Archive for cruise ships

Venice looks so strong.

Venice looks so strong.

One thing that everybody loves about Venice is that it seems so old.  Of course, it is old.  It’s kind of like a Byzantine/Renaissance/Baroque/Neo-Classical Lascaux Caves, except that it’s inhabited.

I pause to say that I know there are at least 14 continuously inhabited cities in the world that are far, far older than Venice.  I was just making the point that many visitors are struck with astonishment at the fact that Venice was ever created, an emotion I believe the cave paintings also elicit.  But I’m getting off the point.

One thing that makes it feel old when you’re living here is the endless cycle of the same old things, and when I say that I don’t mean the Befana (with its utterly predictable brief annual cluster of highly-charged  articles about the dangerous effects of the air pollution caused by the bonfires’ smoke), or the feast of the Redentore, or other celebrations.

By “same things” I mean issues that just keep coming up, that continue to be transformed in a shape-shifting way by assorted groups, interested parties, and random changes of circumstance, but that never get settled. Even in the rare instances when a problem appears to have been resolved, before long we discover that it has spawned new problems. And the cycle begins again.

In the few days since 2015 began, the Gazzettino has filled its pages with a new crop of the old.  Such as:

Adriatic ("mare") to the right, the lagoon to the left.  The conca, or basin, is item #4.  The scogliera, or protective barrier, is #5.  I had to take geometry twice in order to pass, but this still looks awkward to me.  The ships' captains tend to agree.

Adriatic (“mare”) to the right, the lagoon to the left. The conca, or basin, is item #4. The scogliera, or protective barrier, is #5. I had to take geometry twice in order to pass, but this still looks awkward to me. The ships’ captains tend to agree.

MOSE:  No, this time it’s not about the gates themselves, nor about the billions that were stolen to pay off its many participants, collaborators, and well-wishers.  Now it’s about the conca, or basin (#4 on the image above), which was dug at the inlet of Malamocco to permit the passage of ships on the occasions when the gates are raised.

For one thing, it’s too small.

It has been designed to accommodate ships up to 280 meters (918 feet) long and 39 meters (128 feet) wide. These dimensions are already too small for the largest cruise ships, the ones that certain groups want to compel to enter the lagoon by way of Malamocco instead of by the Bacino of San Marco.  So a mega-cruise ship wanting to come to Venice would have to  hang around outside in the Adriatic until the tide turned and the gates were lowered, to let them continue with their plan to unload thousands of passengers and take on more.  Having to delay entry sounds like a new problem has just replaced the old.

But it gets worse.  The fundamental problem isn’t size.  It’s the positioning of the scogliera (skoh-LYEH-ra), or protective barrier, in relation to the basin.  Stick with me here, because in the world of engineering “oops!” this is kind of special.  And whatever you  may think about cruise ships, we now have to consider the needs of real grown-up working ships that haul containers and petroleum and grain and coal (for the power station just on the edge of the mainland); these are ships for which time really is money.

The curve and position of the barrier built to shield the basin from wild stormy water (the kind you might well have if there is an exceptional acqua alta underway) makes it difficult — in some cases, perhaps impossible — for even smaller ships to navigate themselves into a perfect straight line to enter the basin.

“About 2,000 vessels (note: That’s nearly six per day) enter and exit the lagoon each year,” said Alessandro Santi, president of Assoagenti Veneto, the maritime agents’ association.  “Of these, at least 350, in the current state of things, would be prevented from entering the basin.” They’d have to wait outside till the tide turned and the MOSE gates were lowered to allow them to enter by the usual channel.

Solution! Construct an additional rubber barrier (I have no further details) against which the ships could lean — a sort of fulcrum — to help them position themselves to enter the basin. I’m referring to the ships which can, in fact, enter the basin, which as you see isn’t going to be all of them.

Projected cost:  15 million euros ($17,669,900).  That’s one heck of a patch.

Speaking of cost, the news has just come out that the completion date for MOSE has yet again been postponed.  It is currently predicted to be finished in mid-2017, and will cost an additional 2 billion euros ($2,355,980,000).  Unless it turns out to cost more, of course.

So why is this an old subject?  Because it’s yet another aspect of a project that wasn’t planned correctly, but construction just went merrily along anyway, and now everybody is having to find ways to resolve problems that didn’t ever have to exist.

Encrstations of paper to rival the pilings in the water at low tide.  Here, at Rialto, but this phenomenon is all over the city.

Encrustations — paper, in this case — to rival the pilings in the water at low tide.  This wall is at Rialto, but the phenomenon is all over the city.

