

  5. Robin Hilliard says:

    Is ‘…cleaves the Piazza San Marco in twain.’ a conscious play on words? or am I imagining the spirit of Samuel Clemens sitting on your shoulder, as you write of water ways and mud banks? An echo of his wry, gentle humour is certainly there….

    I think i somehow screwed up leaving the above comment. If this appears as a repeat, I guess I am repeating myself…again

  6. Jesse Maddox says:

    Cool article. There’s a lot of beneficial data here, though I did want to inform you about something – I am running Vista with the up-to-date beta of Internet explorer, and the design of your blog is kind of bizarre for me. I can understand the articles or blog posts, however the navigation doesn’t function so good.
    Jesse Maddox recently posted..Reviews of Top Psychic Networks

    • Robin Hilliard says:

      Try Google chrome as your default web browser. I had the same problem for a while with IE. I switched to Chrome because, overall microsoft, annoys me. A lot.

  7. Andrew @ Blogging Guide
    Twitter: andrewrondeau


    Those ships are huge! Once, my wife and I thought about going on a cruise but due to recent situations, I don;t think we ever will.

    The thought of not being able to get off when you want…scares me!


    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I checked some statistics and it appears that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning (or some such event) than experience a dangerous situation on a cruise ship. But I don’t find that especially reassuring. Anyway, there are smaller and more beautiful ships than these monsters, so don’t give up thinking about a cruise. I took one on the Royal Clipper and now my only desire in life is to do it again. http://www.starclippers.com/en/our-fleet/royal-clipper.html This is not a paid endorsement, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here writing it, I’d be back on the ship!

  8. Krystyna says:

    I tend to trust the good old tug boats most! 🙂

    It is proven that a cruise ship with all its engines can go totally adrift – it happened on 27 February 2012 to the Costa Allegra. Quote Wikipedia: “During the morning hours of 27 February 2012, a fire broke out in the generator room. The fire was extinguished by the on-board fire-suppression system and there were no injuries, but left the ship without power and adrift about 200 miles southwest of the Seychelles. The ship was towed by the French tuna-fishing vessel Trevignon (…) to Mahé in the Seychelles for repair and evacuation of the passengers.”
    The news artcles abouth this can be googled. Was a “special” experience for the passengers: emergency generators or batteries kept the command room illuminated and the radio working. Rest of the ship was dark, no working toilets or cooking facilities for days.

    As for the mud banks, I hope there is a huge one in front of the San Marco area – but surely not everywhere: even the very big ships sometimes moor along the embankments (e.g. close to the Arsenale), so they clearly can arrive there.

    I still think/hope that the possibility of an incident is very small, of course.

  9. Steven says:

    A native Venetian friend who’s lived here all of his 70 years told me once that he was preparing food in his kitchen in Sant’ Elena when he suddenly felt a huge jolt to his entire apartment building (he was on the 3rd floor): his entire building, he said (demonstrating with a movement of his hand), surged suddenly & rather substantially to the right, then returned into its usual place.

    He later found out that a big ship heading toward the open sea had gone off course and run into a mud bank as it was approaching the vicinity of San Servolo.

    So the mud certainly cushions, but his point was that the shocks are spread some distance around the lagoon in the vicinity of impact. The buildings of Sant’ Elena (except for the church) are less than 100 years old; would such impact have more deleterious effects on a 500 year old structure?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Perhaps this was the event involving the “Mona Lisa” in 2004 to which I referred in an earlier post? In any case, I’d like to point out that the time, effort and emotion which the public devotes to the big ships and what they may or may not do is time, effort and emotion which is not devoted to issues which, in my opinion, are much more serious and more dangerous than a ship to the city’s survival. I am referring to motondoso, lack of affordable housing, lack of public services, lack of jobs and teachers and ambulance drivers and intelligent ideas and the gradual degradation of the city’s fabric due to daily wear and tear and lack of maintenance. None of these problems have anything like the glamor and drama of potential cruise-ship events, but I maintain that they present much graver and more urgent problems to the health, beauty, and future of Venice. People who have the well-being of Venice at heart (and I do not include the city’s administrators among this group) only wish that protecting the city were as simple as banning the cruise ships.

      • Steven says:

        I agree with your list of the serious issues facing the city and agree with the big ship issue being one among that list, not the only issue, but perhaps the big ship issue has become symbolic of residents’ desire to regain some say over the future of the city and of the lagoon. For better and worse, it’s an issue which lends itself to manifestazioni as, say, reversing the population decline of some 60 years does not. Moreover the sacrifice of the city’s infrastructure–public services, housing, jobs, education and so on–in favor of a focus on corporate interests and (their) “development” (just saw the mayor use that word in some America’s Cup pr material) is not merely a problem in Venice, but globally. (Don’t get me started on the destruction of the fabric of NYC in the last dozen years.) Unique as Venice is, people in much larger cities with what were much broader economic bases, are struggling with similar problems, and struggling to find ways to mobilize against them. Which leads me to no final point whatsoever, I’m afraid, except perhaps to note that there are groups such as 40x Venezia which are trying to grapple with more than simply the big ship issue.

        • Erla Zwingle says:

          Not that I’m tracking every moment of every situation, but you can see what results the “No Mose” protests had. The “Stop Motondoso” protests had the same effect. Or, on a humbler level, the effort (via a petition and a Facebook group) to induce the mayor to bring the lamppost back to the Punta della Dogana. He responded that it might happen last March, or perhaps May. That was in 2011. No lamppost in sight. Public protests which are not fueled by an economic entity (taxi drivers, clam fishermen) live the life cycle of a drop of water — or let’s say even a chunk of hail –falling from a cloud. It may hit water, it may hit earth, it may hit a batch of leaves. It still disappears. Even 40X seems to have long since lost its headway. But you probably know all this.