DEGRADO:  The terse but expressive and useful term degrado (deh-GRAH-do) means “degradation,” and it finds innumerable uses.  And I will keep this entry short because the subject deserves a post all of its own, if I could find the strength.

Degrado is a hydra-headed monster composed of graffiti, broken pavements, disintegrating nizioleti, and now strata of aging posters stuck up all over walls.  The city of Venice, and myriad individuals, put up these pieces of paper with or without permission, and these announcements of all sorts of events, needs or offers stay there because once the moment has passed, who cares?

The city says it cares, and since 2012 has spent  856,000 euros ($1,008,360) to pay a private company named A.R. Promotion to affix posters and also to strip away the accumulated crud. But evidently the announcements breed at night and produce more old posters, or somehow the private company isn’t keeping up.  Or perhaps even starting, who knows?

Even the vertical pipe to the right has been pressed into service.

Even the vertical pipe to the right has been pressed into service.

Breakdown of payments made: At the end of 2012 A.R. Promotion won the bid to do this work for one and a half years for 456,000 euros.  A few years later, the same company got the job for about two years for 400,000 euros.  The age of some of the posters indicates that in either one or other of these periods, the company somehow didn’t catch everything.

Let me say that having to hack away layers of gummy paper over a period of years does not speak well for the paper-hangers.  Because while one could criticize the ability of A.R. Promotion to remove paper, one could much more justly criticize the cretins who put up the pieces of paper in the first place.

But back to the subject of payment for services rendered, or not: Cecilia Tonon, president of the volunteer group Masegni e Nizioleti, has raised her hand to ask why the city is paying for a service which evidently isn’t provided, when squadrons of members have turned out more than once to do a large amount of this very work for free.  (I participated in one clean-up project, which I’ll write about another time.)

No answer has yet forthcome.

Intermission:  News from the trial of the Indian couple who murdered their Iranian roommate, Mahtab Ahadsavoji, and dumped her body in the lagoon.  The Indian girl has been identified as the culprit, and has been sentenced to 17 years in prison.  Her boyfriend got a smaller sentence because he merely helped dispose of the evidence.  Appeals will drag on.

BUDGET:  For years now we’ve had to listen to the municipal choir singing the Anvil Chorus, financial version, whose refrain is “No ghe xe schei” (there is no money).

We found out last year that the reason there was no money was because it had all been gift-wrapped and given to politicians and businessmen involved in the MOSE project.

So now there really is no money.

After working his way upstream through heavy fire from outraged city employees facing drastic cuts, attempting to make the budget balance in some miraculous way (“miraculous” meaning “money from Rome”), the emergency governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, has had to say it isn’t working.  The city is 60 million euros ($70,855,800) in the hole.

“The situation is unsustainable,” he said. “We’ve reached a point of no return, The next mayor is going to have” (I freely translate) “one hell of a hideous job.”  The Casino’, once an endless font of funds, is also now crouching over its begging bowls. The sale of palaces is almost the only option for raising money, but so far they are being sold at slashed, fire-sale prices, or not being sold at all.

The island of Poveglia (www.verdieuropei.it)

The island of Poveglia (www.verdieuropei.it)

POVEGLIA:  Remember the popular groundswell, funded by citizen contributions, to acquire the island and restore it for the use of the Venetians rather than let it be sold to one of those terrible foreign companies which would transform it into a hotel?

All stuck in lawyer-land.  The city put the island up for bids; the highest bid, from a private businessman, was snubbed by the city as being ridiculously low.  To which the bidder has replied, “But you had no higher bids in this auction.  So?”

In any case, the groundswell of Venice-for-the-Venetians emotion hasn’t been heard from in quite some time, considering that since last June 4, when the sky fell on Venice, much bigger problems have overcome everybody.  It would be extremely difficult, in the current climate, to get anybody excited about an abandoned island.

BIG CRUISE SHIPS:  This is an issue that’s so photogenic that it cauterizes people brains, rendering them incapable of thought.  In battling to ban the ships from passing in the Bacino of San Marco, the enthusiasts have created a much larger problem, which is how to keep the port economy going when some cruise lines have already canceled their plans to come to Venice in 2015.

The no-big-ships people haven’t given any sign of caring much about the port itself, but  they are baffled as to how to they feel about the digging of the Contorta Canal (officially named the Canale Contorta S. Angelo). But it seems clear to almost everybody that deepening the canal will create so many more problems than it solves that it makes my teeth grind all by themselves.

The tug of war about approving the Contorta canal is going to continue for an unspecified time.  Another year, anyway, I have no doubt.  There will be flourishing crops of claims, counter-claims, and recriminations.

Meanwhile, due to the canceled cruises, 300,000 fewer passengers are expected this year. This means people may very well be laid off or fired, and all the rest of the ripple effect that doesn’t need describing.  There is also the loss of income from the taxes paid by the ship companies to be considered.  Nice.

But what I don’t understand is why the ships are vilified as ugly, and therefore deserving of death, when everyday ugliness like graffiti just keeps rolling along, singing a song.

Old?  New?  Is there a difference?

Singer_Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg  hydra blog misc mose 1921 goodart.org

In case you’re wondering what a “hydra-headed monster” might look like, here is an image of the mythological Hydra being demolished by Hercules. For every head that was cut off, two grew in its place. It’s kind of a metaphor.  (“Hercules,” by John Singer Sargent, 1921. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Jun
28

Big Ship reflections

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The "Zenith" carries stats stats

The “Zenith” in a happier moment.

Maybe all of you out there are sick of hearing about the Grandi Navi (Big Ships) kerfuffle, but it’s just about daily news here.  It provides a needed (though I wouldn’t say “welcome”) break from the other endless topics, such as everything else that’s screwy around here.

But something happened two days ago which in my opinion changes the entire scheme of the bureaucratic/political/economic volleyball game between the Comune, the small but obnoxious band of protesters, and the Port Authority.

As you know, there has been and continues to be an exhausting back and forth between these factions about What to Do About the Big Ships.  All these heated remarks and assertions, which keep fizzing and flaming like sodium dropped in a glass of water, are based on the conviction that a big ship is a clear and present and inevitable and catastrophic danger to Venice. Every remark on the subject, like acqua alta, starts from the unstated assumption that it is inherently hazardous.

As you also know, I am not convinced.  Not being convinced doesn’t mean that I find the behemoths attractive, but there is a difference between something being ugly and something being bad.  The protesters don’t want them in the city for reasons which have nothing to do either with the ships or the city, and so have created an issue where one didn’t exist before, and doesn’t have to exist now, either.

The subject has been twisted around in a way that brings to mind the observation of Seneca the Younger regarding the difference between the Roman and Etruscan outlook on the cosmos:

Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for … they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.

Because the big ships could be dangerous, we have to assume that they will be dangerous.

Don’t misunderstand.  I think it would be a terrible thing if a big ship suddenly lost control and ran into the Piazza San Marco killing countless people and cleaving the Doge’s Palace in twain.  I also think it would be a terrible thing if an eagle dropped a turtle on my head.  So many terrible things hurt and/or kill people every day — abusive husbands, cigarettes, car crashes, malaria-bearing mosquitoes — that fixating on the big ships seems excessive.

But there’s good news!

Two days ago a sort of fire-drill occurred.  It wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t fun, but in my opinion it demonstrated that the people who would have to deal with the much-dreaded emergency in the Bacino of San Marco are very much up to the task.

A Big Ship named “Zenith” (soon, I guess, to be rechristened “Nadir”) carrying 1,828 (or 1,672) passengers and 620 (or 603) crew members caught fire.  That is, a fire broke out in the engine room. The ship was not far from Chioggia, in the first night of its cruise heading toward Venice.  The fire was quickly brought under control, but the ship lost all power and was anchored ten miles offshore (seasick pills anybody?), in the dark, etc. Scenarios that are too familiar from recent Carnival line carnivals.

At 4:20 AM, after having spent ten hours trying to get the engines started,  the captain called the Capitaneria di Porto for help and a flotilla of assistance was immediately thrown into action.  Three large motor patrol vessels of the C di P began heading south, along with a large fireboat with firemen, two big tugboats (“Marina C” and “Hippos”), soon followed by another two (“Angelina C” and “Ivonne C”).  Aboard the tugboats were more firemen and seamen from the Coast Guard. Also divers.

The tugboats managed to attach their towlines to the ship — not easy in a heavy sea — and tow her into the lagoon at Malamocco at about 4 knots/7 kilometers per hour. All this took most of the day. At 11:00 PM the ship was finally moored at the industrial zone at Marghera. Total elapsed time: 20 hours.

Why is this good news?  First of all, the passengers lived through it and the experience didn’t last for days and days, as has been the case in some other similar events.

Second, and most important,  the Venetian maritime system showed itself  highly capable of resolving this emergency in admirable form.

So if they were able to accomplish all this in a long and complicated situation, why would they not be able to intervene immediately  in the Bacino of San Marco if a Big Ship lost power, when two tugboats are already attached, and there are rarely waves or wind to match those of the open sea?

Maybe Seneca the Younger has the answer to that.  My answer is that it appears they’d be able to do just fine.

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So the Costa Concordia ran aground (January 13) and the administration here instantly went into several varieties of fits to show how eager it was to ensure that no such catastrophe could ever be inflicted on the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world by one of these leviathans, whose number is increasing at a Biblical rate.

Passengers see a ship. The anti-ship cadre sees a potential disaster. The city government sees a floating Brink's truck loaded with money, without which Venice can no longer survive. You decide.

Mission: Banish the Big Ships from the Bacino of San Marco where they might well run into a section of historic and irreplaceable real estate. I haven’t seen any calculations on the odds of this risk, but they may be similar to the odds of winning the lottery.

Lots of people who buy a lottery ticket think/hope that the probability of winning could be pretty good.  In the same way, lots of people who see the big ships passing think/fear that the probability of a huge catastrophe could be pretty good.  The distance between “could” and “might” is hard to measure when emotions run high.

The mayor, of course, promised rapid solutions, to be followed, naturally, by immediate results (hence the use of the word “solution”).  As expected, “rapid” is morphing into “eventual” on its way to “maybe” and then — who knows? — “never.”

The Petroleum Canal, which has already done so much damage, is the right angle on the left of the frame. The proposed new extension to the cruise port is the slightly sagging line connecting it to Venice. The idea would be to assign either the arrival or departure of a big ship via this route,thereby halving the number of transits of the bacino of San Marco.

The first proposal launched — and so quickly as to have barely resulted from first thoughts, much less second thoughts — was to dig a new canal. The environmental damage this would cause is so vast and so obvious that it’s hard to believe it was even discussed.  A large amount of information demonstrating what a terrible idea it is was instantly thrown in front of this notion to prevent its going any further (latest detail: deepening the Canale di Sant’ Angelo would mean having to tear out and reposition somewhere else a certain quantity of important cables buried there, not to mention the high-tension-wire pylons flanking it).  Even the cost of this undertaking hasn’t caused this notion to be officially abandoned, but its momentum seems to have slowed.

But if a new canal makes no sense, the proposal made a few days ago obliterates the line between creative and cuckoo. I wouldn’t even have mentioned it, but I wanted to show how really hard it is to come up with an alternative to the present system.

Ferruccio Falconi, a retired port pilot (who you might think would be more familiar with the lagoon and its behavior than most), has pulled the pin on the following idea and tossed it at the groin of common sense.

He proposes gouging out the mudbanks between the island of Sant’ Erasmo and the inlet at San Nicolo’, an area known as bacan’ (bah-KAHN).  On the map, it looks like useless empty space longing for a purpose in life.  But it already has a purpose — two of them.

This view shows the lagoon inlet at San Nicolo' on the left; in the middle is the island created for the MOSE project, which has already affected tidal behavior. "Bacan'" is the beige area in the big channel to the right, a swath of mudbanks with a temporarily exposed islet fronting the lower edge of the island of Sant' Erasmo. (Photo: Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons).

Its first purpose is the same as that of similar areas which compose the bloody-but-unbowed natural lagoon ecosystem. Mudbanks and barene, the remnants of marshy wetlands scattered around, are an essential component of the lagoon environment.  You may not care about clams and herons and glasswort, but these formations also slow the speed of the tide, something that ought to interest people ashore in the most-beautiful-city at least as much as the vision of a ship heading toward the fondamenta.

Its second purpose is as one of the all-time favorite places for thousands of pleasure-boaters to spend long summer days swimming and clamming and picnicking.

Doesn't this look neat and tidy? Eight ships all snugged up together. While constant dredging would undoubtedly be required to keep the area from refilling with sand and mud, that effort would be helped by the vortexes created by cruise-ship propellers. (Photo: Il Gazzettino)

But according to Falconi, the creation of a basin where nature never put, or wanted, or intends to keep one, would be the perfect place to park the cruise ships. Ergo, there would also have to be the construction of a huge jetty.

As simple geometry, it looks okay, though I failed geometry. But apart from the problems the size, weight, and propeller-power those eight little rectangles represent, there is also the inconvenient fact that Sant’ Erasmo is an island, raising the issue of by what means the floating Alps of the sea would be provisioned, and how the passengers would arrive and depart.

Simple: By boat. Thereby increasing by several powers of ten the amount of waves (motondoso) caused by the multiplied number of motorized craft running around the area (barges, taxis, launches, and scows carrying trucks). Motondoso has already damaged a lot of the lagoon, so this new activity would eradicate a new chunk of what’s left. The summer motorboats are already sufficiently destructive — why would even more be seen as a good thing?

This idea is yet another example of the point where Feasibility and Desirability break up, despite the best efforts of people with assorted motives to make them get married and have children.

The "Ruby Princess" backing out of its berth at Tronchetto, like its companions, scours up a lot of sediment, not all of which settles back where it came from.

The following letter to the Gazzettino (March 29, 2012) gives an excellent analysis of this suggestion (translated by me):

LAGUNA CROCIERE E GRANDI NAVI  (Lagoon, cruises, and big ships)

I read in the Gazzettino of the new proposal to “save” the cruises.

One appreciates the fantasy that unfortunately is right in step with the temerity of certain choices which we see at all institutional levels in the management of this problem.

To excavate bacan’ at Sant’ Erasmo to make it feasible for the big ships to maneuver and moor, ships which are tending to get bigger, would signify changing the hydrodynamics of the North Lagoon.

The creation of the new island in front of the inlet (at San Nicolo’) has already caused an increase in the velocity of the incoming tide, creating hydrodynamic imbalances with important consequent damage to the city.

To create a basin of 12 meters (40 feet) deep, at the least, to move and accommodate ships would make even that piece of lagoon into a piece of the sea.

Perhaps the fanciful pilot who has come up with this “loveliness” has forgotten about the abyss in front of San Nicolo’ with the resulting collapse of the bastions of the Fort of Sant’ Andrea a few years ago.

One understands that unfortunately the mentality still hasn’t changed: One tries to resolve a problem creating others. Or to put it this way: the application of the theory that has created MOSE: one creates a “solution” which, to talk about it, resolves the effects but not the cause.

The question arises spontaneously: Is the port worth the city?

(signed) Manuel Vecchina, Venezia

Excellent question, but don’t put it to Falconi.  He’s already got the answer.

Here's a view of the area where the eight ships would park, with Sant' Erasmo in the background. Low tide reveals how much mud and sand there is, and how far below the surface it is. Guess Vittorio Orio will have to find another place to work on his mascareta, to make room for the Queen Victoria, the Norwegian Gem, and so on.

A winter view of the same area, seen from the shore of Sant' Erasmo. It may look empty, but you should just see how much life there is bustling around in there.

And here's a glimpse of how much life is bustling around the surface on a typical summer day here. Actually, this is nothing -- there are boats anchored all over bacan'.

Egrets like to eat too, but if the big ships move in, all this will wash out to sea and the birds will have to bring their lunch with them.

By "big ships" I mean something like this.

The Venetian lagoon is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the entire Mediterranean.  A century ago there were 35 square miles of salt-marsh wetlands in the lagoon; due to erosion by motondoso and the tidal force increased by the Petroleum Canal, by 1990 there were only 18 square miles left. Now we have MOSE, the floodgates whose installation required extreme deepening of the inlets, creating even stronger tidal flows.

In little more than 30 years, some 25,000,000 cubic meters of sediment have been flushed out to sea.  At the current rate of erosion, the World Wildlife Fund has estimated that by 2050 there will be no wetlands left. So Venice is spending masses of money to rebuild a batch of them where they’ve been eroded away. Where they will be eroded away again. Now we want a fantasy port to speed up the process which is turning the lagoon into a bay of the sea?

I sometimes think that if these people want to change the lagoon so much, why don’t they just drop a bomb on it, and get it over with?

The fort of Sant' Andrea was built in the mid-1500's to defend the approach to Venice from enemies entering at San Nicolo'. The cannon were placed at the waterline in order to blast out the hulls of any approaching enemy ships. At low tide the cement apron is easy to see.

The reference to the Fort of Sant’ Andrea in Vecchini’s letter recalls the fact that some years ago (even before MOSE) the force of the tide was eroding the island beneath this historic structure, and the walls of the entrance were beginning to sag and open up. Solution: Throw masses of cement on the shallow lagoon bottom in front of it to stop the slow-motion collapse.  When we row past there, we have to avoid what is essentially a broad cement shelf reaching outward from the fort.  Of course I’m glad it’s there.  I’m just saying.

Venice wanted the ships, but playing with them and their effects is beginning to look a lot like getting into a game of strip poker with no cards at all.

And no clothes, either.

 

 

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